Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language by Robin Dunbar

Harvard University Press

Conventional wisdom about how language progressed from grunts to gerunds has long favored the "there's-a-herd-of-bison-down-by-the-lake" view. That is, language arose largely to help males coordinate their hunting efforts. While it seems plausible, Robin Dunbar, Professor of Psychology at the University of Liverpool, neatly debunks this and countless other theories, partly in order to advance his own. Gossip, he claims, is the reason speech originated.

Dunbar builds his case by examining the social interactions of our kissing cousin, the primate--especially grooming, which apparently involves more than mere fastidiousness about personal hygiene. In addition to getting a pleasant buzz out of the deal (it releases opiates in the brains of the recipients), monkeys form important social alliances while nit-picking--relationships that provide security and protection from both predators and vicious infighting. As our ancestors advanced up the evolutionary ladder, they hung out in larger groups, Dunbar maintains. This, in turn, necessitated a more efficient way of relating. (If modern humans relied on physical grooming to maintain relationships, Dunbar estimates we'd spend 40 percent of our time engaged in "mutual mauling.")

Gossip, he claims, is really just vocal grooming. And while men spend as much of their conversational time (60-70 percent) gossiping as do women, discussion of work, academic, or ethical matters increases by nearly 20 percent when women are in sight. Dunbar and other social scientists attribute this to "lekking," leks being the areas in which males gather to advertise their qualities as potential mates to females. In the end, even if you remain unswayed by the logic of his arguments, Dunbar nonetheless succeeds in reminding us of how short the climb has been from our ancestral tree.

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