Big Think Interview With Juan Enriquez
Juan Enriquez, a bestselling author, businessman, and academic, is recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on the economic and political impacts of life sciences. He is currently Chairman and CEO of Biotechonomy LLC, a life sciences research and investment firm, as well as the Managing Director of Excel Venture Management. He was the Founding Director of the Harvard Business School Life Sciences Project and author of the global bestseller "As the Future Catches You: How Genomics & Other Forces are Changing Your Life, Work, Health & Wealth" (Crown Business, 2001). His most recent book is "The Untied States of America: Polarization, Fracturing, and Our Future" (Crown Business, 2005).
Question: What is the common thread in your diverse career?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: So, I’ve always been interested in why countries appear and disappear. And the curious thing is how often it happens. So, three-quarters of the flags, borders and anthems sitting at the U.N. today were not there 60 some-odd years ago. And today in Europe, you’re talking about whether England is going to remain a part of Great Britain, or Scotland, or Wales, or parts of France, or parts of Italy, or parts of Belgium, or parts of Holland. And as countries appear and disappear, then I began to ask, what makes countries successful? And it turns out, after a long slog through geographies and ethnicities and all kinds of variables, it’s the ability to adapt and adopt, what Darwin talked about. That really makes a difference. And that led me to technology, and then I ended up in genomics.\r\n
Question: How can ordinary people learn the “language” of genomics?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: The really important thing is that one not remain illiterate. The difference between people who can read and write and those who can’t is just absolutely astronomical. The problem is, the definition of who’s literate and who’s not keeps changing. So, in Neanderthal times, if you painted on a cave wall, that was enough to transmit how you hunt, how you eat, how you cook, how you dress, and we can read about that. We can go to a cave wall in France, or in Argentina, and see that.\r\n
Eventually that became codified into hieroglyphs. When we did that, we standardized language and we put it on papyrus or clay and moved it. And that allowed us to have holy books. That allowed us to add military strategy, customs unions, and agricultural manuals. We went from tribes to empires because we could transmit data across space and time.\r\n
Eventually that became a 26-letter alphabet in English, 29 letters in Spanish, thousands of letters in Chinese. That alphabet allowed us to typeset, create giant books, create giant libraries, and it was enough to generate the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. But over the last 30 years what’s happened is, we’ve moved into 1’s and 0’s and in doing so, we took every letter written and spoken in English, every word written and spoken in English, and put it into a 1 and a 0, and French, and Cyrillic, and Aramaic, and Chinese, and every language on the planet.\r\n
The second thing that happened is we collapsed every bit of music in every tonal scale and every photograph, and every video, and every film, and every website, and in the process of doing that, we can now take huge libraries and bring them into our laptops. That has to change the way in which we earn our keep, it’s changed the global economy, it’s changed who is rich and who is poor to the point where I’d argue that most of the wealth generated over the last 30 years has come out of the ability to use and apply the 1’s and 0’s, digital code. That’s where the e-Bay’s, Microsoft’s, Hewlett-Packard’s, Google’s, etc., etc., etc., come from.\r\n
Now what’s beginning to happen is we are beginning to shift into life code. And in the process of shifting into life code, every life form on this planet is coded in a double helix with a sugar phosphate backbone. And that codes whether you become a bacteria, an orange, a lemon, a Lemur, a Cow, a sheep, a human being, a politician, any one of these things is all coded in this four-letter code. There are subtleties to it, there’s epigenomics, there’s expression, there’s a whole series of things, but basically it’s four letters making all life forms.\r\n
As we understand that, just as from the 1970’s onward, digital code started to drive the global economy, now life code is beginning to be the fundamental driver of the global economy over the next 10, 20, 30 years.\r\n
Question: What business opportunities does genomics create?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: So, there’s always a question when you invest. Are you too early, are you too late, or are you just right? And there was a lot of hype about life sciences, around the sequencing of the human genome and a lot of people concluded that’s not really there. But by the way, there was a lot of hype around the digital revolution just about the time of 2000 and the human genome, and it turns out that some of the world’s biggest, most powerful companies are the survivors post that crash.\r\n
Something similar is beginning to happen in the ability to read and write life code because not only are we reading life code, we’re beginning to copy it through cloning, and we’re beginning to write, and in the measure that we do that, boy, you can build a lot of very powerful companies in a short period of time. Our new fund just had its first exit about 20 months after being formed. And that’s a company that does nano-particles in very small test tubes which brings down the cost of experiments, around 100 or 1,000-fold basis.\r\n
