Notes On Human Rescue

*The ratio of brain size to body mass determines the capacity of humans and other animals to remember and develop relationships with their fellows (knowing who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person). Dunbar has given his number for the human brain and his range. Archaeology and anthropology have confirmed his findings. 148 is the number, 100 to 230 is the range, and groups have formed throughout human history with these sizes: 150 as the estimated size of a neolithic farming village; 150 as the splitting point of Hutterite settlements; 150 as the basic unit size of professional armies in Roman antiquity and in modern times since the 16th century; notions of appropriate company size; and 150 as the average number of "Friends" on Facebook.


To rescue another human one may risk his life to do so. It is puzzling behavior if one begins from the perspective of the individual out only for himself and the furtherance of his selfish genes. But understood within the small group the life-risking rescue appears as the strongest form of group behavior, behavior which may form the basis for the group itself. To lose a member of a group is maybe to lose the group itself depending upon that member's importance and specialization. (Additionally, we may identify in the cries of the helpless man a similarity to the cries of the baby in need. That the helpless baby attracts more assistance than the helpless man, is a related question needing exploration.)

In military fighting units engaged in heavy combat men who openly despise each other will each be willing to jump on a grenade to save the other's life. The medic who runs through heavy gunfire to assist a wounded platoon member denies he acted courageously. I was just doing my job he says, what any of us would have done. A story exists of a five man bomber team choosing to die together in a fiery crash instead of ejecting because one member of the team was unable to operate his ejection seat. They had earlier formed a pact to do everything as a unit. (I am making no distinction between rescue of an individual group member and self-sacrifice for that group member.)

The group is strongest that provides its members with the knowledge they will each risk their lives for one another. That group fights more cohesively and with more confidence today. It is a special sort of paradox: the strongest group, and each man's best chance for survival, rests upon each individual's willingness to die for the group. Any failure to act according to this expectation weakens the group and puts it at risk. A man in turn fears being ejected from that group for this failure. And alone he is less secure. But even when he does not fear being expulsed from the group, he fears the shame of acting improperly. He may even fear being shamed by the group more than his own death. (That shame is more terrible than death requires further investigation.) Through fear of expulsion and shame the group is strengthened and the chances of each man's survival are increased.

Shame and expulsion also motivate rescues that occur in small, modern communities. While expulsion from a Western community can hardly be considered life-threatening, the shame associated with that failure to rescue carries on in the glances and whispers of that community.

But in the city, where the human brain cannot recall the faces it sees daily in the streets, any failure to rescue is understood. A man calling out for help on a busy thoroughfare can be ignored. The anonymity of living among thousands of people protects him who ignores the drowning child. He is the source of any shame he feels, not the glare of the shopkeeper. The city is where he can act shamelessly. The city can exist entirely of the expulsed.

Groups certainly form in the city, but with so many groups and an abundance of security and resources, one need not fear expulsion or being shamed. One can simply switch his group affiliation and begin anew.

1 comment:

  1. There is evidence that human brain size has been shrinking for some time now, meaning man is becoming less and less capable of maintaining the approximate 150 individual relationships he was once capable of.

    Is a smaller brain a result of the decline of the small group? The growth of cities? The economic focus on the supremacy of the individual? Impossible to say.

    Human relationships and group life may or may not be the principle determinant of brain size. But what is clear is that individuals are less and less able to establish the number of significant social relationships they once were able to.


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