Here is the definitive link to the core of RB's work. The paper is a unique, for science, mix of the technical and the breathtaking read.
I will be posting later on what I feel are some of the key implications for this. I will be looking at organizational dysfunction in schools; in the healthcare system; in cities and in most organizations.
Some snips - I have bolded the bits that I feel are directly related to the emergence of Tribes in the blogosphere
It is generally accepted that the cohesion of primate groups is maintained through time by social grooming (see Dunbar 1988). Social grooming is used both to establish and to service those friendships and coalitions that give primate groups their unique structure. As might be anticipated, the amount of time devoted to social grooming correlates well with group size, notably among the catarrhine primates (Old World monkeys and apes) (Dunbar 1991).
However, the relationship between group size and time devoted to grooming appears to be a consequence of the intensity with which a small number of key "friendships" (the primary network) is serviced rather than to the total number of individuals in the group (Dunbar 1991; Kudo et al, in preparation). These primary networks function as coalitions whose primary purpose is to buffer their members against harassment by the other members of the group. The larger the group, the more harassment and stress an individual faces (see for example Dunbar 1988) and the more important those coalitions are. It seems that a coalition's effectiveness (in the sense of its members' willingness to come to each other's aid) is directly related to the amount of time its members spend grooming each other (see Cheney & Seyfarth 1984, Dunbar 1984). Hence, the larger the group, the more time individuals devote to grooming with the members of their coalitionary clique.
The mean size of the primary network is, however, related to the mean group size for the species. This suggests that groups are built up by welding together sets of smaller primary networks (see also Cheney 1992) and that the total size of the group is ultimately limited not by the number of networks that can be welded together but rather by the size of the networks themselves.
In this paper, I ask what implications these two sets of results have for modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens). If we extrapolate from the nonhuman primate regression, what group size would we predict for anatomically modern humans, given our current neocortex size? I then ask whether there are any observed human group sizes that correspond to this predicted value. Since the relationships that maintain group cohesion among nonhuman primates are serviced by social grooming, I use the regression equation for primates to determine how much time humans would have to spend grooming each other if they were to maintain group cohesion in this way for groups of the size predicted from neocortex size. Finally, I ask what implications this might have had for the evolution of language.
It is generally accepted that human cultural evolution has proceeded at a very much faster pace than our anatomical evolution during the past few millenia. Given that our brain size has its origins in the later stages of human evolution some 250,000 years ago (Martin 1983, Aiello & Dean 1990), we may assume that our current brain size reflects the kinds of groups then prevalent and not those now found among technologically advanced cultures. The closest we can get to this is to examine those modern humans whose way of life is thought to be most similar to that of our late Pleistocene ancestors. These are generally presumed to be the hunter-gatherers (Service 1962, Sahlins 1972)............
In addition, it turns out that most organised (i.e. professional) armies have a basic unit of about 150 men (Table 3). This was as true of the Roman Army (both before and after the reforms of 104BC) as of modern armies since the sixteenth century. In the Roman Army of the classical period (350-100 BC), the basic unit was the maniple (or "double-century") which normally consisted of 120-130 men; following the reforms instituted by Marius in 104BC, the army was re-organised into legions, each of which contained a number of semi-independent centuries of 100 men each (Haverfield 1955, Montross 1975). The smallest independent unit in modern armies (the company) invariably contains 100-200 men (normallly three or four rifle platoons of 30-40 men each, plus a headquarters unit, sometimes with an additional heavy weapons unit) (Table 3). Although its origins date back to the German mercenary Landsknechts groups of the sixteenth century, the modern company really derives from the military reforms of the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in the 1620s. Despite subsequent increases in size to accomodate new developments in weaponry and tactics, the company in all modern armies has remained within the 95% confident limits of the predicted size for human groups. The mean size of 179.6 for the twentieth century armies listed in Table 3 does not differ significantly from the 147.8 predicted by equation (1) (z=0.913, P=0.361 2-tailed).
This fact has particular significance in the context of the present argument. Military units have to function very efficiently in coordinating men's behaviour on the battlefield: the price of failing to do so is extremely high and military commanders cannot afford to miscalculate. Given that the fighting power of a unit is a function of its size, we might expect there to be considerable selection pressure in favour of units that are as large as possible. That the smallest independent unit should turn out to have a maximum size of about 200 even in modern armies (where technology presumably facilitates the coordination of planning) suggests that this upper limit is set by the number of individuals who can work effectively together as a coordinated team. Military planners have presumably arrived at this figure as a result of trial and error over the centuries.
Given that primate groups are held together by social grooming, time budget constraints on group size become an important consideration (Dunbar 1992b). Even if a species has the cognitive capacity to manage all the relationships involved in large groups, there may be circumstances under which the animals simply do not have the time available to devote to servicing those relationships through social grooming. Relationships that are not serviced in this way will cease to function effectively; as a result, the group will tend to disperse and the population will settle at a new lower equilibrium group size (Dunbar 1992b).
A comparative analysis of the determinants of time spent grooming by primates has demonstrated that grooming time is a linear function of group size, at least within the catarrhine primates (Dunbar 1991). The distribution of the data suggests that grooming does not necessarily function in such a way that each individual grooms with every other group member: rather, as noted earlier (p.000), it suggests that the intensity of grooming with a small number of "special friends" (or coalition partners) increases in proportion to increasing group size. Irrespective of precisely how grooming functions to integrate large primate groups, we can use the relationship between group size and grooming time to predict the grooming time required to maintain cohesion in groups of the size predicted for modern humans.
Modern humans do, however, possess a form of social communication that overcomes both of these limitations very effectively: not only can speech be combined with almost every other activity (we can forage and talk at the same time), but it can also be used to address several different individuals simultaneously. Thus, language introduces major savings by allowing an individual to do two different things at once. My suggestion, then, is that language evolved as a "cheap" form of social grooming, so enabling the ancestral humans to maintain the cohesion of the unusually large groups demanded by the particular conditions they faced at the time. (Blogging as a form of grooming?)
How might language function as a mechanism for social bonding? There would appear to be at least two possibilities. One is by allowing individuals to spend time with their preferred social partners, thereby enabling them to acquire information about each other's behaviour by direct observation. This appears to be one way in which social grooming itself might work (Dunbar 1988). That the intellectual content of human conversations is often trivial (and, indeed, many conversations are highly formulaic and ritualised) lends some support to this argument. The second possibility is that language permits the acquisition of information about third party social relationships, thereby enabling an individual to acquire knowledge of the behavioural characteristics of other group members without actually having to observe them in action. (I am grateful to R.W.Byrne for pointing this out to me.) This would have the effect of considerably widening an individual's sphere of social knowledge relative to what would be possible from direct personal observation. This suggestion meshes well with the social intelligence hypothesis, and is given some support by the extent to which humans seem to be fascinated by gossip about other people's behaviour. (Blogging fits both of these)
The essence of my argument has been that there is a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships, that this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size. The predicted group size for humans is relatively large (compared to those for nonhuman primates), and is close to observed sizes of certain rather distinctive types of groups found in contemporary and historical human societies. These groups are invariably ones that depend on extensive personal knowledge based on face-to-face interaction for their stability and coherence through time. I argued that the need to increase group size at some point during the course of human evolution precipitated the evolution of language because a more efficient process was required for servicing these relationships than was possible with the conventional nonhuman primate bonding mechanism (namely, social grooming). These arguments appear to mesh well with the social intelligence hypothesis for the evolution of brain size and cognitive skills in primates.