By  Gil McRae, FWRI Director

We have all heard the phrase: “You can’t choose your family” which is usually employed when some family member distinguishes themselves through their less than stellar behavior. If we think about it, most of us would probably say that our most memorable moments of joy, pride, disappointment and heartbreak center on family. Despite our individual tendencies to be more introverted or extroverted, we evolved as social creatures and that group connection is probably more important than many of us realize.

I suspect the cynical among you bristle a bit when you hear the term “FWC Family” but I know for a fact there is meaning and substance behind those words. I have seen Executive Director Nick Wiley with his wife and boys numerous times and I assure you he would never use this term lightly. Even when they are navigating the tumultuous waters of teenage years, their closeness and commitment to each other is truly inspiring. Also, our shared sense of mission and recognition that the conservation challenges Florida faces will always outpace the resources we have available (and in some cases our ability) to meet them absolutely requires that we harness all of our collective expertise to be successful.

But can a group of thousands of FWC employees really be a family? Probably not in the literal sense but our shared values and commitment to supporting each other are certainly foundational attributes of a successful family. But we all recognize that our ability to personally connect with people in a meaningful way is limited to a certain number (our own resident extrovert Nick Wiley may be an outlier in this regard). In fact, there has been a lot written about the size of groups both from a cultural evolution sense and from the standpoint of group effectiveness.

For example, there is an evolutionary school of thought that claims that social group size in primates increased as brain size increased. In non-human primates, the social bond is often reinforced through grooming, which is not only the poster child for the invasion of personal space but also very time-consuming. There are only so many grooming partners you can take on in a day. As brain size increased, non-verbal communication and ultimately the development of language expanded the size of the core social group. Non-human primate social groups usually consist of relatively few individuals; a few dozen or perhaps one hundred at most. While resource constraints and other environmental factors are critically important, in general, these groups tend to split when the number gets beyond several dozen. In contrast, a review of group size in modern human hunter-gatherer societies around the world revealed that the mean village size is around 150 people, with the larger tribe consisting of perhaps 1200 individuals. The numbers are not radically different when we look at that uniquely human invention, the military. From Roman armies ca. 100 BCE to the current day, the size of a military company (the basic unit of an army) has remained remarkably the same at around 150 individuals (i.e. about the same size as the hunter-gatherer village). So clearly the ability of humans to connect at a level necessary to survive day-to-day or go into battle is baked into our being despite dramatic advances in technology and communication tools.

We have all had the experience of “too many cooks in the kitchen” – a spot-on euphemism for a group being too large to get the tasks at hand accomplished. My own personal version of expanding group size and unintended consequences comes from my family’s relatively short-lived attempt at holding annual reunions. Growing up in Michigan in the 1970s most of my extended family spent their days working at the “shop” which is the term they used for the group of General Motors auto manufacturing plants scattered around town (all shut down now). Their days consisted of welding the same part, tightening the same bolt or gluing the same fabric onto cars as they rolled by on the assembly line. Not surprisingly, they occupied their minds during these times of tedium by planning what sort of adventures they were going to get into when the whistle blew (yes there were actual whistles). This may have had something to do with the quality of American cars produced during that time. Needless to say, the gathering of several dozen of my extended family members for a reunion often did not end well. There would always be one or more family members who took advantage of this time (invariably facilitated by adult beverages) to air their family grievances accumulated over the decades for all to hear. I have (not so fond) memories of my mom and my aunt Betty spending the better part of one reunion in the back of a police car. While my brothers and I successfully negotiated their release (almost thwarted when my mom took a swing at a nice officer more than twice her size), by then much of the frivolity of the occasion had dissipated. At that point, we didn’t need to know about the relationship of brain size to primate social structure to figure out a smaller family gathering was in order.

While the FWC may not be a family in the literal sense of the word, we display the most admirable attributes of a family on a daily basis. Nowhere is this fact more apparent than with the tight-knit group of staff we have in the Florida Keys. As I write this, our staff in the Keys are just beginning to trickle back home from their evacuations. These last few weeks have been a whirlwind of anxiety, uncertainty and ultimately fear associated with this storm. Many staff members face significant challenges putting their lives back together. Through it all, this collective group of about 40 people has impressed me with their resilience, support for each other and positive attitude in the face of serious challenges. This group cohesion is made possible by the dedication and leadership of John Hunt, Tom Matthews, Bill Sharp, Alejandro Acosta, Bob Glazer, Kelly Sullivan and many others who have built a positive team dynamic that is second to none in this agency. To my knowledge, they do not regularly engage in social grooming, and they are a little large for a traditional family unit – but they are undeniably Family.