The Primordial Schmooze

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.

Bickerton, echoing the views of some other critics, argues that
Dunbar’s contention that humans were born to gossip falls into the
category of ‘the fallacy of most frequent use. By this reasoning,
computers were invented [so that we could] play video games or surf
the Net.’ He notes, for example, that insects evolved wings as a
cooling device — not as a means of flying. ‘In evolution,
faculties often appear with one function, then get co-opted for
something completely different,’ he writes. The same might be true
of language.

Bickerton — who himself maintains that the circuitry for
language was established in a single ‘catastrophic’ mutation —
chides Dunbar for ‘blithely ignoring the many arguments against
continuity between language and animal communication systems.’
Dunbar’s book, he concludes, does little to alter ‘the current
landscape of language evolution studies: isolated mesas of fact
separated by yawning canyons of speculation.’

But what’s wrong with a little speculation? We humans, after
all, love to talk. Or, as Zalewsky puts it: Whether Dunbar is right
or wrong, his theory ‘has certainly got the linguists
chatting.’

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