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Grooming, Gossip and the
Evolution of Language
Robin Dunbar

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Photo replaced on September 30, 2014
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Conversation / Social beings

Conversation / Social beings
It seems to be unique, language appears all the more miraculous. Other species bark and scream, grunt and wail, but none speak. …… However, neither monkeys nor apes have language in any sense that we would recognize from our everyday experience of human conversation.

How did it come about that we, the descendants of just such dump apes, have this extraordinary power when they do not? The puzzle seems all the greater because we feel so at home with the social lives of monkeys and apes. …….

The answer to this apparent puzzle lies, I suggest, in the way we actually use our capacity for language. If being human is all bout talking, it’s the tittle-tattle of life from the lips of the Aristotles and the Einsteins. We are social beings and our world - no less than that of the monkeys and apes - is cocooned in the interests and minutiae of everyday social life. They fascinate us beyond measure.

Let me give you a few statistics to reinforce the point. Next time you are in a café or a bar, just listen for a moment to your neighbours. You will discover, as we have in our research, that around two-thirds of their conversation is taken up with matters of social import. Who is doing what with whom, and whether it’ good or a bad thing, who is in and who is out, and why, how to deal with a difficult social situation involving a lover, child or colleague. You may happen on a particularly intense exchange about a technical problem at work or a book just read. But listen on, and I’ll wager that, within five minutes at the most, the conversation has drifted away again, back to the natural rhythms of social life. ~ Page 4 / 5


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