Grooming, gossip, and the evolution of language

by Robin Dunbar

Hardcover, 1996

Status

Available

Publication

Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, c1996.

Description

Arguing that gossiping is vital to a society, and that there is no such thing as idle gossip, this book disputes the assumption that language developed in male-male relationships. The author believes that, on the contrary, language evolved among women, and contends that, although men are just as likely to natter as women, women gossip more about other people, thus strengthening the female-female relationships that underpin society.

User reviews

LibraryThing member nandadevi
There are so many things wrong about this book it's hard to know where to start... Dunbar is a Professor of evolutionary biology, so presumably he is no fool. But I note that he is also - apparently - famous as a populariser of science. He has succeeded here magnificently - if you assume his
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audience is about 8 years old. For my part I don't need a five page digression into to operation of the natural opiate system in the human body. Especially when the same simple point is explained by repetition rather than exposition. Perhaps there's not that much to be said about grooming, or more to the point, the author doesn't have much to say about it - at least not much that he considers suitable for 8 year old humans. His section on language is equally infantile. It occurs to me that if anything this resembles the pitch for a television series or special. I wouldn't be so annoyed, except that the author commits the cardinal sin for an intellectual (or one who purports to be) and that is quoting obviously spurious and misguided studies. To be told that the rate of homicide between non-related parties living together is 20 times higher than it is for related parties is simply saying (except that the author doesn't understand or doesn't choose to tell the reader) that spouses kill each other at a far higher rate than parents-children or siblings living in the same household. To suggest that this 'proves' that blood ties inhibit blood related individuals from killing each other (as the author claims') is to fail to take account of more issues pertaining to spousal abuse that I could enumerate in anything less than a book - without even touching upon the issue of opportunity and the question of household population profiles which will skew this statistic. As a so-called scientist, the author deserves to be pilloried for demeaning his profession. You can make adjustments in order to popularise science, but this book is unadulterated trash. It has gone in the fire (it's a cold winter here), but I'll keep it in my catalog so that this review can stand. By all means this is a fascinating subject, but read something by someone who understands primates (de Waal for instance), or language (Pinker). The half star indicates the book has a useful calorific value, when ignited.
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LibraryThing member Niecierpek
A thoroughly delightful and compelling book on the origins of language.
According to Dunbar’s theory, language developed to help manage the social relationships within our primate group when it became too big to manage by grooming. It happened at some point of our history when the group
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approached about 150 members- the biggest group our brain can pay attention to and manage. Within such a big group it wasn’t practical to groom everybody anybody wanted to have good relations with- hence the language developed as a better way of communication. It developed within female circles and served the purpose of keeping friendly connections and exchanging socially relevant information, so in other words, to gossip.

If you are interested in the language development theories, it is a very accessible, quick and really interesting read with much more information and interesting theories as you go along.

An interesting fact:

The fact that we can enjoy and discuss books is due to ToM , which is an abbreviation of Theory of Mind- ability to put ourselves into other people’s shoes, and guess their feelings, thoughts and motivation.
Apart from us, and that occurs in us not before we are four years old, only apes are capable of such a feat: chimpanzees for sure, gorillas maybe, but no monkeys, or other animals including elephants and dolphins. Autistic people never develop ToM, either.
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LibraryThing member wester
This book is very interesting when it stays on its main topic: How humans may have developed larger group size than other primates, and how that may have necessitated the development of spoken language.
However, when it strays even slightly from that topic, it becomes very speculative, with so many
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facts connected in such complicated ways that I am pretty sure there are many other solutions to this puzzle.
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LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
I wanted to enjoy this, but I got to p. 38 and realized that the physical copy I was reading actually Stinks. Yes, like tomcat piss or something similar. Ironically apt, eh?

So, I peeked ahead some, and read a bunch of reviews here, and I realized that the reason I had only gotten that far, despite
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picking the book up several times, is that too much of it is background, nothing I've not read about before. And the thesis apparently doesn't get articulated until the last chapter.

Moreover, to this interested layperson, the thesis seems to be a common-sense aphorism. Of course language developed, at least in part, to aid in family & tribal communication, and communication developed, at least in part, to aid us to find allies, forge alliances, claim our status, and find our role in our group culture.

Maybe I'm still misunderstanding his claim. Maybe I'd be more intrigued if I were familiar with what theses of the early development of language he's making a claim against. But for now, this copy will get aired out thoroughly, and then released via bookcrossing.* And I won't try to find another copy. Thanks to the wonderful GR reviewers who helped me come to this decision by writing such careful reviews!

*to clarify, the book is not dirty or contaminated - the paper itself smells yucky to me... and I'm very sensitive; I'm sure most people wouldn't notice.
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