26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From scratching to speaking
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...
Published on June 12, 2003 by Stephen A. Haines
31 of 57 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Good on monkeys, smug and ignorant on people
A classic example of the contemporary smug scientist who assumes that anyone with any belief contrary to their own is a fool. Most obviously in his blithe assertion that if there weren't any theists in the world we'd live in a paradise: every ill in the world can be traced back to religion. While on his own professional ground discussing monkey behaviours, and a helpful...
Published on June 29, 2003 by Trevor Kettlewell
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From scratching to speaking,
This review is from: Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (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.
Dunbar's analysis doesn't stop at the edge of the African forest, but probes into parties, pub conversations and business meetings. No facet of human verbal communication has been overlooked in this survey of our speech habits. One element of our social structure lies in the size of our personal "communities". Research shows that primate communities share a viable group size of about 150 individuals. Whatever your living circumstances, a careful count will show you probably interact closely with no more than that many other people. Dunbar shows that even in the urban environment, this figure holds. It isn't the number of neighbours we have, but how many people we communicate with personally. This figure derives from deep primate evolutionary conditions in which 150 was the likely group size in which we could develop effective social skills. "Gossip", in Dunbar's view is simply a synonym for social communication. We talk more about people than we do about philosophy - or anthropology.
In conclusion, Dunbar views the current communication environment with some caution. He notes that the rise of electronic communication hasn't replaced the practices we developed on the African savanna. All the promises of closer ties with distant people don't seem to have brought us together. He notes that e-mail and "chat rooms" are rife with rage and hate messages. People insult one another with the impunity of distance. Our verbal communication is still limited to that 150 member-sized group. Dunbar vividly shows how old ideas of human evolution must be seriously reconsidered. We can't reconstruct the steps of evolution, but we can investigate the possible scenarios to draw the most logical conclusions. Dunbar does this with wit and fine scholarship. It's a thorough and effective analysis deserving close attention. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Some Interesting Tidbits Along the Way,
This review is from: Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (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. Dunbar's grad students have done studies of overheard conversations and newspaper contents, and generally discover that approximately 2/3 of a human communication is gossip about oneself or others.
5. His theory was inspired by the correlation across primate species of group size, clique size, brain size relative to body size, and neocortex size relative to brain size. According to the graphs, the natural human group size is 150 people. (His arguments attempting to prove this hypothesis are interesting, but not among his most convincing.)
This is a fun book, the kind of scientific speculation that lays out a broad theory and invites others to disprove it or come up with something better...
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Language and human nature are inextricably linked,
This review is from: Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Paperback)Prof. Dunbar's book is an excellent read. But don't let its title fool you. His research covers a far wider range than you might expect. He offers a thesis as to how the various parts of the large brain evoloved to meet numerous environmental and social conditions. But the most intriguing part of the book comes in his discussion of optimal group size, an issue that will prove to be of crucial importance in the decades to come. Evolutionary biology and psychology will prove to be the uniting gospels of the future, and their teachings will have their most vital applications in the areas of social ethics, group size, and scale of lifestyle. Prof. Dunbar's book is a valuable opening foray into our own self-definition as a species.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Reading -- Interesting Theory,
This review is from: Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Paperback)This was a very enjoyable read. Of course, the book is filled with speculation, but the author does a good job at explaining and often synthesizing competing ideas from various disciplines. His theories, if true, shed interesting insight into how our cognitive abilities for creating and maintaining social structures fit (or don't fit) with today's post-industrial, technocentric societies. Great food for thought!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Classic, Still Exciting and Highly Informative,
This review is from: Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (Paperback)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 Segerstrĺle, 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. Moreover, the brain requires ten times the energy of the average bodily organ, and uses about 20% of total calories consumed. What could counterbalancing advantages of large brains be?
The conventional answer to the riddle of the large brain was the capacity to use tools skillfully, and the value of communication in facilitating mutualistic cooperation. Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten ---Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans (Clarendon Press, 1988)--- deepened the explanation by adding that there are severely conflicts of interest among members of a social group, and a large brain will help a group member to form alliances and understand complex social forces that might well increase his biological fitness. This insight is both correct and quite valuable, but it seems to imply that large brains confer no group-level fitness benefits, but merely consist of an expensive "arms race" the hurts the species as a whole.
Robin Dunbar's contribution in this book is flows from a statistical relationship described graphically on page 63: There is a very strong correlation between neocortex ratio and mean group size in different genera of anthropoid primates (monkeys, apes and humans). Dunbar argues that there is survival value in larger groups, probably because larger groups can better defend territories and survive cataclysmic events, such as contagious disease and war. However, the complexity of group interactions increases with group size, and a large brain provides individuals with the raw materials for forging strong social ties that permit the group to overcome the purely Machiavellian tendencies described by Witten and Byrne. Language, for Dunbar, is not hypertrophied through the need to deceive, but is appropriate to the task of allowing groups of individuals to make clear subtle and conditional promises, threats, and social descriptions.
