Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language

Robin Dunbar has a chattier take on the evolution of language than Terence Deacon. Dunbar, a primatologist, makes the case that human language evolved because it helped humans survive in larger groups than other primates. You can chat with several people at a time, but you can only pull the bugs out of one other critter’s fur. Group size helped humans avoid predators, as they moved down from the trees into the savannah.
Dunbar’s explanation seems more compelling than Terrence Deacon’s (that symbolic communication evolved to signify the sexual ownership of females in mixed-gender groups). Co-operation kept early humans fed and kept them from being eaten every single day; survival is a pre-requisite to passing on one’s genes. Pair-bond status disputes happen a lot less frequently than eating.
Neither theory is easily provable; both theories lie somewhere on the continuum between science and origin myth.
Meanwhile, both books explain fascinating science, while telling their origin myth for language. Dunbar explains human communication in the context of communication patterns among other primates. Deacon explains language in the context of the science of language processing in the human brain.

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