The Primordial Schmooze

Was gossip the evolutionary spark for human speech?

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Gossip, according to a couple of recent studies, accounts for about two-thirds of all our conversation. Human beings, it seems, are natural-born busybodies. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, argues the author of a controversial new book, our ingrained propensity to stick our noses into other people's business is what may have given humans our greatest evolutionary gift: language.

In Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (Harvard University Press, 1997), Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University of Liverpool and an authority on gelada baboons, argues that gossip is not a paltry by-product of language but rather its raison d'?tre. 'The conventional view,' writes Dunbar, ' is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively... An alternative view might be that language evolved to enable the exchange of highfalutin' stories about the supernatural or the tribe's origins. The hypothesis I am proposing is diametrically opposed to ideas like these, which formally or informally have dominated everyone's thinking in disciplines from anthropology to linguistics and paleontology. In a nutshell, I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.'

Dunbar is hardly the first person who claims to have discovered the genesis of speech, one of science's enduring puzzles. 'Airy-fairy speculations on the origins of language have been trotted out for hundreds of years, pinpointing everything from parrots to menstrual rituals as the precursor to chatter,' writes Daniel Zalewski in Lingua Franca (March 1997). Nonetheless, Dunbar's theory -- despite its outwardly outrageous premise -- is receiving serious attention from the scientific community.

The hypothesis suggests that language evolved among our hominid ancestors as a 'cheap and ultra-efficient form of grooming' -- the widespread practice among primates of picking through a companion's fur to remove loose skin and burrs. As Dunbar points out, for many primates grooming is not simply a matter of hygiene; it is an expression of friendship and loyalty, a means of communication. Indeed, grooming is ' the key to the processes that give primate societies their cohesion and sense of belonging,' he writes. So important is this 'wordless pageant' that it fills up to 20 percent of the waking hours of some species.

Dunbar argues that our hominid ancestors survived among bigger and faster predators by forming clans. As these groups grew, more alliances were needed, so more time was spent on grooming. But our primate predecessors could not live on grooming alone: There were other necessities to attend to, such as hunting and mating. And so, he argues, 'language evolved among humans to replace social grooming because the grooming time required by our large groups made impossible demands on our time.'

Or, as Lingua Franca's Zalewski puts it: 'You can stroke only one friend at a time, but you can verbally massage a crowd. Schmoozing came first, musing second.'

This is an 'ingenious and original proposal,' says Derek Bickerton, a professor in the linguistics department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. But as he writes in Nature (March 28, 1996), it also happens to be way off base.

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