September 20, 2010

From grooming to gossip

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , at 9:53 pm by Jeremy

This section of my chapter on language looks at the social networking aspects of the evolution of language.  In a way, the development of language happened a lot like the recent growth of the internet.  Here’s the section, from the working draft of my book, Finding the Li: Towards a Democracy of Consciousness.


From grooming to gossip

Imagine you’re standing in a cafeteria line.  You hear multiple conversations around you: “… I heard that she bought it in…”, “can you believe what Joe did…”, “how much did that cost you…”, “so I said to him…”.  Random, meaningless gossip.  But don’t be so quick to dismiss it.  What you’re hearing may be the very foundation of human language and, as such, the key to our entire human civilization.

Was grooming the precursor of language?

This is the remarkable and influential hypothesis of anthropologist team Leslie Aiello and Robin Dunbar.  It begins with the well-recognized fact that chimpanzees and other primates use the time spent grooming each other as an important mode of social interaction, through which they establish and maintain cliques and social hierarchies.  You may recall, from the previous chapter, the “social brain hypothesis” which is based partially on the correlation noticed between primates living in larger groups and the size of their neocortex.  Aiello and Dunbar ingeniously calculated how much time different species would need to spend grooming for their social group to remain cohesive.  Larger groups meant significantly more time spent grooming, with some populations spending “up to 20% of their day in social grooming.”  When they then calculated the group sizes that early humans probably lived in, they realized that they would have had “to spend 30-45% of daytime in social grooming in order to maintain the cohesion of the groups.”  As they point out, this was probably an unsustainable amount of time.  Gradually, in their view, the mimetic forms of communication discussed in the previous chapter would have grown more significant, offering a more efficient form of social interaction than grooming, until finally developing into language.[1]

Researchers have also suggested that the miracle weave of language – its syntax – may have arisen from the complexity of social interactions.  “In fact,” they say, “the bulk of our grammatical machinery enables us to engage in the kinds of social interaction on which the efficient spread of these tasks would have depended. We can combine sentences about who did what to whom, who is going to do what to whom, and so on, in a fast, fluent and largely unconscious way. This supports the notion that language evolved in a highly social, potentially cooperative context.”[2]

Language is an interconnected network - just like the internet

Until now, we’ve been looking at language from the point of view of how an individual’s brain understands it and uses it.  But the crucial importance of the social aspect of language suggests that we also need to view it from the perspective of a network.  Many theorists, including Merlin Donald, see this perspective as all-important, placing “the the origin of language in cognitive communities, in the interconnected and distributed activity of many brains.”[3] Words like “interconnected” and “distributed” bring to mind the recent phenomenon of the rise of the internet, and this is no accident.  In many ways, the dynamics of language evolution offer an ancient parallel to the explosive growth of the internet.  One person could no more come up with language than one computer could create the internet.  In each case, the individual network node – the human brain or the individual computer – needed to achieve enough processing power to participate in a meaningful network, but once that network got going, it became far more important as a driver of change than any individual node.

Another interesting parallel between language and internet evolution is that, in both cases, their growth was self-organized, an emergent network arising from a great many unique interactions without a pre-ordained design.  Linguist Nicholas Evans points out that “language structure is seen to emerge as an unintentional product of intentional communicative acts, such as the wish to communicate or to sound (or not sound) like other speakers.”[4] Donald notes that, through these group dynamics, the complexity of language can become far greater than any single brain could ever design.  “Highly complex patterns,” he writes, “can emerge on the level of mass behavior as the result of interactions between very simple nervous systems… Language would only have to emerge at the group level, reflecting the complexity of a communicative environment.  Brains need to adapt to such an environment only as parts of a distributed web.  They do not need to generate, or internalize, the entire system as such.”[5]

Donald compares this dynamic to how an ant colony can demonstrate far more intelligence than any individual ant.  We’ll explore in more detail this kind of self-organized intelligence in the second section of this book, but at this point, the time has come to consider what these perspectives might bring to the unresolved question of when language actually arose in our history.


[1] Aiello, L. C., and Dunbar, R. I. M. (1993). “Neocortex Size, Group Size, and the Evolution of Language.” Current Anthropology, 34(2), 184-193.

[2] Szathmary, E., and Szamado, S. (2008), op. cit.

[3] Donald, op. cit., 253-4.

[4] Evans, N. (2003). “Context, Culture, and Structuration in the Languages of Australia.” Annual Review of Anthropology(32: 2003), 13-40.

[5] Donald, op. cit., 284.


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