Robin Dunbar


Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language




A classic example of the contemporary smug scientist who assumes that anyone with any belief contrary to their own is a fool. Most obviously in his blithe assertion that if there weren’t any theists in the world we’d live in a paradise: every ill in the world can be traced back to religion. While on his own professional ground discussing monkey behaviours, and a helpful summary of ‘Theory of Mind’ (how aware beings are of a) their own identity “I believe”; and that of others b) “I believe that you think”; and how deeply you understand their consciousness c) “I believe that you think that I believe...” these are levels of ‘intensionality’) there’s some interesting reading.


But once he diverts into anything outside of that: sociology, linguistics, history - he’s a total crackpot theorist - of exactly the ilk of some of the 18th century smug theist scientists he’d pillory. For example, as proof that different languages developed as conscious schemes to identify with one group against another, he tells the biblical story of the shibboleth. This would be OK as an example of what he’s talking about, but he invests the story with the notion, “That’s what they did back then,” type generality.


There are worse howlers, as when he says that language could never have come from gesture, as gesture is only mime and can never be used symbolically - as if deaf people don’t use sign language. To such an objection he says, “Oh, you couldn’t use it at night, so it couldn’t be significant.” Whether it is or it isn’t, he can be so smug because he’s talking about pre-history and will never have to fear disproof. He bandies around millennia as if he really knows, yet avoids rigorous rebuttal because nobody can really know.


May 2002