But there’s other agreements and other companies that are growing very quickly. Synthetic Genomics that was founded with Venter is a company that just signed a $600 million agreement with Exxon Mobile to begin to try to make gasoline out of algae. The stapled peptide company we work with which keeps peptides, which are like Slinkys, on the side of cells in a single shape, is also turning out to be a very important technology and it at least increases a number of places where you can place a drug, work a drug by about 3-fold. And that is very valuable to pharmaceutical companies, so they’re very excited about this. And it’s a really neat period because on the one hand, you get all these discoveries coming at you and on the other hand, you have all these smart people wanting to do stuff with this new code. So, coming to the office every day is a little like Christmas.\r\n
Question: What are the greatest benefits genomics could bring humanity?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: You know, it’s very hard to think through everything that was going to happen because you had the ability to build an integrated circuit. So, people thought this was a computer IT gig, and that will flow through those nerdy departments and it won’t come into fashion photography, it won’t come into television, it won’t come into my daily communications, it won’t come into my telephone, my microphone, my light control, my microwave radio, my – I mean, just name it. Try to live without something digital – without digital code for about two hours, very hard to do if you’re awake.\r\n
I think something similar is going to happen as the ability to read and write life code begins to wind its way through the economy. Because you’re going to see impacts on assurance, you’re going to see impacts on chemicals, how we feed ourselves, how we feed animals, how we dress ourselves, how we travel, the type of IT that’s done, the amount of volume data, how hospitals operate, how long we live. It’s actually very hard to find an area of the economy that doesn’t fundamentally change in the measure that we are able to read and write life code.\r\n
Question: Will there be any technological limits to the genomics revolution?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: You know, we’re just starting to scratch this revolution. In the same way it was unimaginable for my grandparents to go to Europe for a day and come back; or in the same way as operators used to interrupt you because it was long distance calling. So, you’d be on the phone and they’d just interrupt and a three-minute phone call could cost $200.\r\n
We’re beginning to enter an era where it gets really cheap and really fast to begin to do things like make fuels, and make textiles, and make extra teeth for ourselves. And we’re beginning to think about how we regrow our bladders. And we’re beginning to think of how we regrow our ears. And it’s not going to surprise me if our kids end up running on the beach in Florida when they’re 100 years old on regrown body parts with a much higher quality of life than we can begin to imagine. And again, that’s easier to see when you’re my age and you have grandparents who got old when they were 60, and you look at today’s 80-year-olds and a lot of them are competing in 5Ks, or 10Ks. It’s a very different world.\r\n
Question: What are the main risks posed by the genomics revolution?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: So, anytime you bring a really powerful new technology to market there are multiple implications. You start changing the relative position of countries. When you brought the Industrial Revolution in, all of a sudden India and China went from being the dominant global powers to being powers dominated by those who understood how to apply this new technology.\r\n
When you brought the digital revolution in, all of a sudden, you could build a country like Singapore and take that country, which had the income per capita of Ghana in 1965, and make it something similar to the United States in one generation. As these things roll through the economy, who’s rich and who’s poor can shift very quickly depending on who is literate in this stuff. So, one of the risks is, our educational system doesn’t adapt, our society doesn’t adapt and we become illiterate in the world’s dominant language.\r\n
The second risk that you’ve got to think about is, these technologies are so powerful that, like the Industrial Revolution, they can have unintended consequences. Like the agricultural revolution, it can have unintended consequences. And we really have to think about how we apply them and one of the first things we should be doing is pushing a non-proliferation treaty that has real teeth to the application of life code for offensive purposes. That’s something that we have to get much more serious about.\r\n
The last thing that I think, and there’s a long list of these, but the three main things; the last thing I think we’ve got to think about is unintended consequences and I think there it is particularly important to have genes that are self-regulating that cutoff, that don’t reproduce outside of very specific environments and that allows us to understand what these things are doing and where they’re growing and to have control conditions on where they’re growing.\r\n
Having said all that, unless this is the first technology that humans have every invented that doesn’t harm a human being, we are going to have accidents. And we’ve had those with staircases, we’ve had those with airplanes, we’ve had those with automobiles, we’ve had it with electricity, and steel. I think the benefits are of such an order of magnitude that it is well worth pursuing this life science revolution and those countries that do it will be the dominant countries.\r\n
