Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language by Robin Dunbar

I’m assuming you don’t spend a lot of time picking out unwanted insects from your best friend’s fur. Yet the function of that activity in apes is exactly what Robin Dunbar ( believes language does for us.

Apes and monkeys, humanity’s closest kin, differ from other animals in the intensity of their social 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 – not practicable. 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, e-mail, or any other communication technology. As Dunbar shows, the impersonal world of cyberspace will not fulfill our primordial need for face-to-face contact. Read this book and then natter about it with a friend. Better still read this book and influence another primate by nattering about it.

Enquire at your local library or for full bibliographic details consult

230 pages in Harvard University Press

First published 1997

ISBN 978-0674363342

Professor Robin Dunbar

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