Size Matters

[Our guest blogger is Cool Friend Steve Yastrow. He’s an author, speaker, consultant, and we’ve enjoyed his work for many years. Find out more about him at]

In a recent post, Tom quoted David Lascelles to show how corporate mergers are contrary to nature. Lascelles uses bees as an example, relating that bee colonies split into separate colonies as they grow, before becoming too big. Lascelles says that nature is more about “growth, fragmentation, and dispersal” than it is about merging. “What the bees are telling us is that the corporate world has got it all wrong.”

Beyond Lascelles’s bees, there is another example, even closer to home, to demonstrate this point: humans.

For about 90% of the 200,000 years we have been anatomically modern humans we lived in bands that maxed out at about 150 people. When our groups started to grow beyond 150 people, we split into smaller groups that then continued to grow on their own, until they once again split. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar says that this number of 150 was meaningful: It represents the maximum number of relationships each of us can have with other people. The “Dunbar Number,” as it is called, is a natural limit based on our cognitive capacity. (Dunbar shows that other primates, such as chimps, bonobos, orangutans, and gorillas, have proportionally smaller group sizes based on their smaller brains.)

Then, about 12,000 years ago we started to settle down into a sedentary “civilized” lifestyle, and shortly thereafter developed agriculture. This led us to live in larger groups, well past Dunbar’s limit of 150 people, eventually leading to the urban centers we see today.

Although we usually think of the transition to agriculture and civilization as wonderful progress, it isn’t so simple. In his book, Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, Spencer Wells paints a very vivid picture of the ills that civilized life has brought us. Wells describes archaeological evidence that shows how human size, health, and life expectancy actually decreased after the transition to settled living and agriculture. (Wells says that life expectancy for humans who made it past childhood didn’t catch up with hunter-gatherer levels until the 19th century.) He claims that warfare, mental illness, and social strife, in addition to many diseases, are all byproducts of the unnatural situations we have lived in for the past 10,000 years. We evolved to live one way, and now are trying to live another way. What we see every day as our natural setting is, in fact, a very unnatural way for us to live.

So, if we are looking for evidence from nature that our belief in corporate mergers and unchecked growth is misplaced, Lascelles’s bees are only the starting point. We can also look into the not-so-distant mirror of our own history and recognize that our real success on this planet has been based on small, nimble groups who “spin off” new groups before growing too big.

Steve Yastrow posted this on September 9, 2011, in Excellence.
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