‹ Go Back

There Are Limits



I seem to be homing in on the concept of limits. I hope I’m not going to get into trouble with the authorities.

Actually, I have learned in my own history that there are limits to what is possible, which is the downside of being a dreamer. I am not alone in this matter. The idea of infinite potential is deeply embedded in the American psyche, and anyone who starts talking about limits sounds a little scary.

Take for example our national commitment to perpetual economic growth. That would require a perpetual increase in people with a perpetual increase in income to buy a perpetual increase in products and services produced by infinite natural resources. That’s not possible, though, right? It’s not possible globally either, right? After all, we live on a finite planet. However, speaking about such limits is not well received.

The Boundary to Be Respected

A Limit To Be Respected

Then take this book featured in my last blog, The Sixth Extinction, which suggests that  the lifespan of the human species itself may be limited. There are the factors of climate change and the extinction of other species afoot whose lives we depend on. And of course there are always war and disease imposing periodic limits on population growth.

While I was reading the book, a related memory popped up. Years ago a friend told me about this miniature, Stonehenge-like monument called “The Guidestones” that had mysteriously been erected outside a little town in Georgia. Who financed the monument is unknown, but it is engraved with a set of ten principles that seem to suggest how humanity should be governed when it has time to regroup after who-knows-what.

I don’t want to get into this too much because the speculation about the origin of these principles gets very weird very fast. And anyway, I have my own standards for credibility. When I learned that a word engraved on the monument had been misspelled, the whole lost standing. There can’t be grammatical errors in celestial messages.

Nevertheless, I liked the idea that living in balance with nature was one of the listed principles. The one that really caught my eye, however, established a worldwide limit on population at 500 million people. What an unusual concept, meaning that humans could commit to something like perpetual balance rather than perpetual growth.

After that came the fourth topic regarding limits. This arrived in the form of a Santa Fe Institute lecture last week by Robin Dunbar, professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Oxford. His topic was “Why the Internet Won’t Get You Any More Friends.” In his talk, Dunbar set limits on the number of relationships human beings are capable of cultivating.

After years of research, he determined that “the number of people we know personally, whom we can trust, whom we feel some emotional affinity for, is no more than 150.”  This has become known as “Dunbar’s Number.”

This number was derived over many years of research including observation of the complex social systems of apes. When an ape is being groomed, endorphins are stimulated that promote the development of relationship. Apes spend about 20% of their time grooming each other.

Humans don’t groom, but we have face-to-face contact, we talk on the phone, we send letters and Christmas cards, we send emails, we visit on Facebook, and we text or whatever. This is our version of grooming, and to sustain the limit of 150 relationships, we would need to invest an estimated 43% of our day in maintaining them.

Apparently there are many examples of the recurrence of this 150-number through time. Hunter-gatherer communities were about that size, and so were 18th century-villages. It has been identified as the ideal number in a church congregation, in research sub-disciplines, and business organizations. Dunbar said that army companies are still about this size.

Beyond this number, communication begins to break down, and entities can become dysfunctional. In fact, it seems that we are learning about more and more problems within the workings of huge government and private entities that suggest that they are getting too big to be managed well. 

Although we can work well in communities of about 150, Dunbar said that there are definite limits to the number of close personal relationships we can sustain, and that number is only five. These are typically divided between both friends and family. With regard to the making of friends, Dunbar gave a list of six things that make a close relationship possible. These include sharing the following:

  1. Language
  2. Home town
  3. Education
  4. Interests
  5. World views
  6. Sense of humor.

The more items you can check off, the better the prospects of relationship, and sharing laughter is inordinately important. Interestingly enough, Dunbar said that once one moves into a romantic relationship, because they take up so much time and energy, we typically drop two other individuals from the inner circle. One will be a friend and one will be a family member. The total goes down to four.

Trust and obligation are important in strong relationships, and these require both time and emotional investment. For females, talking is an important way to maintain closeness. No surprise there. On the other hand, the average length of a phone call between males is  only 7.2 seconds, and doing things together is more important than talking.

The bottom line in this whole train of thought is that there seem to be real limits on what can be done well and maybe just on what can be done at all. Although the examples are very different from one another, they do seem to suggest that we are coming to a point in human evolution when we need to think about all sorts of limits. That’s not comfortable because we are dreamers, we are ambitious, and we are aggressive. At the same time, however, we are awfully smart. Coming to terms with this reality will probably be very unpopular. However, it could provide the impetus for our biggest evolutionary leap yet. I like the irony. I hope we go for it. 

4 Responses to “There Are Limits”

  1. Robert

    In a way, the job of science is to identify the limits of the physical universe, the job of engineering is to use those limits to capitalize on them, enhance society and the quality of life. The job of spiritual teachings is to bring hope, purpose, meaning and joy into our lives by suggesting the human psyche has no limits. BTW, the laws of motion are a limit in that we are confined by them in how we can move. A limit isn’t just a barrier.

  2. Martha Newman

    I believe I rate them differently. I agree with language as a #1 as long as it doesn’t require both to be native speakers, but I would move sense of humor up to #2.

  3. judi hendricks

    I agree that we are dreamers, that we are ambitious and aggressive…however lately I have really begun to question how smart we are…

  4. maggie

    I am in a quandary after reading your article. Athletes are coached to know their limits and yet as children and students we are told our opportunities are limitless. To me it seems that it is the right side of our brain fighting with the left–one telling us that we ought not or cannot do something and the other telling us to go for it! Regarding tangible things yes there are limits. However perhaps when we talk about intangibles perhaps not. Perhaps I missed a major point in your article but here I sit in my quandary…..