Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language

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It seems there is nothing idle about idle chatter. Having a good gossip ensures that a dynamic group - of hunter-gatherers, soldiers, workmates - remains cohesive. Men and women 'gossip' equally, but men tend to talk about themselves, while women talk more about other people, working to strengthen the female-female relationships that underpin both human and primate societies. Until now, most anthropologists have assumed that language developed in male-male relationships, during activities such as hunting.

Yet as any high school student knows, social life offers its own pitfalls.

Book Review: Decoding Evolutionary Roots of Human Social Behavior

Snobs snub you, bullies push you around. Primates cope with the crowd by grooming. Whether to cement family ties, solicit new allies or apologize after a quarrel, they groom. Without constant mutual stroking, the primate social pact might soon dissolve. But there's one big drawback to grooming, Mr. Dunbar says. It takes too much time.


As the social lives of early hominids grew increasingly complex and their group size expanded, they could no longer afford to keep in touch, literally, with every last kin and comrade. They needed a more efficient means of socializing.

Hominids already knew how to make noises; why not organize those noises into recognizable patterns? As a social device, speech offers numerous advantages over grooming. You can speak to several individuals simultaneously, and you can convey information over a wider network of individuals than other primates can. Speaking takes less time than grooming, and you can do it while engaged in another task, like gathering food. In other words, talk is cheap -- and so, perhaps, were the first things humans used it to say.

The putative link between gossip and grooming helps explain why gossip feels good enough to call ''juicy. Assuming that gossip subserves the same neural structures as grooming does, it too may stimulate opiate production. To buttress his argument that language arose for the sake of socializing, Mr. Dunbar offers comparative data between the brain size of different primates and the size of the groups in which they live. He has found a tidy trend suggesting that as the social group gets larger, so too does the volume of neocortex, the newest and so-called ''thinking'' part of the brain.

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Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language
Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language
Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language
Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language
Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language

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