Game of Thrones — the French Baby Boys' Names Edition

On the map, the changing fortunes of French baby boys' names look like battles in a weird, unreported war. 

It's 1946, and France has won the Second World War (with some help from its allies). The nation is grateful to its liberator, général de Gaulle. But that doesn't mean mothers start naming their baby boys Charles after him. That kind of thing won't come into fashion for some years yet. For now, the most popular boys' name in France is Jean. As it is in most other Christian countries. As it has been, probably since the Middle Ages (1).

But by the middle of the 20th century, things start shifting. In France and elsewhere in the West, the Empire of John is coming to an end.

For the first few years after the war, all seems well — just a few local outbreaks of Michel, contained to Normandy, Burgundy/Franche-Comté and Poitou-Charentes.

But then, in 1949, the capital falls to Alain. Nobody saw that coming. The Alainists manage to break out, but are quickly destroyed, having their last stand in Basse Normandie in 1953.

By that time, however, Patrick has taken over Paris, and Nord-Pas de Calais, and other regions. Neither of these contenders will defeat Jean, though. That honour goes to yet another surprise candidate, Philippe, who in 1955 takes Paris, and three regions north of it.

By 1957, Philippe controls a band of territory from the Belgian border to the Bay of Biscayne, with an extra foothold on the Swiss border. A year later, his territory has grown yet further, and Pascal has joined the minor contenders. Jean's domain is cut into four shrinking bits. This is the last year of his reign.

Philippe's tenure will last from 1959 to 1966, but it will not be a happy one. Naturally, he will attempt to extend his dominion over the north to the south of France.

But even as he succeeds in mopping up pockets of Jean and even the last remaining stronghold of Patrick (in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, in 1961), Pascal re-emerges building a power base in the north, and by 1962 even besieging Philippe in the capital.

By now firmly in control of the south, Philippe counter-attacks, lifting the siege on Paris and re-establishing a territorial link with the isolated north by 1963.

Barely a year later, disaster strikes. Out of nothing, Thierry sweeps through the north and centre, also taking over two southern regions. Pascal is annihilated, but that is little comfort to Philippe, who loses the throne to Thierry in 1965.

His briefest of reigns only lasts a year. By 1966, a triumphant Philippe has confined him to Aquitaine, in the southwest. This will prove a pyrrhic victory for Philippe, who clings to power for just one more year.


The shape of things to come was already visible on the 1966 map: with Philippe and Thierry exhausted by their struggle for dominance (and with a withered Jean holding on for dear life), Christophe swept the north.

In 1967, he was crowned king. Taking one of Jean's three remaining regions, Christophe now ruled the north unopposed, except for Brittany (Philippe territory) and Paris, held by Laurent, a new pretender.

The next year, Philippe was usurped in Brittany by Stéphane, who would go on to challenge Christophe for dominance in a struggle that would last until 1974.

During all of the Christophe/Stéphane era, the former would try in vain to conquer the capital, while the latter ruled Paris for five consecutive years (1970-'74). On the other hand, Stéphane was the national overlord for only two of those eight years, against Christophe's six.

At the close of the era, Christophe held on to the Mediterranean coast, while Stéphane controlled eastern France, with added power bases in Aquitaine and Normandy/Brittany.

Three new contenders had emerged: David in the north, Sébastien in the Centre and Poitou-Charentes, and Jérôme, holding on to the Pays de la Loire and Midi-Pyrenees regions.

Philippe had been erased from the map. Jean, the former supremo, was forced to watch the struggles on the mainland from his Taiwan-like exile on Corsica.


Now begins a time of three totalitarian rulers, each successively managing to do what even old king Jean never achieved: colouring the whole mainland in their name.

The first one was Sébastien, whose period in power began in 1975, as the top dog in a fragmented France. He soon set out to create order out of chaos, wiping various competitors off the map. In 1976, Christophe was the only mainland rival left, clinging to power in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur. For two glorious years, Jean's Corsican exile was the only blemish on Sébastien's dominance.

