In Dunbar’s book, Grooming, Gossiping, and the Evolution of Language, Dunbar argues that language evolved from the human need to facilitate bonding of larger groups by maintaining group size, gossiping, and talking about social topics (Dunbar, 120). In the discussion of language evolution, I forward Everett’s interdisciplinary approach that culture, biology, physiology, and cognitive studies need to be acknowledged simultaneously in order to understand language holistically (Everett, 3804). I argue that language and culture cannot be separated when studying the evolution of language. Dunbar’s eurocentric arguments present language evolution in a racially and culturally biased way that undermines his credibility and hypothesis of grooming and social networks. This essay will showcase Dunbar’s misleading connections of the physical, social, and cultural aspects of human evolution in regards to language, as well as the racial bias this circulates racial bias in the linguistics discipline.
First of all, Dunbar’s work fails to address that humans in an early evolutionary state, may have not needed to use language the way we do today due to different societal norms. Culture and societal changes are necessary to acknowledge when looking at the evolution of language, but Dunbar focuses more on the biological aspects instead of a more holistic approach. For example, during Dunbar’s discussion of the debate about whether or not neanderthals were the first to use language, he makes logical jumps between the connections of language, biology, and culture in human and language evolution. First, he discusses the controversy of whether or not neanderthals had the physical, biological capabilities to use language. Anatomist, Philip Lieberman, argued that neanderthals did not have the same development in the larynx as humans, and were unable to communicate with anything other than “grunts and screams” (116). Dunbar explains that a full neanderthal skeleton in Israel contested this, because it showed that the neanderthal did have a larynx in a location similar to humans, and that neanderthals’ brain size was larger than humans (117). Debating whether or not the neanderthals biologically had the vocal ability to produce similar sounds as humans is irrelevant due to the fact that this example lacks to address that non-human primate communication often uses gestures opposed to vocals (Tomasello, 35) Additionally, it lacks to address the distinction between speech and language. Speech only a can only be studied in the context of language, and speech sounds do not entail language (Saussure, 17). Additionally, speech is not the only way to communicate, sign language is also important to consider- especially due to the fact that humans use this today.
Then, Dunbar jumps to conclude that neanderthals must of had large grooming networks, and that their social groups were maintained in a way that is “quite different than other living primates, including humans,” (117). Dunbar claims that brain size was not enough evidence for unique social behavior of primates, and that it was the neocortex has a correlation to social group size (66). In another primate study by Savage-Rumbaugh et al, the most successful primate to understand semantics of human language was immersed in a human cultural environment (Savage-Rumbaugh, 917). Dunbar does not mention cultural context of neanderthals until making racist comparisons.
Dunbar’s arguments of language evolution is misguided by his eurocentric views of culture and social networks. He argues that Neanderthals went extinct not because they lacked language, but because they lacked ‘sophisticated’ culture and social behavior (117). He then compares neanderthal’s extinction to the genocide of Native Americans (117). Dunbar mentions studies that say neanderthals were less nomadic than modern humans, and claims that “the fate of the neanderthals was similar to that of American Indians and Australian Aborigines at the fate of European invaders” that had ‘more widely distributed political and military power’ (118). Comparing neanderthal extinction to native american genocide contributed nothing to the argument of grooming and gossip amongst social groups in the evolution of language, and only forwarded eurocentric, social darwinist ideologies. Additionally, if Dunbar knew more about diversity within Native American societies and culture, there is a lot of elements that contradict his statements about ‘sophisticated’ culture. Many native americans tribes were historically nomadic, there was a perfectly functional, non-western forms of leadership, and the massive deaths of Native Americans was not only due to european exploitation, but largely attributed to diseases europeans brought with them (“The Impact of European Diseases on Native Americans”, 2018). Additionally, there are thriving social and research networks within the community today (Native Research Network, 2015). Unlike the Neanderthal’s, Native Americans are not extinct, and most importantly are humans that should not be compared to animals.
Finally, Dunbar’s constant comparison to animals and minority groups in his arguments about brain size make his work questionable, outdated, and offensive. For example, in the section ‘Do Monkeys Have Big Brains’, Dunbar introduces the complexities of measuring intelligence amongst species by making a racial comparison of intelligence between Black and White children. Dunbar first describes intelligence as the ability to “solve problems that other people can’t” (55). This is followed by comparison between black and white children on IQ tests, and concludes that Black children perform less well due to lack of opportunity ‘to be widely read’ (56). Dunbar follows this by stating that the tools we have to measure intelligence instead only can measure an individual’s motivation to answer the question or the persons general knowledge, rather than native intelligence (56). This perpetuates the stereotype that Black people are lazy. It is bad scholarship for Dunbar to then continue to talk about the differences in brain sizes and intelligence amongst species in the following paragraph (56). Historically and sometimes in present day, Black peoples and other minorities sometimes are compared to animals with derogatory remarks such as being called a ‘monkey’. Additionally, during slavery, many were blacks were murdered to study their brain size in order to compare it to that of whites. It was jarring to see this racial comparison with no context placed in the middle of a discussion comparing animals to people.
In conclusion, Language and culture cannot be separated when studying the evolution of language. Dunbar’s lack of understanding culture shows throughout his work, and his eurocentric arguments undermine his credibility and hypothesis of grooming and social networks.
Dunbar, Robin. Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996. Print
Everett, Daniel. Don’t Sleep There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008. Web. March 218
Native Research Network. 2015. Kindle. Web. https://www.nativeresearchnetwork.org/
“The Impact of European Diseases on Native Americans.” Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery. Encyclopedia.com. 4 Apr. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.
Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue, et. al. “Ape Consciousness-Human Consciousness: A Perspective Informed by Language and Culture.” American Zoologist. Vol.40, no. 6, 2000, pp. 910-921. JSTOR. Web. March 2018.
Tomasello, Michael. Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2008. Print.