Anthony Pym

Dunbar on language (review)


Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language. By Robin Dunbar (Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996; paperback edition, 1998) $14.00 paper. 

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 through what Dunbar summarizes as his four key points: “1) among primates, social group size appears to be limited by the size of the species’ neocortex; 2) the size of human social networks appears to be limited for similar reasons to a value of around 150; 3) the time devoted to social grooming by primates is directly related to group size because it plays a crucial role in bonding groups; and finally 4) it is suggested that language evolved among humans to replace social grooming because the grooming time required by our large groups made impossible demands on our time” (192). 
As such, the argument draws on numerous disciplines and sets of data, stitched into a patchwork where hard evidence becomes difficult to separate from anecdotes. For example, the data on skull sizes supports the reasonable-sounding hypothesis that the neocortex is directly related to the size of the social group, since a bigger brain is needed to remember complex social relations. And yet none of that particular relationship would seem to be strictly necessary for the further arguments that relate the sizes of social groups to the evolution of language, where the restricting factor is considered to be available time and not a limited neocortex. So whether or not we want to predict social group size from skull size is actually of little consequence for where Dunbar wants to lead us. Worse, when we approach the thick of the real argument, the evidence for fixing the optimal social group for humans at about 150 is of the most anecdotal kind that would be more at home in an English pub. But then, not even that weak playing with numbers is really essential for Dunbar’s main argument, which might yet survive such absurdities. 
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. The idea that the fundamental role of language is gossip, as the social equivalent of grooming, accords priority to the maintenance of social networks, especially as opposed to what Dunbar terms the information-oriented “herd of bison down by the lake” theory (79). And since the latter theory is recognized as masculine (it enables men to hunt together), the gossip theory might as well be feminine, if not quite feminist. And this could indeed seem mildly revolutionary. 
Tellingly, Dunbar makes no claim to be a linguist, sociolinguist or linguistic anthropologist. Indeed, when he makes claims such as the supposed universality of subject-verb-object order (105), one might doubt his grasp of quite basic linguistics. Further, even his main terms of reference tend to come unstuck when ‘true language’ is apparently defined in terms of the ‘exchange of information’ (151), so that gossip in fact creates and exchanges information about group membership, especially as concerns the exclusion of free-riders. This of course defeats any attempt to oppose information-based theories. In fact, the simple cooperation theory that Dunbar is using is already at the basis of much discourse theory, relevance theory, general pragmatics, network theory and the sociolinguistics of conversation. In none of these areas would anyone be particularly surprised about the claim that language promotes mutual back-scratching, although some might be bemused that a researcher should need to recruit ideas about brains and group sizes to make the point. 
In sum, this is an engaging farrago of ideas and anecdotes that brings little of substance beyond some lively interdisciplinary gossip. Yet Dunbar is not content to leave his performace on that level. At the end of the book we find a few confused and painfully pessimistic gestures at the internet and globalized communications, which then crystallize into some kind of prophetic message for the future: “communities of common interest no longer exist. We are exposed to the risk of exploitation by strangers” (202). So more gossip is apparently needed in order to keep out the invading but unnamed free-riders. Unfortunately, as Dunbar roams around from discipline to discipline, he might himself be seen as a free-rider destined to be excluded by the inner common interests of academic villages. One wonders why Harvard bothered to back the risk. 

Last update 20 July 1999  

© Anthony Pym 2019
URV. Av. Catalunya, 35
45002 Tarragona, Spain
Fax: + 34 977 299 488