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Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language

Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language

Robin Dunbar

ISBN 9780674363366

Publication date: 10/01/1998

What a big brain we have for all the small talk we make. It's an evolutionary riddle that at long last makes sense in this intriguing book about what gossip has done for our talkative species. Psychologist Robin Dunbar looks at gossip as an instrument of social order and cohesion--much like the endless grooming with which our primate cousins tend to their social relationships.

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

From the nit-picking of chimpanzees to our chats at coffee break, from neuroscience to paleoanthropology, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language offers a provocative view of what makes us human, what holds us together, and what sets us apart.

Praise

  • 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

Author

  • Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford.

Book Details

  • 242 pages
  • 0-9/16 x 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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