John Pfeiffer on Magic Numbers

Human Organization – The Math and Genetics behind Magic Numbers

More Magic Numbers

John Pfeiffer is one of the most accessible writers on the Emergence of Humans. Here are some of his ideas about the Magic Numbers.

The Math of Conflict: – When we encounter more than a certain number of “Known” people, as opposed to strangers in a city, we become stressed. When we “Know” someone, we feel an impact. The formula for this series is (N2 – n)/2= D Where N= number of known individuals and D = the number of Dyads (possible pairings) So 10 Dyads exist in a 5 person family. The series is exponential. We can see this when we add one more person to the family and the number of Dyads increase by 5. If you have had children remember what it felt like when you had the second child. It felt quite overwhelming: it was much more challenging than the simple addition of one more child.

When you have 125- 175 people that are “known” in a group you have 4,950 – 7,750 Dyads -this appears to be too much and conflict will be inevitable – the answer? Split up the group into smaller units.

150 seems to be the upper limit of a tight unit

Why is this important? I think it is because as we breach the limits of key sets of magic numbers. the complexity increase beyond some type of threshold.

So what holds cities and large groups together? The key understanding is that the relationships that affect us are those that are “Known” Only your family can piss you off or make you feel really bad. They are the most “Known” Complete strangers passed in the street have almost no effect – even in a elevator or sitting next to you on the plane. Larger groupings work when they are either made up of strangers as in cities or when they are subdivided such as at my school where there were 700 boys who lived in 11 houses.

The Math of Genetics – There is also a genetic link to group size and Magic Numbers.

A person living alone has a “half life ” of about one year. Set ups of one lose half their number in one year, half in the next and so on. Living alone is a very weak strategy in a natural environment where there are many risks and challenges. Today the power of the state is encouraging us to live this way – the state is the dependency creating family and its not a healthy relationship. Think of this also in terms of organizational size. A one person shop like mine is very vulnerable

The half life of a group of 5 is a generation or about 20-40 years

The half life of 25 people is 250-500 years. 25 seems to be an ideal blend of comfort and complexity. A company that lasted 250 years would be a remarkable organizations. In a tribe about half a group of 25 would be adults – say about 8 men and women – now we see the core underlying magic number revealed. It is the ideal single sex work group derived from the ideal familial work group, the tribe.

The 500 person group is the ideal “marriage gene pool” Incest taboos prevent breeding in the 25 person tribe. Wives and husbands have to be found outside this group. But not too far outside. After all we don’t want our daughter to mary a stranger or worse someone who cannot add wealth by his connections. We also want them to speak the same language and worship the same Gods. So being close means that we can enter your wife’s family hunting ground and that it creates the potential to have large scale group hunts on occasion. 475 people = the ideal gene pool of 19 x 25 member bands.

Think of the problems of mergers and the clash of “Language” and “Gods”


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