Biological Quakerism

by Jim Wingate

As a student of human behaviour in the 'University of Strife' I'd like to share similarities I've observed between biology and Quakerism. (If you reject Darwin please feel free to reject these observations.)


In hunter-gatherer societies, e.g. tribal peoples, the world over, the communities/bands are 25 people of mixed ages. The women gather (providing 60% of the community diet, mostly vegetable matter). The men hunt (providing 40% of the community diet, meat). The community members spend about four hours a day 'working', i.e. to gather or hunt and prepare the food. They spend the rest of the day in social interaction, crafts, story-telling, meetings, rituals, self-adornment, and partying.

Five Hundred

Having built up a store of food and crafts the communities of 25s come together at particular times of year into gatherings of 500. In these big gatherings there are lots of exchanges of information, finding mates, trading, sharing, showing, big rituals, big partying and not much 'work' at all.

Too big?

When bands grow to be more than 25 people, the band tends to become unstable, to split and become two bands in different territory and they grow to 25 again.

When gatherings grow to be more than 500 people, they split to become smaller gatherings and they grow to 500 again.

Quaker Meetings

I'm lucky. I have been a member of 3 Quaker Meetings below 25 people - Cork in Ireland, Charlbury in England and Aberystwyth in Wales. All 3 have grown and have added buildings.

I have also been a member of Oxford Meeting in England with often 100 people at worship. It is interesting that several smaller sub-meetings at Oxford have emerged at under 25 people.

Quaker Schools

I have worked in 5 Quaker schools. Where classes are 25 or fewer pupils and there are 500 or fewer pupils-plus-teachers in the school, everyone knows everyone else, feels secure, mixes across ages, smiles, greets others, uses words like 'friendly', 'community', 'relaxed'. With 500 or fewer pupils-plus-teachers, the teachers' room has 25 teachers or fewer, and that too is 'relaxed', 'friendly', functions as one band. Conflicts which naturally arise are resolvable.

Where classes are more than 25 and the school is more than 500 pupils-plus-teachers, there arise factions, cliques, divisions. Conflicts (which naturally arise) seem puzzlingly unsolvable.


In a hunter-gatherer band of 25 people of mixed ages, there is usually one old person. He or she is greatly valued as the repository of information and wisdom.

In the gatherings of 500, the 20 or so old people, who have mostly known one another all their lives, are together for a short time and are very busy exchanging information and guiding rituals.

In an unnaturally large band of more than 25 people, having more than one old person devalues the old people. There are alternative repositories of (alternative) information, and alternative wisdom. Sometimes the oldies precipitate the split to two groups.

Likewise, if an initial gathering of 500 grows too big or remains fixed together too long, the old people, inevitably less valued individually, can precipitate splits.


In a band of 25 people, each is very definitely an individual. Each has different skills, and the band naturally follows the different individuals' leadership in that person's area of expertise. Individuals are tolerated as individuals even though all may disagree with them. Disagreement doesn't lead to division because each individual is needed.

When numbers grow above 25 there are alternative leaders with equal skills in one area of expertise. Disagreements can therefore 'safely' lead to division without the survival of the band suffering.

United Ireland?

Ireland Yearly Meeting gatherings seldom have more than 500 people. The evangelical Friends from Northern Ireland mix with the liberal Friends from The Republic of Ireland. Yes, there are strong disagreements. Friends in Ireland have not divided, but have remained united.

God or not 'God'

I facilitated a lot of gatherings of Junior Young Friends from the evangelical North and liberal South. I experimented. At some gatherings I mentioned God all the time and we had lots of bible study. At other gatherings I didn't mention 'God' at all and we had no bible study. There was no difference in either style of gathering. Both had very deep, spiritual worship.

Natural Spirituality

At the Junior gatherings we played 'Strange but True'. We would each share a strange thing that had happened to us or to someone we knew and trusted. Most statements were introduced by the words, "I've never told anyone this before, but ....". these sharings were amazing. Each young person had had at least one deep psychic experience in common with great mystics. Yet they hadn't been influenced to these by reading 'Lives of the Great Saints'. No. Their experiences were natural and spontaneous. I made no comment. I simply encouraged them to share.

Likewise, hunter-gatherer groups treat spiritual experiences as natural -healing, communication with the dead, telepathy, prophetic dreams, time-slip, out of the body, clairvoyance, clairaudience etc.

Statue Hysteria? No

One junior gathering happened at a time when people all over Ireland were seeing statues of the Virgin Mary weeping, waving etc. There were great, emotional pilgrimages happening, and the media were going wild.

There was a little statue of Mary a few miles from the cottage we were gathering in. Twelve of us Quakers went and sat in silence in the dark, looking at the statue for an hour or so.

When we shared, we had all experienced some communication from the experience. Some had heard words or messages they had needed to hear, some had had loving gestures which were reassuring. Some had had decisions helped by 'a presence'.

What struck me was how individual were our experiences. Nobody was surprised or went yelling to the media. We discussed the experiences and some believed the statue had spoken or moved. Some believed they had projected the experience themselves. Some of either belief felt that Saint Mary is still involved communicating and guiding. Some of either belief felt she was not, yet their needs were met.

My point is that such acceptance and tolerance is a feature both of Quakerism and of hunter-gatherer communities.

A Secret Religion?

Some Friends reading this will have been fellow volunteer workers with me in the Druse village of Beit Jan in North Galilee. The Druse are an Arabic-speaking, minority, formerly persecuted and with their own, secret religion.

When I have sat in silence with the religious Druse, the silence has felt very Quakerly. When I have shared Quaker insights with them they have looked sideways in surprise at me. "How do you know our secrets?" that look seems to say. They are the people nearest to hunter-gatherers who I have known very closely.


For 3 million years our immediate and distant ancestors were hunter-gatherer apes, hominids and humans. Only in the last 10,000 years have we given up that long-evolved way of life. We have not had time to evolve to fit the urban lives we now lead. Urbanisation is a late, uncontrolled, uncertain experiment.

Quakerism seems to me to reach back very sensibly, in many ways to the natural dynamics we have evolved to near perfection. Quakers and hunter-gatherers are non hierarchical, not male-dominated, tolerant, respect individual differences, share leadership appropriately.

Quakerism can become hell, though, when we try to hold together groups of a size to naturally split, gather for longer than is natural and try to dictate rather than simply share naturally our varied and diverse spirituality.

But then any society which lives contrary to our 3 million years of evolution can become hell.

Let's take notice of our evolutionary and our Quaker heritages. Let us see the strongest, most enduring wisdom where they coincide.