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Grooming Gossip and the Evolution of Language Hardcover – 1 Mar 1997

4.8 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Hardcover, 1 Mar 1997

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 230 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (1 Mar. 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674363345
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674363342
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 14.7 x 2.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,129,313 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product description


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"

From the Back Cover

Apes and monkeys, humanity's closest kin, differ from other animals in the intensity of their social relationships. All their grooming is not so much about hygiene as it is about cementing bonds, making friends, and influencing fellow primates. But for early humans, grooming as a way to social success posed a problem: given their large social groups of 150 or so, our earliest ancestors would have had to spend almost half their time grooming one another - an impossible burden. What Dunbar suggests - and his research, whether in the realm of primatology or in that of gossip, confirms - is that humans developed language to serve the same purpose, but far more efficiently. It seems there is nothing idle about chatter, which holds together a diverse, dynamic group - whether of hunter-gatherers, soldiers, or workmates. Anthropologists have long assumed that language developed in relationships among males during activities such as hunting. Dunbar's original and extremely interesting studies suggest otherwise: that language in fact evolved in response to our need to keep up to date with friends and family. We needed conversation to stay in touch, and we still need it in ways that will not be satisfied by teleconferencing, e-mail, or any other communication technology. As Dunbar shows, the impersonal world of cyberspace will not fulfill our primordial need for face-to-face contact. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on 15 Dec. 2000
Format: Paperback
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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Dunbar proposes that language evolved to facilitate gossip. Rather than being trivial, this was crucial for early-human communities, allowing people 360-degree views of their peers' behaviour. This let them detect freeloaders or liars who might compromise the fragile ecology of the group. With the desire to share information about others comes the desire to tell stories of the self - a means of controlling one's own reputation. We might see this as 'phatic' storytelling - we do it to 'groom' and soothe our companions.
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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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Format: Paperback
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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