Saturday, November 08, 2003

Group Size and Institutions

Denis Dutton of Arts and Letters Daily has an interesting article that touches on a question I posed earlier regarding the effects of group size:
Group size. Hunter-gatherer bands in the EEA were in the range of 25 to 150 individuals: men, women, and children. These small bands would have sometimes formed larger agglomerations of up to a few thousand for the purpose of mate-seeking and defense, but this would have been unusual. The typically small size for bands meant that interactions within the group were face-to-face, with everyone knowing the name and something of the reputation and character of everyone else. Though group members would have engaged in some specializa­tion of labor beyond the normal sex distinctions (men as hunters, women as gatherers), specialization would not have been strict: all men, for example, would haft adzes, make spears, find game, kill, and dress it, and hunt in bands of ten to twenty individuals.

This group size for hunting parties remains a persistent unit of organization even in mass societies of millions of people — or, say, industrial firms or college faculties of thousands. It is in fact the default “comfortable” size for human working groups. In military life, for example, modern mass armies may contain millions of soldiers organized in strict hierarchies, with companies and regiments, but the fundamental infantry fighting unit is still the squad: typically ten to twenty men (or now women). In the U.S. Army version, the squad consists of a staff sergeant and corporal in command of ten privates. In its Pleistocene incarnation, such a hunting band was big enough to plan comprehensible strategies, numerous enough to surround game, diverse enough to exploit special talents of individuals (one man’s running speed, another’s game detection, another’s throwing accu­racy), and powerful enough to overcome large animals with spears. We can try as a thought experiment to imagine alternative default group sizes: under different conditions, it could have turned out that we evolved to be most comfortable in working groups of two hundred. In that possible world, to note one new requirement, our memory for names would presumably have evolved to be much better than it is. In our actual world, however, hunting with two hundred people would be an organizational challenge, if not a nightmare, as are most working parties of that size: that is why working groups such as company boards, university committees, and fielded soccer, football, and baseball teams tend to be hunting-band size.


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