Religion: The Original Social Network

Social networks existed long before there were social media to organize (and profit on) them. And humans are not the only social creatures.

The renowned evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar showed 20 years ago that the size of an animal’s social network correlates with the size of its brain. Primates maintain significant social bonds with a relatively consistent number of other primates, and that number increases as the primates’ brain size increases, moving up the evolutionary ladder from monkeys to apes.

Dunbar produced a similar finding for humans and their social networks. The results, however, went beyond mere brain size. In the words of The Washington Post:

Humans, Dunbar found, are capable of maintaining significantly more social ties than the size of our brains alone could explain. He proved that each human is surprisingly consistent in the number of social ties we can maintain: About five with intimate friends, 50 with good friends, 150 with friends and 1,500 with people we would recognize by name. That discovery came to be known as ‘Dunbar’s number.’

How did humans develop the capacity to maintain social networks larger than mere brain-size would predict? According to Dunbar, religion may be a major part of the answer. Read more at the Post to discover why, but activities like laughter, singing, shared stories and shared rituals – all elements essential to religious community – form enduring social bonds.

In order for the species to survive and propagate, says Dunbar, “You need something quite literally to stop everybody from killing everybody else out of just crossness. Somehow it’s clear that religions…create the sense that we’re all one family.” Communities that formed around shared religious beliefs and practices, with stronger social bonding as a result, were more likely to survive and grow. In other words, religion (among other things) cultivates a greater capacity for social bonding; the capacity for larger social networks conferred an advantage in the competition for survival; from there, natural selection did its work.

Of course, Dunbar is not the only scientist who has turned to the study of religion in recent years.

“For most of Western intellectual history since the Enlightenment, religion has been thought of as ignorant and strange and an aberration and something that gets in the way of reason,” according to Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame who studies religion. “In the last 10 or 20 years on many fronts, there’s been a change in thinking about religion, where a lot of neuroscientists have been saying religion is totally natural. It totally makes sense that we’re religious. Religion has served a lot of important functions in developing societies.”

Dunbar himself explains, “A lot of people assume, falsely, that science and religion are zero-sum games: that if science explains something, then religion must not be true. … If you were God and wanted to set up the world in a certain way, wouldn’t you create humans with bigger brains and the ability to imagine?”


The editorial staff of ORBITER magazine humbly pursues life's Big Questions, illuminating the human condition and our place in the universe.