Dunbar: What’s in a Name?

Jan 25, 2024

If you’re Scottish, you may be wondering why we named ourselves after the picturesque coastal town to the east of Edinburgh (No, that’s not the origin of our name. Yes, we can’t wait to visit). Some of you may have heard some version of Dunbar's Number, a concept introduced by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, referring to a theoretical limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships (Yes, that is the origin of the name. No, we’re not building a social app with an artificial scarcity of 150 followers).

Most probably, you haven’t really spent any time at all wondering about this. It’s fine though, we will pretend that’s not the case and share it with you regardless.

Dunbar’s Theory & Critique Thereof

In the early 1990s, Dunbar proposed a theory suggesting that there's a ceiling to the number of social relationships we can maintain. This ceiling, he posited, is tied to the size of the human neocortex. Dunbar looked at the brain and social patterns of primates and extrapolated that humans, with our relatively large neocortex, can handle about 150 stable relationships. This theory has since been widely discussed and debated in both academic and popular contexts.

While Dunbar's Number has been influential in discussions about human social behavior, the scientific community recognizes that the relationship between neocortex size and social group size is more complex than initially thought. The theory has sparked valuable research and debate, but it's important to view it as one part of a broader conversation about the biological and cognitive factors that influence human social interactions.

We are not going to pretend to understand how the neocortex works, so we will steer clear of that debate.

The Significance of “150”

However, historical and anthropological records do support the idea that many traditional societies had group sizes around this number. For example, Neolithic farming villages, bands of hunter-gatherers, and even some military units in historical contexts often numbered around 150.

Early humans lived in small, trusted communities. Those communities provided safety and allowed every member to benefit individually and as a group. They weren't just safe havens; they were the backbone of our survival and collective growth. They helped humans flourish as a species. As social beings, we still crave those close-knit bonds and real connections.

Beyond 150, you start to run into problems. You can’t keep track of all the players, so free-riders get away with it. Sociopathic behavior becomes personally advantageous. Some tribes would split when they reached around that number to ensure the community remained cohesive. This isn’t just true for hunter-gatherers. We see it in contemporary communities, too.

Fast Forward to Today

Maybe it’s just us, but a lot of this is eerily similar to what we are experiencing today. Technological advances and a globalized work environment exponentially increased the size of our networks. The tools we created to manage these networks led to fragmentation and a lot of noise which drowns out the signal. This has led to an erosion of trust, and the loss of personal touch, leading to superficial relationships that lack depth and meaningful interaction.

So, Why “Dunbar”?

We chose Dunbar to represent our mission to foster meaningful connection and bring back trust, collaboration and mutually beneficial interactions to professional networking.

We chose Dunbar to symbolize our belief that there is a better way forward. One that relies on a systematic approach to networking and is aligned with the interests of our users and community. This way is based on science and data, understands the fluid nature of networks, and leverages cutting-edge technology to empower our users.

And finally, Dunbar was the codename we used early on. The word does have a nice ring to it, so we decided to run with it!

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