The power of sharing.

“Minds together do not just bind together, they find together.”

My post last Monday, The lure of patterns, appears to have resonated far and wide.  In the sense of many echoes reinforcing the perilous nature of our present times and the desperately uncertain decades ahead.  Tomorrow I shall be writing specifically about those echoes.

Today, I wanted to spend a little time reflecting on dogs and communities!  After all this blog is called Learning from Dogs!

In Monday’s post I opined that the future may well see a return to people re-evaluating and re-energising the benefits of local communities.  Now when it comes to communities, there are no better examples than dogs and, so many thousands of years before dogs, grey wolves.  These species have an incredibly strong social structure.  I mean, of course, the pack.  It’s a shame that the expression ‘pack of wolves’ or ‘pack of dogs’ has such misplaced negative connotations.

Before dogs were domesticated, as in when they first evolved from the grey wolf, they shared with wolves a natural pack size of around 50 animals.  There was a very strong social cohesiveness within that pack yet a very ‘light’ status differential between those dogs having pack status and the mass of the pack group.  Ditto with wolves.

In fact there were (still are) just three status roles: Mentor/Monitor/Nanny.  Or has been described previously on this blog: Alpha/Beta/Omega roles.  Even within the domesticated dog, thousands upon thousands of years later, those social instincts are alive and well.  Many followers of Learning from Dogs will know that Pharaoh, him of the Home Page, now an elderly German Shepherd is a Monitor or Beta dog.  I could write about this aspect of dogs for hours!

Pharaoh being a monitor for young Cleo.
Pharaoh being a monitor for young Cleo.

So back to us funny old humans.

I closed last Monday’s post off with three predictions:

  • That the power of internet communications will allow more people, more quickly, to find their soul-mates wherever they are on this planet.
  • That the realisation of how dysfunctional many Governments are, of how truly poorly they serve the majorities of their citizens, will lead to mass rejections of these so-called Governments’ policies.  Such rejections predominantly peaceful, as in taking the horse to water but being unable to make it drink.
  • That there will be a new form of localism.  At two levels.  Literally, people geographically close to each other creating 21st C. versions of local communities.  Virtually, those local communities linking to other like-minded communities right across the world resulting in highly effective and innovative learning, accelerated common-sense, (call it wisdom if you wish), and extraordinarily efficient and sustainable ways of living on this planet.

Patrice commented:

Dear Paul: I like your predictions. They will play some role. But maybe somewhere in the bushes only. I think predictions of the future beyond the next 12 months are obsolete.

Jeremy remarked: (and do click the link and read some of Jeremy’s fantastic poetry)

I am hoping for a new localism. I see signs of this in the local food movement and a growing concern about factory farming, for one thing. I think people are really scrutinizing where their food comes from, where their medicines are made, and I think there also is a dawning awareness of how we are living on the backs of exploited third world workers (and poorly paid service workers here at home). I do see signs of these things permeating the consciousness of many people and leading them to want to become more “local.”

Alex said:

Your predictions are good, and I liked the one of communities from different parts of the world working with each other… that was creatively brilliant.

(Click on their names to see three wonderful blog sites, by the way.)

So my idea of a return to an era of localism, but a 21st C. version reflecting the way so many millions of us are connected electronically, wasn’t immediately rejected.

Patrice recently published a post called Devils In The Details.  I mentioned in a comment to that post that I would be referring to it in this place.  Patrice replied [my italics]:

Very good, Paul! No doubt you will bring more common sense to one more of these interesting collaborations you bring together! Internet debates! A long way from the paleolithique cave!… But still the same idea. Minds together do not just bind together, they find together.

I found that last sentence so powerful that it was used as the sub-heading to today’s post.  Then Alexi Helligar commented:

The word consciousness, breaks down to con+scious+ness, which literally means together knowing or shared knowledge.

Adding in a subsequent comment:

In other words: Without society there is no consciousness. The sages of old knew this. Why has it been forgotten?

So right before my eyes (and yours!) we are seeing the power of ‘finding together‘.

Finally, just on the spur of the moment, I did a web search under an entry of ‘early caveman social structure’.  Guess what!  One of the top search returns was an essay by an Erik D. Kennedy under the title of On the Social Lives of Cavemen.  From which jumped off the screen:

Human beings are no strangers to group living.  Call it a family trait.  Our closest animal relatives spend a good bulk of their time eating bugs off of their friends’ back.  While I’m overjoyed we’re not social in that manner, I’m less pleased that we’re not social more to that degree.  In study after study, having and spending time with close friends is consistently correlated with happiness and well-being.  And yet, the last few decades in America have seen a remarkable decline in many things associated with being in a tight-knit social circle—things like family and household size, club participation, and number of close friends.  Conversely, we’ve seen an increase in things associated with being alone—TV, commutes, and the internet, for example.

This trend is quite unhealthy.  It’s no surprise that humans are social animals—but it may be surprising that we’re such social animals that merely joining a club halves your chance of death in the next year—or that living in a close-knit town of three-generation homes can almost singlehandedly keep you safe from heart disease.