Question: How can this technology be kept out of the wrong hands?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: You know, there’s a whole series of debates as to how open you should be with this technology. So, the question then becomes do you create a super class of people who understand how life works, and how to apply it and how to read it and how to write it and how to keep everybody else in the dark, or do you broadly let this technology out there. This came to a head when scientists sequenced the 1918 flu, which killed so many people. Like, 1918 or 1914.\r\n
And in the measure that you begin to understand how that flu is constructed, what makes that flu, then you also begin to understand how other diseases are made. And then there was a second debate when people sequenced smallpox. Should you allow people to understand how smallpox is made? After a lot of debate and a lot of work, what people decided is, it makes a great deal of sense to be open in the system and allow people to begin to build the vaccines against this, to build better flu vaccines. I mean, we’re still making them in eggs that come out of chickens. And we can see the consequences of that with the current H1N1 lack of vaccines.\r\n
Whereas, if we allow this code to go out and we let it be open source, then we’re going to put together something where a lot people can be working on solving these problems.\r\n
Now, will there be some bad eggs out there? Yeah, there are. And there are bad eggs in a series of places. I think we need some control of the assembly mechanisms and the specific gene sequences ordered to assemble some of these things in such a way that if somebody starts making something particularly nasty, we (a) find out about it and we (b) ask, “What are you doing,” and, “Why are you doing this?”\r\n
Question: Has globalization accelerated the pace of innovation?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: So, a few years ago, Hal Varian came up with a really interesting piece of work called "How Much Information," and he and his team started to quantify how much data humans are creating. And the conclusion is that over the next four years, or less, we are going to at least double the amount of data generated by the human species across time. I repeat that again. Over the next four years, we are likely to double the amount of data generated by a human species across time.\r\n
That sounds absolutely ludicrous because when you think of all the words and all the songs and all the books and everything else. Yes, but then come back to your own life. In the measure you start to think, how many photographs did you take when you were using Kodak film? And how many photographs you are taking now that you can use your little cell phone and use your digital camera and just download it onto your computer, which by the way, you’ve got to double the memory because you’ve got so many pictures on there?\r\n
And then what happens when the data density comes to film? And what happens with the new Flip Cameras where you can have high definition television come out of a $200 device that everybody’s gong to be wandering around with, and then you start thinking what’s happening in medical imaging, and then you start thinking about what’s happening in astronomical imaging, and then you think of the number of books that were published across time versus the number of blogs that are published today. And you begin to get a sense of how something that sounds wild and outrageous is actually something that all of us are living every day.\r\n
Question: Why do you believe America is in danger of balkanizing itself?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: So, I wrote a book called “The Untied States of America,” as opposed to the United States of America, in 2004 and published in 2005. I did so with one very specific objective in mind. I have extraordinary admiration for Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. The really strange thing is, over the last 60 years, as we tripled the number of countries in the developed and the developing world, in Europe, in Africa, in Asia. The Americas has been a relatively stable continent. The last truly new border we have is Panama in 1903.\r\n
I can’t tell you how unusual that is. During a period of time when Italy is talking about splitting northern and southern Italy, France is talking about splitting with Corsica and Normandy, England is talking about splitting with Wales and Scotland and England. And it goes on and on and on. This has been this oasis and anytime you see an outline of that magnitude, you have to ask yourself, why? Particularly given that Canada came in within about .02% of a vote of splitting itself. So, it could even happen to the north of us.\r\n
The second reason why it’s important to begin to even consider whether countries can become something that looks very different is because people tend to take their countries for granted. So, they assume, “It’ll never happen here.” One very simple example and one way to get students to thinking about these things; ask your friends how many stars will be in the U.S. flag in 50 years? And the reason why that’s a reasonable question is because there has never been a President of the United States who’s been buried under the same flag he was born under.\r\n
The U.S. started with no stars. In fact, it started with a completely different flag. The last two were added in 1959, Hawaii and Alaska. Until there’s a President born after ’59, that dies with no change in the flag and no change in the number of states, that will continue to be a true statement. So, if there hasn’t been continuity, why would you assume continuity over the next 50 years? And if there is incontinuity then you have to ask yourself, does it get bigger? Which is the history of this country, or, like almost every other country on the planet, except Brazil, does it get smaller?\r\n
