Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language
Robin Dunbar opens GROOMING, GOSSIP, AND THE EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE, his study of language, by evoking the pleasure of being groomed by a monkey. The sensual scene colors the reading of this warm, personalized text. Yet Dunbar’s work is solidly academic, with a bibliography ranging from speculations on linguistics, through studies of primate interactions, brain physiology and evolution, to theories of mind and consciousness. Dunbar juxtaposes data gathered by Jane Goodall in studies of chimpanzees with the fossil record of primates and early humans. He emphasizes solid, quantifiable data in charts and graphs, which seem a universe away from probing monkey fingers.
According to the logic of Dunbar’s argument, even his book is bound into the same essential function as grooming among primates. Humans developed language to preserve personal alliances within groups grown too large for “hands on” grooming. The basic grooming unit is a pair, and the basic conversational unit is about four people. An individual can thus triple the number of grooming allies by speaking. Gossip is the basis of language and the cement of society. This book reaches a still greater extended community, with its combination of academic information and first-person chattiness.
For all its abstract, intellectual underpinning, Dunbar’s book connects itself to contemporary society. Casual readers will find amusing observations to bring into conversation, and serious users of Internet technology will consider the impact of linguistic history on electronic conversation. GROOMING, GOSSIP AND THE EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE binds earliest humanity and today’s technocrats and invites reflection on the juxtaposition.