Re: Are we "special"?

Paul Crowley (
Tue, 17 Dec 96 01:56:42 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.

This must one of the most banal theories to have ever been
put forward in any discipline. That it is even considered
speaks volumes for the degraded state of paleoanthropology.
That it is taken seriously says a lot about those who do.

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. They also need
special thermoregulatory controls and are probably the basis
of our sweating mechanisms, which in turn place severe
constraints on possible habitats.

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 language and big brains.

Dunbar argues that since humans spend much time in gossip
this must be the purpose for which our brains were developed
and that, in large groups, gossip is more efficient than
grooming. This thesis is not borne out by observation. We
most commonly gossip one-to-one and if everyone replaced their
gossiping sessions with a bit of judicious bottom-presenting
and penis-touching (or something similar) then - 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.

Further, assuming that we did need to "gossip", why would we
need 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 brain one-twentieth of the size would do. The chirruping of
a group of sparrows seems a close analogy.

Dunbar has found some correlations (richly deserving a <pb>
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 size of the human group to be N.
And that N is precisely what we see in human groups. 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.
Don'cha'all ?

And this is science!

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