Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language
 
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Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language [Paperback]

Robin Dunbar
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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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.

From 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. He admits this will strike most readers as an absurdly low figure, but he 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. Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From 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, not reviewed) 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? -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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 Times Book Review)

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 New York Post 2000-09-24)

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

[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 Washington Post Book World)

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. (New York Times)

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 Boston Globe)

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 Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences)

Dunbar has written provocative book about the sociology of language use...[A] fascinating study. (Library Journal)

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. (Booklist)

A novel and exciting argument--delivered with great verve--about the evolution of human intelligence and language. (Alison Jolly, Princeton University)

Fascinating theories and cogent insights into why and how we use language, as learned from our simian relatives. Dunbar 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...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? (Kirkus Reviews)

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 The European Legacy)

About 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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