Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language

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Harvard University Press, 1998 - Language Arts & Disciplines - 230 pages
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What a big brain we have for all the small talk we make. It's an evolutionary riddle that at long last makes sense in this intriguing book about what gossip has done for our talkative species. Psychologist Robin Dunbar looks at gossip as an instrument of social order and cohesion--much like the endless grooming with which our primate cousins tend to their social relationships.

Apes and monkeys, humanity's closest kin, differ from other animals in the intensity of these relationships. All their grooming is not so much about hygiene as it is about cementing bonds, making friends, and influencing fellow primates. But for early humans, grooming as a way to social success posed a problem: given their large social groups of 150 or so, our earliest ancestors would have had to spend almost half their time grooming one another--an impossible burden. What Dunbar suggests--and his research, whether in the realm of primatology or in that of gossip, confirms--is that humans developed language to serve the same purpose, but far more efficiently. It seems there is nothing idle about chatter, which holds together a diverse, dynamic group--whether of hunter-gatherers, soldiers, or workmates.

Anthropologists have long assumed that language developed in relationships among males during activities such as hunting. Dunbar's original and extremely interesting studies suggest otherwise: that language in fact evolved in response to our need to keep up to date with friends and family. We needed conversation to stay in touch, and we still need it in ways that will not be satisfied by teleconferencing, email, or any other communication technology. As Dunbar shows, the impersonal world of cyberspace will not fulfill our primordial need for face-to-face contact.

From the nit-picking of chimpanzees to our chats at coffee break, from neuroscience to paleoanthropology, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language offers a provocative view of what makes us human, what holds us together, and what sets us apart.


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Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language

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Dunbar (psychology, Univ. of Liverpool) has written a provocative book about the sociology of language use. He begins with a discussion of primate behavior, physiology, and Darwinian evolution. Then ... Read full review

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Metodology correct, results significant, logic flawed (AFAIK).
This book is intriguing and presents valid results, but the reasoning behind lacks something:
Why should grooming be important, and why should brain size imply grooming need or the other way around? Why should it be necessary for each and every individual of a group to know each and every other individual of the same group? Not to avoid conflicts, anyways, because one only need to know enough individuals, not everybody: 'the nasty ones can be avoided in the crowd'. Personally I believe grooming is very secondary, and that the alleged "need to groom" covers up coordinated group actions and behaviors. The title itself indicates a kind of circular reasoning that misses the point that all of grooming, group sizes, intelligence and language are used for something that effectivizes the food provisioning of a group.
The methodology of interpolating brain size, correlating group size and therefrom conclude a likely time of emergence of language seems to be a valid complement to the archeology and the anatomy, especially since the former suffers from a horizon artifact similar to the apparent slow successive extinction of larger dinosaurs before the K/T border, caused by negative evidence combined with statistics. The methodology would have been stronger if the reasoning behind it would have been more forceful.


Talking Heads
Into the Social Whirl
The Importance of Being Earnest 3 5
Of Brains and Groups and Evolution
The Ghost in the Machine
Up Through the Mists of Time
First Words
Babels Legacy
The Little Rituals of Life
The Scars of Evolution
Index 219

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About the author (1998)

Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

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