My goodness me, this sharing idea may be core to a healthy society in ways that we need to return to.  Erik’s essay goes on thus:

That particular case—of Roseto, Pennsylvania—is mentioned by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.  In 1950’s Roseto, the incidence of heart disease in men over sixty-five was half the national average (and suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, and serious crime were also basically unheard of[ii]).  Bewildered doctors searched for solutions in genetics, diet, exercise, and geography, but finding nothing, reached the conclusion that it was the close-knit social life of the community that kept its residents so healthy. Dinners with grandma, friendly chats between neighbors, and a precocious level of civic involvement were the driving factors in the health of a town that nothing but old age could kill.

The happiness and health I’m describing are not, however, ingredients to a long-lost elixir of well-being.  This sort of paleo social life occurs in cultures large and small all over the globe.  America just happens to be an enormous exception (and the one that I live in).  The whole reason Roseto was an outlier is because it was a town whose inhabitants more or less collectively moved from rural Italy to the middle of Pennsylvania over a few decades.  This was basically an Italian village in the American countryside, and it stood out because Italy’s social culture was remarkable compared to America’s—and that was in the 1950’s.  America’s social culture has only deteriorated even further since then.  We’ve lost a lot, but my thesis is a positive one; we have as much to gain as ever.

So if wolves and dogs naturally settle into packs of 50 animals, what’s the optimum ‘pack’ size for humans?  Dear Erik even offers that answer:

Along with that urban emigration came a shrink in residents per household and a widespread decline in community and organization engagement.  This isolation has been taxing on our physical and mental health, and the reason has been clear from the beginning: it’s not good for man to be alone.

So we’ll spend more time with other people.  Fine.  But who should we spend our time with?  What kind of groups should we hang out in?  And how big of groups?  The simple answer is: as long as you’re pretty close to the people you’re with, it hardly matters. Piles of research back up what is essentially obvious from everyday experience: that the more time you spend with people you trust, the better off you are.  That’s not to discourage actively meeting new people, but seeing as though close friends push us towards health and happiness better than strangers, there does appear to be a limit on the number of people you can have in your “tribe”.

And that number is about 150, says anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who achieved anthropologist fame by drawing a graph plotting primates’ social group size as a function of their brain sizes.  He inputted the average human brain size into his model, and lo and behold, the number 150 has been making a whirlwind tour of popular non-fiction books ever since.  Beyond being the upper bound for both hunter-gatherer tribes and Paleolithic farming villages,  it appears that everything from startup employee counts to online social networks show this number as a fairly consistent maximum for number of close social ties.

You really must read Erik’s essay in full; it really ‘spoke’ to me and maybe it will do the same for you.

So no other way to close than to say that of all the things we can learn from dogs, the power of sharing, of living a local community life, may just possibly be the difference between failure and survival of us humans.

Dogs and man should never be alone.
Dogs and man should never be alone.


I'll say it again! Dogs, and man, should never be alone!
I’ll say it again! Dogs, and man, should never be alone!

10 thoughts on “The power of sharing.

  1. Dear Paul: Well done and thanks for all the appreciation. By coincidence I have been working on a short piece (it does not feel like an essay, being so short, but maybe it is) that is smack into that area. This is about the dawn of civilization (reflecting in part a recent summary in New Scientist).

    Turns out, all we thought we knew about civilization is… wrong.

    And it also reflects on the Paleo this, Paleo that. It’s an area in which one has to be very careful. Although some of the gist of what Eric is saying is correct, like all the Paleo this, Paleo that, he makes unwarranted deductions (there WAS time for inheritable adaptations, and even of the genetic sort: see the alleles for milk).

    It’s like the scientist called Dunbar. Those sorts of generalizations are useful, only when the facts are sure. Meanwhile, Bonobo tribes of 200 have been found in the wild… does that mean they are more brainy?

    OK, more later. I did not finish that civilization piece yet, because its logic is not sorted out well… as I discovered to my surprise (That means the science is not all filled in, and philosophy has to intervene!)


    1. Fair points, and all noted. Yes, I should have been more thorough in researching human tribal numbers – rather ran out of writing time last night! May investigate the tribe sizes of, say, North American Indians. Look forward to reading your latest as well.


      1. That was not meant as a critique of you personally, Paul. You can’t check everything and produce as much as you do. Dunbar is well known, esteemed, but he was wrong. And what Eric was saying is interesting, but common, and not as smart as he thinks he is. Same extends for Ian Welsh, etc… Now, of course, our leaders are even worse: their stupidity is deliberate.

        That the will to stupidity, because of greed, is not an accident, is what has to be understood, before we can move forward in a significant way.


      2. Patrice, the day I hide from criticism is the day I stop writing Learning from Dogs. But on a more broader note, I would love to ‘dump’ on you a whole collection of thoughts and reflections about our present times and, more to the point, options for the future, both good and bad.

        Is the email address for you that I have used in the past an appropriate channel? If not, drop me an email with the address you would prefer to use. Or a postal address if you wish?


  2. The only problem with that little plot of yours is that I believe that public debate is best and better. Plus I have absolutely no time. As it is, I have a total jam of thoughts I view as very valuable, say in physics and math, that I don’t find the time to publish… And this is no light stuff: my claims in math are big.


      1. That’s indeed the way to do it. My very latest post is an answer to what Andrej alerted me to, the “Aymesian” Krugman essay on NYRB… I am still trying to tie the history in…


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