Did language evolve to help us gossip?

New research provides evidence that language may have evolved to help reinforce social relationships through gossip.


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Language provides us with many benefits. It makes it easier for us to teach each other skills and facts, allows us to share knowledge of who is to be trusted, form complex contracts and do all kinds of gossipy things. Given all of these advantages it’s proven rather difficult figuring out just why language evolved. Which of these benefits (if any) was the primary benefit that drove its evolution?

Robin Dunbar (of Dunbar’s number fame) is a big fan of the “gossip” explanation of language evolution. Dunbar’s also the man behind the social brain hypothesis, a popular and well supported explanation of why humans have such big brains. The gist of the social brain hypothesis is that living in large groups is advantageous but intellectually demanding. Thus the benefits of group life selected for bigger and better brains (Dunbar, 2003).

By using the correlation between brain size and group size theorised by the social brain hypothesis Dunbar is able to estimate the size of groups our ancestors lived in. These estimates indicate that by around 1.5 million years ago our ancestors were living in groups much larger than those of any modern ape. In fact, these groups are so large that maintaining all social relations with everyone through grooming (which is how apes stay friends) would’ve taken too much time. We needed to socialise in a new, more efficient way. This new and improved way of socialising was language (Aiello and Dunbar, 1993).

How much time we'd have to spend grooming if language didn't evolve. 20% is the cut off time for what is plausible

How much time we’d have to spend grooming if language didn’t evolve. 20% is the cut off time for what is plausible

As such, Dunbar believes the primary reason language developed was to build and maintain relationships. However, this conclusion is based on the inferences of the social brain hypothesis, which is in turn based on inferences from observations of group and brain size in living primates. Whilst making inferences isn’t necessarily a bad thing, supporting an idea with additional independent evidence can only increase it’s credibility.

So researchers from Oxford University (including Dunbar himself) have set out to look for such independent evidence. They hypothesised that if socialising was the primary reason language evolved we should be much better at socialising than say, conveying factual information or teaching someone how to hunt a mammoth.

To test this they gathered over 200 participants from around Oxford and got them to read 5 short paragraphs. 3 were different types of gossip, discussing sexual relations, who betrayed who and so on and 2 were instructions about how to gather honey without being stung. They hypothesised that if people were better at gossiping then they would be able to better remember details from the gossip stories, rather than the factual or deceitful ones.

The results confirmed this hypothesis, showing that people remembered nearly twice as many details about who was having sex with whom compared with how to gather honey from a hive without being stung. No particular detail of the gossip stuck out as being especially well remembered, people were generally good at remembering just about any of the social details.

The sole exception to this was women in sexual relationships, who seem to be a bit more receptive to stories about someone cheating on someone. Whilst you can no doubt conjure up some evolutionary psychology reason behind this, this test was not designed to investigate this which makes it difficult to arrive at any conclusions on the matter.

But can we conclude that gossip was the primary reason language evolved, as Dunbar and crew would like? Whilst this is certainly additional evidence for the gossip hypothesis I’d still say we’re very far from proving it. For starters there’s the fact that all the participants came from one part of the world (and most were white Europeans) making it difficult to extrapolate these results to the whole of humanity (Redhead and Dunbar, 2013). If this same effect can be demonstrated across the world in many different cultures then we may be onto something.

One day psychologists will realise University campuses do not represent the entirety of human diversity, but it is not today

There’s also the fact that the factual information isn’t particularly relevant to the day-to-day lives of the people involved. I doubt any of them, after reading the information thought “wehey, now I can go get some honey.” However, social relationships remain relevant to them, so they may be paying a bit more attention to stories about them. It would be interesting to see if the same effect was true if the factual information was a bit more relevant. Perhaps telling people at bus stops about upcoming changes to the bus schedule.

So whilst this research does lend some additional credibility to the gossip hypothesis, we’re still a long way from showing that was the primary reason language evolved. Although if that did turn out to be the case, it would explain the mysterious popularity of twitter. I just can’t seem to figure it out.

References

Aiello, L. C., & Dunbar, R. I. (1993). Neocortex size, group size, and the evolution of language. Current Anthropology34(2), 184-193.

Dunbar, R.  2003.  The Social Brain: Mind, Language, and Society in Evolutionary Perspective.  Annual Review of Anthropology, 32: 163-181.

Redhead, G., & Dunbar, R. I. (2013). The functions of language: An experimental study. Evolutionary psychology: an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behavior11(4), 845.

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23 thoughts on “Did language evolve to help us gossip?”

  1. Neil Rickert says:

    Did language evolve to help us gossip?

    Yes, it did.

    More realistically, it evolved because it supports cooperative behavior. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that gossiping evolved to support language. Gossiping is where people compare and negotiate meanings.

    At least that’s my opinion.

    That’s how I see it.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Well it’s certainly plausible and, as this research shows, not entirely unsupported by evidence. However there’s still a long way to go before we have an answer to the quesiton

      1. Howard Hill says:

        We now look back in something like astonishment on what was perhaps the most important step, not because it represented something incredibly subtle or profound, but because it was so obvious. It is astonishing because it was found so difficult, and yet it could hardly have been easier. I am referring to the discovery of the nineteenth century, the discovery of Darwin and Wallace, that man is an animal. (Man in the Universe, Fred Hoyle, 1966, p. 18.)

