Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language

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Overview

Apes and monkeys, humanity's closest kin, differ from other animals in the intensity of their social 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, e-mail, or any other communication technology. As Dunbar shows, the impersonal world of cyberspace will not fulfill our primordial need for face-to-face contact.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
There is no denying that Dunbar (The Trouble With Science) makes something of a splash in the field of evolutionary psychology when he argues that the main impetus behind the evolution of language is the human need to gossip. Of course, readers should not be fooled by the seemingly flip use of the term 'gossip,' since Dunbar's gossip refers to any type of social conversation. For Dunbar gossip constitutes the linguistic equivalent of grooming, the means by which primates, especially chimpanzees and baboons, establish relations within a group. Dunbar checks into research in the fields of cognitive psychology, primatology, endocrinology, linguistics, and neurology to argue that the growth in the size of nomadic human groups (from the 40-60 for apes to about 150 for our human ancestors) and our neocortex best explains the development of language. In Dunbar's formulation language performed the important function of holding these large groups together by substituting the energy-efficient "vocal grooming" for the more time-taxing physical act. With vocal grooming, early humanity could now move in larger groups, which afforded them protection from predators, and still have time to gather food over large areas. Concisely and clearly written for lay readers, Dunbar exhibits a gift for argument and explanation most science writers would give their right hand for. And while the penultimate chapter overreaches in its sociobiological claims, explaining in evolutionary terms phenomena that seem more cultural and economic in origin, one still admires Dunbar's ability to synthesize research in so many fields without taxing our interest.
Library Journal
Dunbar has written a provocative book about the sociology of language use. He begins with a discussion of primate behavior, physiology, and Darwinian evolution. Then he shows the importance of the theory of mind and intentionality in discussing the difference between other species of primates and Homo sapiens. He disagrees with Piaget's ideas on human development and develops a different interpretation. He explains the beginning and uses of language as grooming and gossip, highlighted by the abilities and limits of language as part of human life. In the last chapter he gives some implications of his ideas for changing and understanding social dynamics. -- Gene Shaw, New York Public Library
Library Journal
Dunbar has written a provocative book about the sociology of language use. He begins with a discussion of primate behavior, physiology, and Darwinian evolution. Then he shows the importance of the theory of mind and intentionality in discussing the difference between other species of primates and Homo sapiens. He disagrees with Piaget's ideas on human development and develops a different interpretation. He explains the beginning and uses of language as grooming and gossip, highlighted by the abilities and limits of language as part of human life. In the last chapter he gives some implications of his ideas for changing and understanding social dynamics. -- Gene Shaw, New York Public Library
Kirkus Reviews
Fascinating theories and cogent insights into why and how we use language, as learned from our simian relatives. Dunbar (The Trouble With Science) is a psychologist at the University of Liverpool, but his lucid Darwinian forays into the evolution of language draw widely on the fields of anatomy, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology. Monkeys spend up to 20 percent of their day grooming, and they are not just nit-picking: The activity allows them to communicate trust, form protective social alliances, and gossip, as it were, to keep track of who's monkeying around with whom. Using adaptation to environment as the evolutionary trigger, Dunbar shows how human language might have evolved to replace grooming when societies got too large to keep up with important information. Such gossip might warn a friend or relative about repeating a mistake or trusting the wrong clan members in a key social activity. And while humans don't depend on their hairdressers for protection from leopards, Dunbar points out that actual grooming and verbal ego-massaging release natural opiates that keep us high. While his primary focus is on humans, Dunbar weaves in a considerable (indeed, slightly excessive) amount of material about the linguistic abilities and social behavior of other species, including the vampire bat, the most loquacious sub-primate. While stressing the complex talents of our fellow primates, he concedes that 'if the apes have some form of science or religion, it cannot be very sophisticated.' Dunbar concludes with a fascinating meditation on clan loyalty and the development of dialects and a variety of languages. An enjoyable romp through the past few hundred thousand years.Where else could you learn that it takes a village to grow a neocortex or that, to reproduce the best genes, women network and men advertise?
New York Times Book Review

At the heart of this fresh and witty book is the thesis that gossip is the human version of primate grooming...Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language is in many ways a wonderful book, and its ideas deserve an airing. Mr. Dunbar is a clear thinker and a polymath, marshaling evidence for his thesis from such varied fields as primatology, linguistics, anthropology and genetics.
— Natalie Angier

New York Post

If you've ever wondered why we gossip, read Dr. Robin Dunbar's Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Humans are the only primates that use language, and Dunbar theorizes that we gossip to strengthen our social status because we can't groom each other.
— Johanna Huden

The Nation

Dunbar asks interesting questions, provides a fresh perspective on an old problem and gives readers a zippy intellectual ride.
— Jo Ann C. Gutin

Washington Post Book World

[Dunbar's] is an intoxicating idea, somewhere between brilliant and loopy. On the way to fleshing out this bracing thesis, Dunbar gives us what he calls a 'magical mystery tour' of scientific disciplines, including neurology, linguistics, evolution and more...[H]is ideas and language can be delightful.
— John Schwartz

New York Times
We're chatterers and snoops, every one of us, according to this fresh, witty book, and there's an evolutionary reason: gossip, like primate grooming, helps cement social ties.
Boston Globe