And the first chapter of this book in 2005, unfortunately, said one of the things that the United States is going to face, and it’s going to be really ugly, is a financial crisis and it’s coming because of an excess of debt, because of an excess of leverage, because it’s going to be concentrated in a few organizations that have way too much power and very little supervision outside of us. And it’s probably going to be triggered by a real estate crisis. Because real estate prices are way out of whack with what people earn.\r\n
When people go back and they read that first chapter from 2005, it turns out to be not inaccurate, to use a double negative. I hope the rest of the book is not accurate. I wrote that book so people wouldn’t take their country for granted and make sure that their country – they start taking care of it. You don’t do that by increasing the national debt by $2 trillion. You don’t do that by putting out $24 trillion in loan guarantees. You don’t do that by not re-regulating financial institutions that were too large to begin with and now have gotten even larger and it’s even more dangerous for them to fail.\r\n
Question: How can this fragmentation be prevented?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: So, the thing that’s really important to understand is, the last thing an empire traditionally does is drive itself into bankruptcy. You’ve seen that with the great empires. When you go and you tour Europe, or you go and you tour Egypt, or you go and you tour Iraq, or you go and you tour Afghanistan, or India, or whatever. Governments get to a point where they’re illegitimate because people just give up on them as far as being leaders who have their country’s interests at heart.\r\n
The second thing that happens is they start borrowing an incredible amount and figure the next generation will just pay for it.\r\n
And then the third thing they do is they get conservative and quit adopting new technologies. They start saying, “I’m just going to shut the door and keep things as they are.”\r\n
When countries do that, they become wonderful subjects of archeology museums. They create wonderful ruins. But they don’t survive and they don’t survive for very long. If they do survive, they have far less independence.\r\n
So, one of the things we have to do today, is we have to look at where we’re spending our money and about four-fifth’s of the federal budget is being spend on healthcare, even before the healthcare reform. It’s being spent on Medicare, on Medicaid, on Social Security, on defense spending, and on interest. And unless we address those things, every bit of discretional spending, every bit of privatization doesn’t make a dent in what is already an overspending. We are living way above our means. And we have to get serious about living within our means. And if we don’t’ send that signal to other countries, what’s going to happen is we’re going to erode the value of the dollar, people are not going to trust this currency, and like so many other currencies before us, we will go from being the reserve currency of the planet to being the currency that continuously devalues. And boy, that’s an unpleasant place and an unpleasant legacy for our kids.\r\n
Question: What countries are thriving during the global recession?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: One of the most extraordinary trends in the world—you know, there’s a couple of people that, if I had a wand and could put statues in different places, one of the statues would go to a man who just died, called Norman Borlaug, who came up with the Green Revolution. We traditionally in this world didn’t have enough calories to feed all of us and had huge famines, not just in Africa, but had them across India, across Southeast Asia, and across China. Because of Borlaug’s work at Simit and because of this we have huge excess, until very recently, in agricultural produce and the prices went through the floor. But there was more than enough to feed everybody in the world, if we could distribute it right. So, Borlaug would be one figure that I think fundamentally changed India, China, all of Southeast Asia, and gave them the time to be able to build on other things.\r\n
The second person who I think one has to think about building a statue to is Deng Xiaoping, who took a country that had traditionally dominated the world economy, had traditionally dominated education in learning, exploration and science, and that country went into a 500-year sabbatical and it wasn’t pretty on the income per capita. The first time I went to China in 1977 was in the low 100’s, and everybody was wearing the same things, and the richest of the rich had bicycles, and you would walk in those streets and a thousand people would follow you because nobody had ever seen a westerner in some of these parts.\r\n
Compare that with China today. China has, all of a sudden, found a way of putting the best of the best to work to build an economy that is growing at 10% to 12% per year, and now India is following. And those changes and how quickly they’ve come out of this mess, how little debt they have, is really important. It doesn’t mean they have perfect governance; in fact, there is much to be improved upon. But it does mean that they are catching up very quickly, and it does mean that as you begin to think about the United States in the context and Europe in the context of the world economy, it’s going to be a very different ballgame 10 years out and 20 years out.\r\n
