In his book titled, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, Dunbar goes into great detail about the lengthy process of language evolving over time into gossip. He utilizes both biological and psychological evidence to defend this theory on language evolution. Although he tries to demonstrate a clear, step-by-step process of how language progressed, he fails to include both genders in the conversation, which makes a male’s role appear more prominent in the process. He ignores the significance of social interactions between male and female primates, and focuses more on the male-aspect of grooming more-so than the female’s. He integrates evidence of group-size growth over time without providing specific examples that incorporate a woman’s personal development. Through Dunbar’s male-oriented examples of grooming, and group-size, he develops a one-sided argument that lacks sufficient evidence and poorly represents the male and female coalition of language development.
Dunbar initially tries to identify the reason why primates form “coalitions” and “groom” with other fellow primates. In his analysis, he concludes that primates form grooming coalitions in order to prevent other primates from exerting their dominance. This argument is entirely one-sided, because it focuses primarily on the physical, male aspects of grooming more so than the passive, feminine traits that it can encompass. He continues this masculine argument, without even acknowledging the different roles that women may have in forming these coalitions. Evidence from Dobrovolsky goes against this by pointing out how “mother-child bonding” plays a significant role in the socialization of young primates (Dobrovolsky 18). Savage in her study on comparing ape and human consciousness, notes how a female baby primate when learning language “prefers to spend time with her human female caretakers and with her bonobo mother…” (Savage 918). This example outlines the roles that females can have in the “grooming” process of younger primates. Women primates and male primates together may contribute differing factors, but ultimately aid in the development of language. Dunbar within this grooming process should have acknowledged the fact that the mother spends a majority of time with the younger primate growing up. Comparing and contrasting the female and male grooming processes would have added more evidence to Dunbar’s argument, making it appear less biased.
Primates can perform other forms of social interactions that could equally be related to the development of language and gossip. Tomasello and his research with primate interactions shows how primates have multiple gestures and goals associated with performing these gestures (Tomasello 25). Besides grooming, primates could use playing and requesting as form of social interaction that develops a close bond with another primate. Dunbar’s approach ignores all the physical gestures of the primates, which undermines his argument of grooming being the dominant pre-cursor to vocal language. Dunbar’s argument doesn’t incorporate all aspects of the primates, which leads to his argument to only being partially defended.
Dunbar tries to relate neocortex brain size to group size, but in actuality is only comparing male group orientations with one another in his examples. He utilizes examples such as a church congregations, and military companies to offer a one-sided approach to language development. For groups to be taken into consideration, both males and females have to be a part of a group and their roles have to be expanded on more-so than just “living” or “existing” within a group. The research isn’t validated if you go into great detail describing a group of military units as “… a bunch of guys who spent time together…” (Dunbar 75). Maybe, including the roles of nurses in the military in comparison to the troops fighting on the frontlines would provide a more applicable example, even if the quantity of the groups didn’t agree with your number.
His examples need to go into greater detail as to why “150” is a viable number. In the hunter-gatherer societies of ancient villages, do they average 150 people because they only need a finite number of men and women to perform specific social roles? Are there other reasons besides difficulty controlling members that relate to why groups form around 150 members? Having legitimate reasons would help strengthen his argument so that it entails a more objective approach. Dunbar, by focusing his attention on the quantity of “150”, ignores the “quality” of the people that entail a group. One of his reoccurring examples involves military and army groups that, “…nestle comfortably around the predicted group size of 150” (Dunbar 75). He lacks sufficient evidence as to why these groups are perfect examples and how they encompass both male and female roles in language. His Empirical evidence makes his argument one-sided, choosing information that only supports his personal claims.
Dunbar throughout his novel makes some unique observations that sets him apart from other scholars. He provides simple and understandable arguments that both readers and scholars can understand. Although he incorporates a large amount of quantifiable, empirical evidence, he still ignores the female’s involvement within language. His subjective approach to language development ignores the various roles that both the male and female have in language’s evolutionary process. The progression of the Human Language, whether it occurred in an immediate explosion or a gradual process, involved a joint partnership between males and females working together. Word Count: 866
Dunbar, Robin. Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. Faber and Faber, 2004
O’Grady, William D., et al. Contemporary Linguistic Analysis: an Introduction. Pearson Canada, 2016.
Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue, et al. “Ape Consciousness-Human Consciousness: A Perspective Informed by Language and Culture.” American Zoologist, vol 40, no. 6, Dec. 2000, pp. 910-921., doi:10.1093/icb/40.6.910.
Tomasello, Michael. Primate Intentional Communication.” Origins of Human Communication,MIT Press, 2008, pp. 13–55.