        The problem with this great revelation is that it left one more giant leap for mankind’s state of self knowledge to be complete. That was to ask what the human animal is ? Everyone has assumed that the human animal is the person, but this is not so, and when this is finally allowed to be known we will be as stunned that it was not obvious from the outset, as Hoyle indicates we are now by the revelation that we are animals !
        We did not know we were animals because religion had suppressed this fact, and we still do not know that we individuals do not exist as ends in ourselves, and that the human animal is a superorganism, for the exact same reason, because religion continues to rule our world ensuring that science cannot exist as a free enterprise seeking knowledge for its own sake. This can be seen in the emotional expressions of revulsion at the simple idea that the comparative nature of insect and human societies is identical.

        Language is therefore a flow of information creating the human animal, exactly as DNA creates somatic form, language creates superorganic form by organising somatic cells of superorganic being – us. Which explains why most human knowledge is false, as in religion, but also as in science, if we dare wrestle with this astounding fact, which we are forced to do once we understand the reality that human biological nature is corporate and individuals do not exist as ends in themselves.

  2. mgm75 says:

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hb0ef6NhY74]

    Armstrong and Miller might agree with you

    1. Adam Benton says:

      That’s hilarious, I do like Amstrong and Miller. Although I think Mitchell and Webb might have the best bit of caveman-based humour

      1. mgm75 says:

        That was good! I do prefer the “Bronze Age Orientation Day” 🙂

        [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTLyXamRvk4]

      2. Adam Benton says:

        As funny as that is who cares about the Bronze Age? It only marks the start of civilisation, written languages, armies and nation states. Nah, all the cool stuff was going on in the Stone Age. Like sharp rocks. And sharp rocks tied to sticks!

      3. mgm75 says:

        Well you should care about bronze because the tribes with bronze will come along and kill you and take all of your stone axes… and then throw them away because they’re rubbish.

  3. Neanderthal says:

    Nope, Language would of evolved as a technical survival advantage.
    Example:

    Watch out for that lion Eugene !

    Or as it was first uttered ‘duh Grrrrrrr’

    Language obviously evolved though onamaterpia <— soz spell fek
    In my huge opinions. (although I am the self proclaimed expert in this field 🙂 )

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Except, as this research shows, people aren’t particularly good at remembering technical information (compared to social information). Whilst information communication would obviously be a benefit that would compound the evolution of language, it may not have been the reason it all kicked off in the first place

      1. Neanderthal says:

        Technical advantage through survival edge would be the obvious trigger.

        But here is a better other option.

        Language evolved in order to gain mates, flirtation leading to the procreation edge here, rather than the survival one with the tiger.

        I think my three suggestions do hold more weight here, but I’m stuggeling to come up with any evidence for you ROFL

        1. Adam Benton says:

          Without evidence your claims carry next to no weight, regardless of how obvious or common sense they are.

      2. Neanderthal says:

        I have worked out what was most likely the worlds first sussesful communication.
        It was a pointing finger. But hey, I’m only the self proclaimed expert, try the others, I bet they say the same thing though.

        1. Adam Benton says:

          Non-verbal communication is common amongst primates, so it seems likely that this was the first sort of communication our ancestors used. However, pointing appears to be a uniquely human thing that likely emerged later.

  4. Neanderthal says:

    Of course pointing ones finger would be a uniquely hominid thing!
    Primates technically cannot, As to there lack of thumbs.
    The other good comment, was about being able to cooperate. With sucsessful visual communication we would indeed be able to achieve that.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      If the predictions of this study are borne out it may be that the first gestures were to communicate social information, rather than aid co-operation.

  5. Artem Kaznatcheev says:

    Thankfully psychologists et al. are starting to realize that university students are WEIRD. On a related note, I’d like to hear your opinions on the cultural brain hypothesis; it seems like the purpose of language is one of the few places where the SBH and CBH would make different predictions. The CBH is probably more consistent with evolution of language as a method of posterior passing or cultural ratcheting.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      The problem I always had with the CBH is it’s a bit of a panacea. Culture plays a role in so much of what we do that if almost any aspect of human behaviour was found to be linked to encephalisation it could be chalked up as a win for the CBH.

      Of course, the fact that culture is so pervasive suggests it is really important. I’m not trying to dispute that, I just think that they hypothesis has to be a bit more specific to contribute anything useful to the field (or maybe even show we can’t pick something specific, it has all evolved equally as a result of improvements to a generic “meme processing” aspect of our intelligence).

      Even so, I’m not sure dealing with meme transmission is the main reason our brains evolved to be so big. They were already over 2/3 of the way to becoming the size of ours by the time the ratchet effect becomes noticeable in the archaeological record.

      Also, the idea University students aren’t the norm isn’t especially surprising. I reckon you could easily make a career out of just repeating all the classic EvoPsych experiments in Asia, Africa, or “traditional” h/g community.

      And I’m pretty sure you’ve chastised me for citing that homo economicus paper before. See, I’ve learnt my lesson!

  6. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    Ha – totally love all the comments (especially the videos 🙂 ). You inspired a lot of chit-chat here. Great post indeed!

    1. Adam Benton says:

      It would seem discussions of gossip breed gossip.

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