September 30th, 2007
Do you find that when you know someone long enough, you begin to develop your own language that is specific to the two of you? Like a simple phrase becomes shorthand for an event or concept that would require more than 5 minutes to explain its background or meaning?
Well, needless to say, Chris and I have several of these phrases after a mere 3 years of marriage. I think it would be fun to document the Chris-and-Alyssa lexicon some time, so I'm going to start today by explaining a helpful concept that Chris and I refer to quite frequently: the monkeysphere.
The phrase "monkeysphere" isn't entirely unique to us. It was coined in a satirical essay by David Wong. We read this essay together once and it's since become a part of our relationship lexicon. A warning: the essay uses some pretty strong language, so I'll just summarize it here---drawing on a summary that Chris created too.
Primatologists at the University of Liverpool studied several different species of primates and found that there was a direct correlation between the size of the societies formed by each species and the size of their brains. The bigger the brains, the larger their social groups would be. If this is true for humans too, then our ideal maximum group size would be around 150 individuals.
This Brings Us to the Monkeysphere
If the above study on primates is valid, by that logic we could theorize that humans are not concerned with individuals outside of their immediate circle because our brains are only capable of conceiving of about 150 individuals as actual people. Anyone outside of that 150 are perceived by us as objects or machines. We could, in fact, say that anyone not in our group of 150 is outside of our "monkeysphere."
The Trouble With Monkeys Is...
We obviously live and interact in societies with more than 150 people because, as Wong states, we "require cars and oil and quality manufactured goods by the fine folks at 3M and Japanese video games and worldwide internets and, most importantly, governments. All of these things take groups larger than 150 people to maintain effectively. Thus, we routinely find ourselves functioning in bunches larger than our primate brains are able to cope with."
Wong postulates that the monkeysphere concept can explain why good people sometimes do bad things. He states: "This is literally the reason society doesn't work quite right. The people who exist outside that core group of a few dozen people are not people to us. They're sort of one-dimensional bit characters." Since they're outside our monkeysphere, it's easier to do rude things to them that we would never even dream of doing to someone in our monkeysphere. It's why otherwise rational people scream at the driver of a passing car, yell at a waitress for mixing up their order, or flame/troll someone's blog. They're not people to you any more because they're not in your monkeysphere.
A Scriptural Detour
I'm pressing the pause button for a second to connect the monkeysphere idea with something powerful my dad once shared with me from a book called Searching the Scriptures by Elder Cook:
Some years ago I had an experience that truly impressed upon me the power and blessing of asking questions as we read scriptures.
I was reading Ether 12:27... and asking myself, Did the Lord actually give me weaknesses? If he did, why would he? Doesn't he want us to grow and develop and become like him? And isn't he perfect? Why then would he give me weaknesses?...
But as I began to see an answer to my questions, one day I noticed that I had been misreading the verse. Moroni doesn't say that the Lord gives unto me weaknesses. In fact, the word weaknesses doesn't appear anywhere in the scriptures at all (it does in three chapter headings, but never in the scriptures themselves).
Instead, Ether 12:27 refers to our weakness. So, what's the difference? I came to an insight that has been a great blessing to me. I came to understand how the Lord defines weakness. I believe his definition is quite different from what most of us has been taught....
The Lord didn't give us weaknesses (impatience, laziness, anger, lust, and so forth). But he did give us weakness. That weakness has more to do with the state of mortality than with individual character flaws. When you were a spirit you didn't have your mortal weakness. But the Lord gave us bodies in a fallen state---which is a state of weakness---because that is the only way we could become as he is.
What does all this have to do with the monkeysphere? Well, I think the inability to conceive of people outside our monkeysphere is part of what constitutes one of the conditions of our mortality and the state of being human (our weakness). One condition of being mortal is our inability to conceive of more than a limited number of human beings as actual human beings---who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. And we do thoughtless or rude things to them without even being fully conscious of it because they're not in our immediate monkeysphere. It is one of the challenges that we can only overcome through humble reliance on the Lord through empathy and the gift of charity.
Well, I'm not going to talk more about this concept on this blog at this point. I really just wanted to toss that little piece of personal lexicon out there so that when I say "monkeysphere" to you, you'll know what I mean. But here's some bananas for thought:
- Are there different degrees in your monkeysphere? For example, are my husband and child in the inner core of my monkeysphere, then my parents and siblings in the next level up, then my close friends, etc.?
- Is art and fiction valueable to us as a way of teaching us to empathize with people who are not in our monkeysphere?
- Do celebrities, politicians or other famous people become a part of our shared monkeysphere consciousness?
- Can someone get kicked out of our personal monkeysphere? If so, why and how does it happen?
- What are the implications with increasing globalization and mass mediums of communication like the Internet? (e.g. is it weird that I feel a connection to people whose blogs I read that I've never met?
Interesting stuff. Please feel free to comment or discuss your thoughts with me offline. :)