What about grooming and gossip? There is strong evidence from observation of monkey and ape behavior that grooming is a major source of group cohesion. It is carried out for many hours a day, the animals love to be groomed, and grooming solidifies cooperative alliances with great regularity. Now humans have no fur, so they cannot groom. Dunbar suggests that gossip performs the same role in humans as grooming in monkeys and apes: both are functional mechanisms for social bonding. I find it hard to take this explanation seriously---it is the sort of just-so story for which evolutionary psychology is routinely criticized (e.g., Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin, "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme", Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 205 (1979):581-598.) The costs of a large brain are extreme, and the complex adaptations required to facilitate human communication through language and gesture are intricate and costly. It is implausible that an amorphous group-level function such as "group cohesion" could not have been ensured in a far more direct manner.
However, Dunbar suggests a second mechanism, far more concrete, that was offered for the function of gossip by Magnus Enquist and Olle Leimar, "The evolution of cooperation in mobile organisms," Animal Behaviour 45:747-757, 1993. Enquist and Leimar suggest that gossip may serve to maintain social cooperation by allowing individuals to develop good reputations for their altruistic contributions to the group and bad reputations for selfish and free-riding behavior. A good reputation is personally valuable and even fitness enhancing because others will want to form alliances (including marriage) with those who consistently behave altruistically and will shun and isolate those who are selfish and opportunistic.
Of course, if the behavior of each individual were observed by all others, gossip would be unnecessary---each group member could judge for himself. But such is rarely the case. More generally, one or a few individuals will observe the behavior of a group member, and the member's reputation can be formed accurately only if his behavior is transmitted truthfully to the group. This is what truthful gossip does. If the Enquist-Leimar-Dunbar theory of gossip is correct, and I will argue below that it is, we have a very strong function for gossip, perhaps even strong enough to justify the immense costs of language acquisition.
The key point in the reputational theory of gossip is that unless gossip is almost always truthful, it will not be believed, and hence it will not be performed. But why should individuals gossip truthfully, as opposed to simply saying whatever suits the personal needs at the time (as assuredly some people do---witness the Shakespearian tragedies King Lear and Othello)? This is an important and deep question that is not yet fully answered. I believe there is a two-part answer. First, there is an evolved human predisposition to tell the truth; people will of course lie, but most will lie only when the costs of truth-telling are fairly high. Indeed, were this not the case, human language and gestural communication could not have developed: why bother communicating if people simply tell you what is in their best interest to have you believe. Truth-telling is thus a precondition of the physiology and psychology of human linguistic and gestural communication. Second, humans are very good at detecting lies, so it is difficult for a habitual prevaricator to maintain his credibility---see Leda Cosmides, "The Logic of Social Exchange: Has Natural Selection Shaped how Humans Reason? Studies with the Wason Selection Task", Cognition 31 (1989):187-276.
We thus have a tight causal loop involved with human gene-culture coevolution: hominids developed the ability to detect cheaters and the altruistic predisposition to punish anti-social behavior. This led to a vast increase in the value of linguistic and gestural communication, whence the evolution of an elaborate human communicative physiology (see my treatment in "Gene-Culture Coevolution and the Nature of Human Sociality, special issue on Human Niche Construction, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, forthcoming, available on my web site). This capacity for sophisticated and accurate information transmission led to an increased value of gossip as a mechanism of social control, and thence to a further articulation of human cooperative institutions.
The experimental evidence in favor of this view has mushroomed in recent years. First, several studies showed that humans are consummate "indirect reciprocators," willing to cooperate with others who have the reputation for honesty and altruism in collaborative affairs. For a recent overview of the evidence, see M. Milinski, D. Semmann and H.-J. Krambek, "Reputation Helps Solve the 'Tragedy of the Commons' ", Nature 415 (2002):224-226 and Karthik Panchanathan and Robert Boyd, "A Tale of Two Defectors: The Importance of Standing for Evolution of Indirect Reciprocity", Journal of Theoretical Biology 224 (2003):115-126. The role of gossip in promoting reputation-building and indirect reciprocity is demonstrated in a recent article by Ralf D. Sommerfeld, Hans-J"urgen Krambeck, Dirk Semmann and Manfred Milinski, "Gossip as an Alternative for Direct Observation in Games of Indirect Reciprocity," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104,44 (2007):17435-17440.