This book, which gives a deep insight into the emerging field of evolutionary psychology, is about as smart as they come. It tackles the related questions of brain size and the evolution of language, and relates our love of gossip and small talk to the endless grooming routines of other primates. It's 'Dilbert' for those who want to know why.
— David Warsh

Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

Robin Dunbar's Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, is a highly enjoyable speculation, in Neo-Darwinian mode, of how and why humans came to have language. The argument of the book is the now not unfamiliar argument that the point of talking is being able to make small talk (the 'gossip' of the title), and that small talk produces social cohesion and mitigates social conflict. In other words, it does what primatologists have long claimed grooming does for non-human primates...The book is frequently humorous and charming, always readable, and often modest in tone...The citations to his own and others' original research and the review of the literature on non-human primate language and grooming practices, are part of what make this book well suited for a general readership, but also appropriate for a more specialized academic and student readership.
— Charis Cussins

Booklist
It may seem a stretch to connect the origin of speech with the grooming behavior of baboons, but Dunbar's research has persuaded him of such a link. This intriguing book presents his thesis, which he formulated after noting a relationship between maximum group size and the ratio of neocortical tissue to total brain volume. Dunbar then extrapolates to humans, proposing 150 as the upper range of people any one person can personally maintain relationships with via our equivalent of grooming: gossipy chitchat...[H]e argues the case, in evolutionary biological terms, in an elucidating and entertaining manner. How language began fascinates most of us, and consistently delightful are Dunbar's excursions into paleoanthropological anatomy, exigencies of nomadic living, philology of root languages, and the conversational styles at cocktail parties. A relaxed, concise presentation of an evolving theory of linguistic evolution.
Princeton University Alison Jolly
A novel and exciting argument--delivered with great verve--about the evolution of human intelligence and language.
The European Legacy

The "grooming" of this book's title is when primates leisurely go over each other's fur and skin, picking and pinching in a practice that produces not only mutual pleasure but also social bonding. The "gossip" is supposed to be what happens when humans do much the same thing with language. And the "evolution" gets us from one stage to the other…So could human language have replaced grooming? This central hypothesis is important because it involves a vision of what language is all about; it may stand or fall on the strength of that vision.
— Anthony Pym

New York Times Book Review - Natalie Angier
At the heart of this fresh and witty book is the thesis that gossip is the human version of primate grooming...Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language is in many ways a wonderful book, and its ideas deserve an airing. Mr. Dunbar is a clear thinker and a polymath, marshaling evidence for his thesis from such varied fields as primatology, linguistics, anthropology and genetics.
New York Post - Johanna Huden
If you've ever wondered why we gossip, read Dr. Robin Dunbar's Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Humans are the only primates that use language, and Dunbar theorizes that we gossip to strengthen our social status because we can't groom each other.
The Nation - Jo Ann C. Gutin
Dunbar asks interesting questions, provides a fresh perspective on an old problem and gives readers a zippy intellectual ride.
Washington Post Book World - John Schwartz
[Dunbar's] is an intoxicating idea, somewhere between brilliant and loopy. On the way to fleshing out this bracing thesis, Dunbar gives us what he calls a 'magical mystery tour' of scientific disciplines, including neurology, linguistics, evolution and more...[H]is ideas and language can be delightful.
Boston Globe - David Warsh
This book, which gives a deep insight into the emerging field of evolutionary psychology, is about as smart as they come. It tackles the related questions of brain size and the evolution of language, and relates our love of gossip and small talk to the endless grooming routines of other primates. It's 'Dilbert' for those who want to know why.
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences - Charis Cussins
Robin Dunbar's Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, is a highly enjoyable speculation, in Neo-Darwinian mode, of how and why humans came to have language. The argument of the book is the now not unfamiliar argument that the point of talking is being able to make small talk (the 'gossip' of the title), and that small talk produces social cohesion and mitigates social conflict. In other words, it does what primatologists have long claimed grooming does for non-human primates...The book is frequently humorous and charming, always readable, and often modest in tone...The citations to his own and others' original research and the review of the literature on non-human primate language and grooming practices, are part of what make this book well suited for a general readership, but also appropriate for a more specialized academic and student readership.
Alison Jolly
A novel and exciting argument--delivered with great verve--about the evolution of human intelligence and language.
The European Legacy - Anthony Pym
The "grooming" of this book's title is when primates leisurely go over each other's fur and skin, picking and pinching in a practice that produces not only mutual pleasure but also social bonding. The "gossip" is supposed to be what happens when humans do much the same thing with language. And the "evolution" gets us from one stage to the other…So could human language have replaced grooming? This central hypothesis is important because it involves a vision of what language is all about; it may stand or fall on the strength of that vision.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674363342
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/10/1997
  • Pages: 242
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

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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Table of Contents

1. Talking Heads

2. Into The Social Whirl

3. The Importance Of Being Earnest

4. Of Brains and Groups and Evolution

5. The Ghost in the Machine

6. Up Through the Mists of Time

7. First Words

8. Babel's Legacy

9. The Little Rituals of Life

10. The Scars of Evolution

Bibliography

Index

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