Darwin-L Message Log 6:24 (February 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<6:24>From GGALE@VAX1.UMKC.EDU  Sun Feb  6 12:41:26 1994

Date: Sun, 06 Feb 1994 12:41:20 -0600 (CST)
Subject: Re: DARWIN-L digest 140
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

It was nice to see George Miller's justly famous "Magic Number Seven..." art-
icle cited by Peter Stevens--it was a major milestone in my own intellectual
development [such as THAT was!]. Miller's thesis, if memory serves, was that
each sensory channel, considered solely as an information-theoretical medium,
had its own limits on information flow-rate. Additionally, each channel had
a fairly solid breakpoint on the relation "x bits = 1 chunk". It was this
breakpoint which approximated x = 7, the magic number.

I think Peter is on to something significant, in looking for a relation between
this kind of constraint's being built into the information-processing
equipment, and the form of the output of the equipment. Or, put more
trenchantly, our knowledge schemes, for example, taxonomies, are shaped
in their form/structure by our knowing faculties, for example, our minds.
But other human activities, in addition to knowledge-making, might be
shaped by something like Miller's constraint. Administration-theory, so
far as I remember it, speaks about an administrator's "span-of-control"
being 7-8 [the Army squad has eight members]; and what's the optimum number
of people to have sitting around a round table, talking in one conversation?
Seems to me that it's about 8, as well.

Certainly this might be numerological in part. But my suspicion is that
constraints such as Miller's are and have been significant features in the
evolution of human beings. Moreover, I suspect that Miller's magic number must
be mirrored in some way in human language... but, beyond saying that, I
could say no more; luckily enough, there are lots of linguists reading these
words, among which might be one or two who actually know something about
these issues.

George Gale

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