So, all in all, Dunbar's book is highly innovatory and basically correct, well worth reading even if the reader is up to date on gene-culture coevolution and indirect reciprocity.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Seminal Book, A Theory that Explains A Lot,
This review is from: Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Hardcover)This book belongs on the shelf along with "The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind", "The Moral Animal", "Non Zero", "The Third Chimpanzee" and "Darwin's Dangerous Idea". It is a brilliant theory of the origins of language, supported by statistical analysis of physiological data (relative cortex size of primates, including humans), sociological data (the size of human groups across societies ranging from hunter gatherers to modern armies) and current social psychology experiments by his grad students (spot checks of random conversations in malls and pubs). Well supported, and startling, you will look at your society and your use of language differently.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Intriguing Explanation for Human Language...And a Lot More,
This review is from: Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Paperback)Are humans the only species with language, as Chomsky and Pinker contend? And if that is true, how, when and why did we develop this unique ability? Robin Dunbar's book "Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language" answers these questions about the origin and purpose of human language in an ingenious, convincing and thoroughly readable way. Comparing us with other primate species, the author shows how pressure from predators caused the early ancestors of chimpanzees and of humans to band together for protection. However, in these large groups social stress and bullying became almost as much of a threat as predators had been. How chimpanzees solved this dilemma with grooming, and how later hominids did so with language, makes for fascinating reading. As an extra, Dunbar weaves together ideas about how we developed poetry, adultery, the company lunch room, regional accents, and a host of other seemingly disparate themes into his extensive net. "Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language" answers questions you never knew you had, in a style which keeps you up far past your bedtime. Highly recommended!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and illuminating.,
This review is from: Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Paperback)Interesting, perhaps eccentric, thesis on the origin and utility of human language, well-founded in evidence gathered from a wide variety of fields, including linguistics, neurology, and evolutionary psychology. In some cases, Dunbar seems a bit dismissive of others' hypotheses, but at least he gives them consideration (his objections don't always convince; but a stronger case would certainly require a more technical, and therefore less entertaining presentation). Strongly recommended for anyone interested in evolutionary psychology or cultural anthropology
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There is much to learn from this book,
This review is from: Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Paperback)I read this book when it first came out, and very much enjoyed it. Oddly enough, I was even able to make use of what I learned from it in my job.
There are three main points to the book:
1. There is an observed correlation between neocortex ratio (the ratio of the volume of the neocortex to the volume of the more primitive parts of the brain) and group size among social primates. Note that primate groups achieve cohesion partly through mutual grooming.
2. Dunbar extrapolates this correlation to the human neocortex ratio, with a resulting group size of about 150. While such extrapolation potentially yields nonsense, in this case there is significant evidence that human group size does have a breakpoint at about this number. Hunter-gatherer village sizes, the organization of armies, parish sizes, and many more examples show a natural limit of between 100 and 200 people.
3. Dunbar theorizes that the development of language was encouraged by the need for interaction among groups that were too large for mutual grooming. (Humans are not observed to groom each other the way other primates do, and a group of 150 is too large for this behavior because of the time that would be required.) In his theory verbal interaction--or, colloquially, gossiping--replaced grooming in humans.
While Dunbar's theory is interesting, and may be right, even if it is wrong the book is worth reading for the first two points. It is very instructive regarding why groups work the way they do, and why large societies inevitably have bureaucracies.
I read this book back in the days when Dan Golden was NASA Administrator, and pushing his "Faster, Better, Cheaper" approach to space exploration. (Which had both successes and failures.) I later had a government employee, who was planning a multi-billion dollar space program, ask me if I thought it could be managed with a "Faster, Better, Cheaper" approach, and I said no, it was too large. Although this seemed obvious, I then asked myself why that would be the case. I eventually put instinct together with Dunbar, and realized that you couldn't run a streamlined program if you couldn't keep the size of your core group to about 150 people who interacted with each other. Later reading of accounts of "Faster, Better, Cheaper" programs that succeeded, and reports from panels set up to examine failures, confirmed this conclusion.
So I believe there is a message here for both small businesses and also for larger enterprises trying to decide how to structure programs. This book is thought-provoking and well worth reading.
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and very persuasive overall; occasionally the envelope gets pushed too far....,
This review is from: Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Paperback)Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language is a very engaging primer that suggests language developed not (as earlier believed) to coordinate hunting but rather for the far more social purpose of bonding individuals who are not genetically linked into a more cohesive group. All primate require coalitions to survive . Other primates do so through grooming each other--literally, I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine. However, humans, prone to far larger groups needed a more expedient method to build these alliances--hence language, and its extraordinarily useful derivative--gossip.
Now almost two decades old, Dunbar's theory seems hardly as controversial as when originally posited. The notion that language is an evolutionary adaptation derived from need now seems amusingly obvious (as does what goes up, etc...) and facilitated by the super-sized brain we haul about. Where I think the author pushes to hard (as do so many academicians in love with their own conclusions) is in dismissing the earlier theory that language was needed to coordinate hunter-gathering. Why must social bonding trump the need of the hunter? Can't both needs be an
impetus? And if they are it seems rather silly to fret about which is most influential.
The real delight of Grooming, Gossip are some wonderful chapters on Theory of Mind and Intensionality. Lively discussions about how extraordinarily unique this thing we call language actually is. They are woven together with biological observation about our super-sized brain, its energy consumption and the need to form substantially larger groups to sustain it and ourselves as a species. There are all sorts of fun facts such as men gossip as regularly as women, we are the only species whose brain grows post-partum (final size would kill or moms, literally), plausible musings on why there are so many languages (how can incomprehension be useful--it can) and the important reminder that Darwin gave us not a theory of evolution but of natural selection--something far more radical in its refusal to pander to our insistence on human "specialness".
Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language underscores that with our enormous brain and its facility for
language we may not be the epitome of evolution, but we are, nonetheless pretty damn fascinating-- if only to ourselves. Well worth a read.
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Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language by R. I. M. Dunbar (Paperback - October 1, 1998)