How quickly the fortunes of onomasty change! In 1979, Nicolas carved out one single region for himself in Sébastien-dominated France. By 1980, Nicolas had swept across the mainland, leaving only Lorraine for Sébastien. The next year, Nicolas ruled over all of mainland France.

The last, and longest-ruling totalitarian broke Nicolas's monopoly after a single year. Julien carved out a narrow band of territory in the east, reminiscent of the ephemeral Middle Francia, created at the Treaty of Verdun (843).

This time, with reverse results: The strip gobbled up the rest of France. By 1984, Nicolas found himself isolated by Julien in Lorraine, exactly as he had kettled in Sébastien there in 1980.

The next three years, France turned entirely Julienist. Only by 1988 were there outbreaks of Nicolas, Romain and Anthony — who, in the previous year, had eliminated Jean from Corsica, thus ending the last vestiges of a name-giving tradition that may have started as long ago as the Crusades.


In 1989, a new strongman emerged on the scene, one which would dominate the next six years. Kévin would also be the last totalitarian, dominating all of mainland France in 1991 and 1992.

To get there, Kévin had to eliminate tough resistance by Maxime in Basse-Normandie; Nicolas, who attempted to set up a base in the Alsace region; Anthony, in the east; and Thomas and Jérémy in the southwest. All the while, Corsica was content to remain outside the mêlée, and loyal to Anthony, as it had been to Jean before.

Taking over Lorraine in 1993, Jordan broke the unanimity. The next year, Alexandre took over Paris, and Nicolas set up shop in the northeast, southeast, and southwest. Game over, Kévin.

In the ensuing chaos, Nicolas managed to regain the throne for a single year. But his rule proved too weak, and in 1996, Thomas began the first of his six years in power.

While he did manage to destroy an outbreak of Dylans, Thomas never managed to unify the country as previous title-holders had done. He was unable to contain a rash of Quentins, who briefly took over large swathes of western France; nor could he defeat the persistent threat posted by Lucas, operating from his power base in the east.

Lucas has great stamina: he came to power in 2002, and still was top dog in 2011. But he is less successful at cashing in on his dominance. His reign is punctuated by two interregnums.

Two years into his shaky first tenure, threatened by Théo, it is Enzo who almost wipes Lucas off the map in 2004.

Slowly rebuilding in the southeast, Lucas enters into a strategic alliance with Nathan, who dominates the northeast, to defeat Enzo. Lucas returns to power in 2008, but notices too late that Nathan has ideas beyond the station allotted to him.

Launching a three-pronged attack on Lucas from the northeast, southeast and northwest, Nathan grabs the throne in 2010. But his hold on power is too precarious, and Lucas still has enough stamina to regain the top spot.

That result has been achieved at great cost. In 2011, France is a house divided against itself. Nathan holds the north, northeast, the Pays de la Loire, and Languedoc-Roussillon in the south. The aim is clear: to attack towards the centre, and unite the disparate territories in a final victory. But Enzo has similarly placed possessions, and surely, similar plans.

Lucas won't give up without a fight, and may use the newest bunch of candidates for the top job against his old enemies: Adam in Paris, Nolan in Brittany, Gabriel in Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, and Lisandru in Corsica...

Many thanks to Milan Prabhu for sharing these maps on Facebook. See an animated version here. Source: Les Décodeurs, an online behind-the-news section of Le Monde, with an excellent data visualisation segment.

Strange Maps #763

Got a strange map? Let me know at

(1) The name's enduring appeal was based on the popularity of John the Baptist and John the Apostle (considered by the Church Fathers as identical to John the Evangelist). It derives from the Hebrew Yohanan ('graced by Yah') or Yehohanan ('Yahweh is gracious'). Some popular vernacular variations include Ivan (Russian and other Slavic languages); Jan, Johan(n) and Hans (German and other Germanic languages); João and Ivo (Portuguese); Jens (Danish); Juan (Spanish); Ian, Jock (Scottish); and Sean (Irish).

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

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Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.