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Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language [Hardcover]

R.I.M. Dunbar
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 April 1996
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.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber (1 April 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571173969
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571173969
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 13.7 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 436,784 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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At the heart of this fresh and witty book is the thesis that gossip is the human version of primate grooming...Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language is in many ways a wonderful book, and its ideas deserve an airing. Mr. Dunbar is a clear thinker and a polymath, marshaling evidence for his thesis from such varied fields as primatology, linguistics, anthropology and genetics. -- Natalie Angier New York Times Book Review If you've ever wondered why we gossip, read Dr. Robin Dunbar's Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. Humans are the only primates that use language, and Dunbar theorizes that we gossip to strengthen our social status because we can't groom each other. -- Johanna Huden New York Post 20000924 Dunbar asks interesting questions, provides a fresh perspective on an old problem and gives readers a zippy intellectual ride. -- Jo Ann C. Gutin The Nation [Dunbar's] is an intoxicating idea, somewhere between brilliant and loopy. On the way to fleshing out this bracing thesis, Dunbar gives us what he calls a 'magical mystery tour' of scientific disciplines, including neurology, linguistics, evolution and more...[H]is ideas and language can be delightful. -- John Schwartz Washington Post Book World We're chatterers and snoops, every one of us, according to this fresh, witty book, and there's an evolutionary reason: gossip, like primate grooming, helps cement social ties. New York Times This book, which gives a deep insight into the emerging field of evolutionary psychology, is about as smart as they come. It tackles the related questions of brain size and the evolution of language, and relates our love of gossip and small talk to the endless grooming routines of other primates. It's 'Dilbert' for those who want to know why. -- David Warsh Boston Globe Robin Dunbar's Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, is a highly enjoyable speculation, in Neo-Darwinian mode, of how and why humans came to have language. The argument of the book is the now not unfamiliar argument that the point of talking is being able to make small talk (the 'gossip' of the title), and that small talk produces social cohesion and mitigates social conflict. In other words, it does what primatologists have long claimed grooming does for non-human primates...The book is frequently humorous and charming, always readable, and often modest in tone...The citations to his own and others' original research and the review of the literature on non-human primate language and grooming practices, are part of what make this book well suited for a general readership, but also appropriate for a more specialized academic and student readership. -- Charis Cussins Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences Dunbar has written provocative book about the sociology of language use...[A] fascinating study. Library Journal It may seem a stretch to connect the origin of speech with the grooming behavior of baboons, but Dunbar's research has persuaded him of such a link. This intriguing book presents his thesis, which he formulated after noting a relationship between maximum group size and the ratio of neocortical tissue to total brain volume. Dunbar then extrapolates to humans, proposing 150 as the upper range of people any one person can personally maintain relationships with via our equivalent of grooming: gossipy chitchat...[H]e argues the case, in evolutionary biological terms, in an elucidating and entertaining manner. How language began fascinates most of us, and consistently delightful are Dunbar's excursions into paleoanthropological anatomy, exigencies of nomadic living, philology of root languages, and the conversational styles at cocktail parties. A relaxed, concise presentation of an evolving theory of linguistic evolution. Booklist A novel and exciting argument--delivered with great verve--about the evolution of human intelligence and language. -- Alison Jolly, Princeton University Fascinating theories and cogent insights into why and how we use language, as learned from our simian relatives. Dunbar is a psychologist at the University of Liverpool, but his lucid Darwinian forays into the evolution of language draw widely on the fields of anatomy, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology...An enjoyable romp through the past few hundred thousand years. Where else could you learn that it takes a village to grow a neocortex or that, to reproduce the best genes, women network and men advertise? Kirkus Reviews The "grooming" of this book's title is when primates leisurely go over each other's fur and skin, picking and pinching in a practice that produces not only mutual pleasure but also social bonding. The "gossip" is supposed to be what happens when humans do much the same thing with language. And the "evolution" gets us from one stage to the other So could human language have replaced grooming? This central hypothesis is important because it involves a vision of what language is all about; it may stand or fall on the strength of that vision. -- Anthony Pym The European Legacy --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Robin Dunbar is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology and Director of the Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended. 15 Dec 2000
By A Customer
This book is really interesting and gives a fascinating insight into how networking and social 'grooming' (and I don't mean dressing presentably in public!) are not only essential but important for our personal safety and survival... look how easy it is to perpetrate crimes against, or renege on deals with, people to whom we have no loyalty ties: Dunbars' example is the taxman! Despite a tendency to reduce human existence to Machiavellian self-interest and propogation of the species, Dunbar makes some very pertinent points and shows how similar we are in many respects to our primate cousins. The true value of this book, however, lies in Dunbar's explanation for the evolution of language in our species. It is a fairly academic read and heavy going at times but well worth the effort. Highly recommended for all 'seekers' of knowledge about the human condition;  though I would suggest the childless-by-choice, and/or those with a higher sense of purpose, among us temper any ensuing existential neurosis by reading it in conjunction with The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield!
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly thought provoking and insightful 3 Feb 2000
This book examines the origin of language in a way that helps you understand why we talk about the things we do. I have found this a useful way to help me understand behaviour of frends, family and workmates.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Thorough, robust and nuanced . Read this. 21 Jun 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
Robin Dunbar presents the understanding of a researcher with a talented educator's clearly written style. This is a carefully woven patchwork of many disciplines and intellects that shares examples of data, analysis or conjecture. The reader is treated to a five million year canvas, scores of species, groups and individual perspectives derived from our biological history, relations and prospects.
I'll be following some of recommendations for further reader (pushing the boundaries of my knowledgr and opinions in the process) and seeking novels that delve into arenas I'd not considered before. Several of Dunbar's almost casual observations, used to clarify a point, are themselves avenues for my curiosity. For example, that Victorian mantra "children should be seen and not heard" seems succinctly explained as the consequence of the family group dynamic being stretched too taut thanks to greater survivability of infancy.

I thoroughly recommend Dunbar's writing, not least because I suspect other windows of interest and action may be inspired by it.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting and thought provoking read 17 July 2013
By Freya
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Dunbar discusses the title topics in a fresh and engaging way, offering an informative, engaging and at points, funny insight into the reasons and purposes for language. I very much enjoyed it!
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