Question: How can your native Mexico end its economic struggles?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: So one of the things that really worries me, in part about Mexico, in part about Latin America, and in part about the Hispanic population in the U.S. and Canada. It’s this lack of awareness of this whole science world.\r\n
When I grew up, I simply didn’t have mentors that said, “Science is important. Science helps you build a country. Science makes a country powerful.” And that’s such a simple thought, but when you think about what’s powered Taiwan and Korea and Silicon Valley and Cambridge. In part it’s this wonderful culture and architecture and food and art, and everything else. But the gasoline for all that stuff is startup companies in science.\r\n
To use the latest figures in the U.S., venture capital is about .02% of the U.S. economy invested, and it accounts for 11% of total U.S. jobs and 21% of U.S. economic output. And the reason why is because these companies can get very big, very quickly.\r\n
Now, if you don’t have that science and technology and brains as an input, as you don’t have in large parts of Latin America, if you don’t focus your education on that, if you don’t find your 10,000 best scientists, but you do find your 10,000 best soccer players, the consequences are, you become a World Cup Champion in Soccer, like Brazil, but you don’t become Korea, which earned 1/5 of what a Mexican did in 1975 and today earns five times more.\r\n
Within the United States, there is a real division between the PhDs given in science and math to the Asian community, to the traditional white community, and then to African-Americans and Hispanics. And until African-Americans and Hispanics can get serious, not just about area studies, which are important, but also about science and technology, they’re not going to generate that wealth and that job within those communities. And that has absolutely devastating consequences for the places where people live, for the jobs and for the wealth.\r\n
Question: What lessons did you learn in developing Mexico City that could apply to U.S. cities?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: So, there are few jobs in the world that are more fun than being the head of Urban Development for a great and thriving city. I mean, it is just – cities are magical things. You know the energy in them. You have to walk the streets in any borough here and you can see between what was in this city in the 1970’s and where it is today and how much more energy there is and how much more just sheer; “We’re going to get through it. We’re going to do it. We’re going to build it.” I mean, it’s really neat.\r\n
When that fails, when you get a Detroit, when the average price of a house in Detroit last year was about $7,000 for houses sold. There’s the opposite effect. So, being the head of and urban development corporation for a city like Mexico City is a wonderful job because you get to build a National Children’s Museum, the National Zoo, the National Auditorium, a Tech City of 400,000 people. It’s a nifty place to sit.\r\n
It’s much harder to do that job today because drugs and insecurity have become so prevalent, because other countries have moved so far ahead in technology and we haven’t changed the education system. Because Mexico bet on the United States for about 90% of our exports while Brazil and other diversified into Asia and into Europe. And frankly, we haven’t been able to generate the jobs that keep people at work in the U.S.\r\n
The interesting that’s happening is you’re beginning to get these – it’s not a flat world, it’s a world that, to quote Richard Florida, “is getting very spiky.” There are certain zip codes that generate a disproportionate share of patents, of startups, of wealth, of jobs. And it’s really important if other parts of the country are going to want to create these tech centers. Want to create these life science cities, these digital cities. That they begin to understand what the ecosystem looks like, what the different pieces that you put together will look like? What has to happen in that city, because it isn’t, you build a building, it isn’t you, put some money behind venture. There is a massive ecosystem that has to get built that looks like a biosphere. And the various parts of that biosphere better be there.\r\n
Question: How do you predict New York City will change in the next few decades?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: New York City is a fascinating place because it’s very good at using the energy in attracting some of the best and the brightest from everywhere. The housing crisis may not be the worst thing that’s happened to New York City because it was becoming impossible for some of the young doctors, for some of the young artists, for some of the people that make the city so special to be able to live here.\r\n
One of the lessons that I hope people will take out of this is the extreme dependence simply on the financial sector is really dangerous. And it can begin to look like Detroit because, as you recall in the 1960’s, the dominant technology leaders, business people on the planet lived in Detroit.\r\n
But if you depend on a single industry, if you don’t continuously upgrade it, if that industry is not producing real wealth, if it’s simply shuffling paper from here to here in a very efficient manner sometimes, that’s not enough and that’s not where you begin to get the rest of your jobs. So, it is important that New York, in addition to its fashion, and finance, and tourism, and communications infrastructure, also begin developing venture infrastructure that’s for real.\r\n
