How many friends does one person need?: a book review

Turns out I could not have been more wrong in my guess last week as to the contents of my latest book choice. Rather than being about maths as I had predicted, it ended up being all about evolution, something I could have worked out if I had just read the subtitle… Fortunately, I’m an unashamed science geek, and loved reading this book which has got my non-resolution plan to finish my Christmas book haul back on track.

For my next book, I have chosen to stick with the non-fiction and read the first and only anthology in my book pile; Letters to the Earth, Writing to a Planet in Crisis. I don’t think even I can mistake the contents of this book, and look forward to getting into something a little more hard-hitting as reading material.

First of all, just how many friends does one person need?

How many friends does one person need?

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Robin Dunbar is a name I was vaguely aware of before being bought this book, but if you had asked me to say why I would have struggled to be certain. After only a couple of pages it became clear he is an anthropologist with a particular passion for evolution, and despite a slight twinge of disappointment at the book not being about mathematics, it was soon obvious this would be a book I would enjoy.

Based on a series of articles written for New Scientist and The Scotsman, each chapter of the book is made up of three or four short sections which would have made perfect articles for either publication. Covering topics from human evolution to mating and even the origins of religion, this book is not a comprehensive account of human origins, but it gives a good flavour of some of the insights gleamed by science since Darwin penned his famous work.

What I really liked

  1. The book is really easy to read, and I think this is in part because of the contents former life as magazine articles. While each section is linked to the overarching chapter, they each stand alone as well, allowing the reading to dip in and out as they wish.
  2. The book is dripping with science, but presented in a way which is accessible to I would hope most people. You are not going to need more than a basic understanding of biology to enjoy this book. Equally, if you have a more extensive scientific background, I am sure you will still learn something, I know I did.
  3. Dunbar manages to cover some potentially inflammatory topics with care and sensitivity, showing both a good knowledge of the subject matter, but also skill as a science communicator. You might disagree with some of the conclusions Dunbar draws from the data, but it is hard to disagree with him as a person.

The less good bits

  1. My only real criticism, and it applies to any book written about science, at times it feels out of date. Published in 2010, and based on articles from the mid-nineties to just before publication, it is clear at times the science has moved on significantly. For example, at least one species of human (Homo naledi) and potentially a second species (The Denisovans, who made an appearance within another of my Christmas pick, Kindred) have been described since publication, while Dunbar’s understanding of female and male brains could do with a healthy dose of Testosterone Rex.

Summary

How many friends does one person need? is an excellent, well written, intriguing introduction to human evolution written by an obvious expert in the field.

Who should read this book? Anyone who is interested in humanity, how we got here, and just some of the possible explanations for why we behave how we do.

Have you read How many friends or got it on the TBR pile? What did you learn from the book? Did you like the writing style and exciting science? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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