Aping Evolution – BBC Radio 4

I recently caught the end of a BBC Radio 4 programme called Aping Evolution (potentially only available to listen to for a limited period). It was the second in a series of two programmes.

It was an interesting and thought-provoking piece, which I want to highlight a few points from.

Firstly, a point was discussed about at what age people decide to have children, and how this can be quite different within a UK city; a matter of a mile apart the average age that a woman decides to have children might be 21, whereas a mile down the road it could be 31, and that is a significant difference. A large factor in this choice would seem to be the differences in expectations from life. If, for example, there is an expectation of being a single mother with a reliance on the help of your own mother to assist with child care then this needs to be done while the mother’s mother is still young enough and capable of helping. This decision is taken on a subconscious level. And though there’s an emphasis on improving sex education for children in the UK, it is actually an improvement in expectation from life that needs emphasis by policy makers; and the instilling of the concept that there are things in later life that are worth waiting for and putting other things off for. To achieve this requires improvements in things like access to collage and university, with the potential to get a better job with greater life prospects.

Another point from the programme was that the amount of time that parents can dedicate to their children significantly improved the prospects of those children. So this includes the time parents have to play games with their children, take then to sporting activities, and so on.

A final point I’d like to pick  up on from the programme is about community and the work of Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology in the School of Anthropology, and a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. His work has shown that each of us have a series of circles of people in our relationships. The first inner circle sees about five close friends and relations, and this is the intimate, emotional support level. The second layer is at about 12-15, where less intimate support and friendship takes place. It isn’t by chance that a large proportion of team sports have player numbers around this range. This number appears a lot in culture and society, 12 member of a jury for example. The next level up is a closed community. The human neocortex part of the brain has evolved to enable us to work well with groups of up to about 150. This is the number at which we can understand how we relate to the people in the group and how they relate to each other.

The MP David Willetts, as the Shadow Minister for Universities and Skills, finds this interesting and it has prompted him to consider differences in behaviour between schools with smaller numbers of pupils and larger schools. There is a tendency for there to be poorer behaviour by pupils where numbers are higher. One argument being that in smaller schools all the pupils can know each other by name and therefore relate much better to each other. The programme gave an example of one school where the headmaster had restructured the school along the 150 people lines.

This raises questions from me about online communities. What number of member within an online community is it possible to still have meaningful relationships with those member? Does this figure of 150 still hold?


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