You don’t see this in a number of startups in New York City, in Manhattan certainly not and in the boroughs, even though you have the basic input which is these extraordinary brains at Columbia, at Rockefeller, at City University of New York, at NYU. You have a core of these brains that should be generating startups in robotics, startups in nanotechnologies, and startups in life science. You don’t see the same type of energy that you’re seeing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or that you’re seeing in San Diego, or that you’re seeing in parts of Silicon Valley. And this overwhelming dominance of a financial sector. If that gets reinforced post this crisis, it’s dangerous for New York, and if there isn’t some sort of regulation on this financial system, it’s also dangerous for the U.S. and the world.\r\n
Question: What keeps you up at night?\r\n
Juan Enriquez: You know, the thing that keeps me most awake is the desire and curiosity to learn more.\r\n
I sit there and I think, “I didn’t get through all of this, I didn’t learn more about that, I forgot to follow through on this link. There was this really interesting idea that I could have followed through on.” There is so much extraordinary opportunity if you’re curious, if you’re interested.\r\n
It’s not fear that keeps me up. I mean, every generation has thought, this is the worst generation; the world’s going to hell in a hand basket. The reality is, people are living longer, and they’re living better. There are less interstate conflicts today than there have been traditionally throughout history. Yeah, the economy is a mess. Yes, government has done some stupid things. Yes, there has to be some more regulation. But our kids have this incredible buffet of they can work in genomics, they can work in pre-omics, or they can work in robotics, or they can work in this, or they can work in that. And within the next five years there will be entirely new industries that come out of nowhere that kids are working in that would have been inconceivable when they started college. Not when we started college.\r\n
And so, it’s such an extraordinary time to be alive that you just don’t want to miss it. I mean, it’s a really neat historical period. There’s a creativity, a power, an energy, an ability to do things unlike any other period in history. It’s a little bit like sitting in the Renaissance, but multiplied a thousand-fold. And if you had a front row seat at the Renaissance, you would have seen Machiavelli come by plotting, and you would have seen murders in the streets, you would have seen violence, you have seen people burning books and it would have looked like the world was a horrible place, but that’s where all these incredible stuff we’re still living with comes out of.\r\n
And now we have an opportunity to create that.
Recorded on November 9, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
A conversation with the Biotechonomy CEO and Managing Director of Excel Venture Management.
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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 genocide? 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, (Slovic 2007).¹ 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."²
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.'"³
The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number⁴, 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.
"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.
"All this is set out in various articles and books. The two most obvious are: Dunbar (2016) Human Evolution. Oxford University Press (and) Dunbar (2014). The social brain: psychological underpinnings and implications for the structure of organizations. Current Directions in Psychological Research 24: 109-114."
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% 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% in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145." ⁵
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.
In a paper,⁶ 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."⁶
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 (Powell et all., 2012)"
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.
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."⁸
(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.
¹ Psychic Numbing and Genocide, Slovic, 2007 https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2007/11/slovic.aspx
² The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, 2017 http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190464684.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780190464684-e-20
³ The More Who Die, the Less We Care: Psychic Numbing and Genocide
⁴ Dunbar's Number https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number
⁵ The Social Brain: Psychological Underpinnings and Implications for the Structure of Organizations http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~schaller/358Readings/Dunbar2014.pdf
⁶Escaping affect: how motivated emotion regulation creates insensitivity to mass suffering. (Cameron, Payne 2011) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21219076
⁷ Stanford paper: "Empathy for the social suffering of friends and strangers recruits distinct patterns of brain activation"
⁸ European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood https://books.google.com/books?id=EAYqDwAAQBAJ&pg=PT115&lpg=PT115&dq=%E2%80%9CTechniques,+which+could+raise+compassion+amongst+the+viewers,+and+which+prevail+on+New+at+Ten&source=bl&ots=HgZpkKc-u5&sig=ACfU3U31FtWtYZby8QD9XQWR_8qMIHgnzA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj8ndu05dngAhXwnuAKHVFcDHcQ6AEwAHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9CTechniques%2C%20which%20could%20raise%20compassion%20amongst%20the%20viewers%2C%20and%20which%20prevail%20on%20New%20at%20Ten&f=false
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