I have never had as many "friends" as I do now. But most of the hundreds are only on Facebook. And sometimes I forget who is who. Is it really possible to overdo the friend thing?

Some experts say it is indeed, including the author of How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar's Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks. Robin Dunbar is Professor of Psychology at the University of Liverpool, and this book is an amusing collections of essays originally published in the Scotsman newspaper, New Scientist magazine, and a few other British publications between 1994 and 2008.

Mostly these are no longer cutting-edge discoveries, but rather a consistently diverting series of anecdotes and ideas written in an original voice.

For instance, Dunbar discusses why other animals cannot engage in flights of literary fancy, and that even though great apes may possibly be able to imagine someone else's state of mind, they could never construct a story with more than one character.

The reason for our human ability to tell stories and make literature is that some of us are capable of what's called fifth- or sixth-order intentionality. Fourth order, explains Dunbar, is "the equivalent of being able to say: I suppose [1] that you believe [2] that I want [3] you to think [4] that I intend [5] . . . ." (Of course, Dunbar makes a much clearer case than my little summary here.)

He also tells us why we kiss (to better sniff one another's saliva and determine if our would-be mate has the right set of immune responses); and why endorphins are a prime benefit of religion.

Why can't we manage more than 150 real friends at a time? Dunbar's number, the number of people you know and keep social contact with, has to do with the mean size of tribal societies. Too many more than that, and they're probably not really friends, but just "friends."

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry

(author of Kylie's Heel)

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