Monkeying around

Ever wondered how monkeys picking nits evolved into language?

Adam Gopnik was startled to find a theory about the evolution of language in Robin Dunbar’s “Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language.”

The thesis (and it’s a sharp one) is that primates groom each other not to pick out nits, which don’t really trouble them, but as a form of gossip, a way of exchanging social information. Who grooms who for how long tells who’s up and who’s down.

This primate grooming and the gossip that it entails actually produce brain-opiates - monkey junk. Since human groups are roughly three times larger than other primate groups, tactile gossip was no longer enough to produce the opiates that make social existence tolerable, even pleasant, for primates.

We started talking as a way of gossiping and grooming each other at a remove, so to speak - and, indeed, to this day, almost all talk, before it is communication, is gossip and grooming.

‘He said what?!’ ‘They fired who?’

We had to invent very natural unnatural situations - classrooms where everyone faces front, usually under the threat of more or less brutal discipline - to get people to use language for learning outside the gossip context.

This thesis may or may not be true, but it has the excitement of a theory that surprises. It’s a good story.

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