Re: Are we "special"?

Paul Crowley (
Sat, 14 Dec 96 00:52:53 GMT

In article <> "Phil Nicholls" writes:

> Why are they bad, Paul. That is hardly a meaningful critique. What
> about Dunbar's work, for example, was bad?

Dunbar's gossip-grooming hypothesis maintains that language
developed to substitute for grooming activities seen in other
primates; that it emerged to furnish the social glue needed
to bind large groups; that our large brains evolved mainly
to enable the gossip function of language, since hominid
groups got too large to enable physical grooming.

Human brains are extremely expensive organs consuming some
20%-25% of resting energy and requiring good supplies of high
quality protein both to grow and to function. But evolution
does not develop massively expensive organs when the same
purpose can be achieved at mininal cost. There are tens of
thousands of species where large groups bind together without
the benefit of either grooming or language; numerous
mechanisms are available.

Dunbar argues that since humans spend much time in gossip
this must be the purpose for which our brains were developed.
However, even on this level the hypothesis does not work.
If everyone replaced their gossiping sessions with a bit of
judicious bottom-presenting and penis-touching (or something
similar) then - even within the parameters of his thesis --
societies would be much more efficient. As Bill Clinton
demonstrates, you can touch a lot of penises -- oops, I mean
hands -- when you might alternatively be gossiping.

Even assuming that we did need to gossip, why would we need
such complex languages and such big and expensive brains to
do it. I suggest that most of the time it is, literally,
a matter of making the right noises. How many of us feel
stretched in such conversations? A language without
grammar and a brain one-twentieth of the size would be
quite adequate.

Dunbar has found some correlations (that deserve a Phillip
Bigelow Award) between the dimensions of the neocortex (the
part of the brain supposedly engaged in conscious thought)
and the sizes of different grouping in mammals. In order to
get this he has to define groups in a peculiar way - those
that eat, mate and travel together. He then says that the
size of the human neocortex predicts that the human group
would be N. And that N is precisely what we see in human
groups. Of course, I don't have to tell you what N is,
because all readers of this NG are humans and know the
standard size of the human group. Doncha'all ?

And this is science!

The acceptance of such profoundly banal theories reflects
utter lack of content and complete loss of direction in
current PA. Of course if you believe that, until the start
of the last inter-glacial, h.s.s. and earlier hominids
wandered around in nomadic bands of hunter/gatherers of
about 50-100 individuals, and had done so for the previous
5 Myr, just like baboons or chimps, then you're going to
find it impossible to have any coherent theory for the
evolution of language, or for the enlarged brain, and
you're going to find yourself in this sort of dooh-dah.