Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language

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Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language
File:Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language.JPG
Author Robin Dunbar
Country United States
Language English
Subject Evolution of language
Publisher Harvard University Press
Publication date
Pages 230 pp.
ISBN 978-0-674-36334-2

Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language is a 1996 book by Robin Dunbar, arguing that language evolved from social grooming. He further suggests that a stage of this evolution was the telling of gossip, an argument supported by the observation that language is adapted for storytelling.

The book has been criticised on the grounds that since words are so cheap, Dunbar's "vocal grooming" would fail to represent an honest signal. Further, the book's theory fails to explain how meaningless vocal grooming sounds might become syntactical speech.


The book argues that gossip does for group-living humans what manual grooming does for other primates — it allows individuals to service their relationships and so maintain their alliances on the basis of the principle: if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Dunbar argues that as humans began living in increasingly larger social groups, the task of manually grooming all one's friends and acquaintances became so time-consuming as to be unaffordable.[1] In response to this problem, Dunbar argues that humans invented 'a cheap and ultra-efficient form of grooming' — vocal grooming. To keep your allies happy, you now needed only to 'groom' them with low-cost vocal sounds, servicing multiple allies simultaneously while keeping both hands free for other tasks. Vocal grooming then evolved gradually into vocal language — initially in the form of 'gossip.'[1] Dunbar’s hypothesis seems to be supported by the fact that the structure of language shows adaptations to the function of narration in general.[2]


Critics of Dunbar's theory point out that the very efficiency of "vocal grooming" — the fact that words are so cheap — would have undermined its capacity to signal honest commitment of the kind conveyed by time-consuming and costly manual grooming.[3] A further criticism is that the theory does nothing to explain the crucial transition from vocal grooming — the production of pleasing but meaningless sounds — to the cognitive complexities of syntactical speech.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Dunbar, R. I. M. (1996). Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language. London: Faber and Faber. ISBN 9780571173969. OCLC 34546743. 
  2. von Heiseler, Till Nikolaus (2014) Language evolved for storytelling in a super-fast evolution. In: R. L. C. Cartmill, Eds. Evolution of Language. London: World Scientific, pp. 114-121.
  3. Power, C. 1998. Old wives’ tales: the gossip hypothesis and the reliability of cheap signals. In J. R. Hurford, M. Studdert Kennedy and C. Knight (eds), Approaches to the Evolution of Language: Social and Cognitive Bases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 111 29.