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Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language

4.6 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674363366
ISBN-10: 0674363361
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Why is it that among all the primates, only humans have language? According to Professor Robin Dunbar's new book, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, humans gossip because we don't groom each other. Dunbar builds his argument in a lively discussion that touches on such varied topics as the behavior of gelada baboons, Darwin's theory of evolution, computer-generated poetry, and the significance of brain size. He begins with the social organization of the great apes. These animals live in small groups and maintain social cohesion through almost constant grooming activities. Grooming is a way to forge alliances, establish hierarchy, offer comfort, or make apology. Once a population expands beyond a certain number, however, it becomes impossible for each member to maintain constant physical contact with every other member of the group. Considering the large groups in which human beings have found it necessary to live, Dunbar posits that we developed language as a substitute for physical intimacy.

Whether or not you accept Dunbar's premise, his book is worth reading, if only for its animated prose and wealth of scientific information. An obvious choice for science buffs, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language is a wonderful book for anyone with an inquiring mind and an interest in what makes the world go round. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

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 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. This fascinating study is recommended for language and psychology collections.?Gene Shaw, NYPL
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 242 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674363361
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674363366
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #978,396 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Many theories on the origin of language have been offered in recent years. They range from divine gift to something derived from hunting gestures. With no fossil evidence available, all are speculative and defensible only by logical derivation. Dunbar has offered the most likely scenario for human language. Using persuasive evolutionary roots, tied securely to observed practices of our primate cousins, he builds a coherent picture. While the foundation rests on primate grooming practices, Dunbar shows how this activity led humans developing social interactions to become language. Because we, alone among the primates, also evolved the necessary physical equipment for speech, we are the ones who produced complex languages. Dunbar's account is presented in lively style, showing his own language skills to the full.
It may seem a twisted path from scratching in your neighbour's fur to the complexities of human speech, but Dunbar clearly shows us how evolution traversed it. Part of the story lies in our adapting an upright stance and bipedal locomotion. The enlarged human brain, already given a boost by primates having a proportionally larger brain than other animals, also contributed. Our needs drove us to greater mobility leaving less time for interactive grooming. The brain's demand for resources turned grooming into a waste of valuable food gathering time. Speech was the means of retaining contact and the grooming habit was lost. The most important food gathering wasn't the hunt for meat, but the gathering of vegetables. Meat supplied only a small portion of the nutritional bulk compared to the vegetables garnered by the community's females. From this reality, Dunbar proposes speech developed more rapidly in females than in males.
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Format: Paperback
Besides the general argument that we needed to develop language to make more friends than we could make grooming, Dunbar has some interesting observations that illustrate the breadth of his work. Here are a few:
1. Monkeys developed the ability to eat unripe fruit, dooming the ancestors of apes, chimps, and humans to starvation unless we came up with a response, since we depended on ripe fruit for survival.
Our ancestors' response was to move out of the central forest and into the forest fringe, which made us more vulnerable to predators. We responded to THAT in three ways: selecting for a larger size, forming larger groups, and standing up (which allows better scanning for predators and less exposure to the heat of the sun).
2. There are lots of social species, but to truly form small-group alliances, a species must be able to imagine what other members are thinking--and thus whether a particular other is a reliable friend or likely foe in the intragroup competition for food, safety, ..., etc. Dunbar calls this a Theory of Mind, and says that only primates seem to display it regularly.
Only a Theory of Mind allows for deception ("he thinks that I think, but actually I..."), and possible deception means that there must be a reliable way to build alliances.
3. Females of many species look for an expensive commitment from prospective mates--an elaborate nest, for example, that takes a long time to build. Their implied reasoning is that even if he's tempted to stray, he won't want to go through the hassle of building another big nest. Having to groom your closest friends and allies is the same kind of commitment.
4.
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The field of sociobiology leaped into our consciousness with the seminal volume by that name, written by the famous naturalist and expert on ant societies, Edward O. Wilson. Wilson was pilloried by social scientists and political activists, who considered any biological perspective on human society to be a sacrilege (see the beautiful and stirring account of Wilson's travails in Ullica Segerstråle, Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond. Oxford University Press, 2000). Sociobiology is founded on the insight that that there are many social species, not just humans, and that the structure of social life is a major force in the tempo and pace of genetic change in social species.

In humans, social life is embodied in cultural forms that can be elaborated upon and passed from generation to generation. Thus sociobiology applied to humans leads to gene-culture coevolutionary theory, which studies the dialectical interaction between hominid genetic structure, the cultural evolution based on this genetic structure, and the effect of new levels of cultural sophistication on continued genetic evolution ---see Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus W. Feldman, Cultural Transmission and Evolution ( Princeton University Press, 1981) and Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson, Culture and the Evolutionary Process (University of Chicago Press, 1985).

One aspect of gene-culture evolution in hominids is the continual increase in brain size and complexity from hominid origins to the present. Large brains are extremely costly to evolve and maintain. Large brain size required costly restructuring of the human birth canal and led to neoteny---birth before fetal maturation---which entails extended child-rearing and protection.
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