Gift of the gab: how gossip shaped human evolution
GOSSIP. The word may bring to mind teenage girls discussing their latest crushes, but don’t be misled: gossip is big business! Up to 70% of our everyday conversations are dedicated to gossip, and, contrary to the popular stereotype, men and women do it in equal measure.
For some reason, there’s something irresistible about knowing the doings of other people, even when they don’t concern you. When a good friend promised me exciting news but refused to divulge, I wasted my next two hours in futile online pleading, and my heart-rate cranked up to 120bpm (yes, I did measure, if only to appease my inner scientist).
It all seems so pointless, and yet evolutionary biologists suggest that gossip plays a very important survival function. If you look at the life history of social primates, you’ll notice that larger-brained species tend to hang around in larger groups (this is called the Social Brain Hypothesis). There is a crucial reason for this relationship: increasing group size has major benefits for foraging and safety, but also causes problems with maintaining group cohesion. Only by evolving bigger brains can primates form social ties with larger numbers of group members.
Primates have developed reliable ways of exchanging social information with each other. Chimpanzees, for example, groom each other as a social activity, and this further encourages social ties within the chimp community, a way to sort out your friends from your enemies. Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language explains this idea in detail, and is worth a read even if only for an opening paragraph that makes primate grooming sound more erotic than Fifty Shades of Grey.
Now consider humans. We have the largest “group size” of any primate, so obviously grooming is out of the question for everyone. Vocal gossiping is a far more efficient way of exchanging social information with our peers, and this innovation was only possible with our newly-enlarged brains. Proto-humans with the greatest capacity for collecting social information were best able to use this information to their own advantage, and were therefore more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation. Over time, our thirst for social information grew and grew.
So next time you hear about some juicy gossip from the weekend, rest assured that your curiosity has some evolutionary foundation, and may even have shaped the evolution of human language. Just be glad that getting the truth doesn’t involve picking the ticks out of anybody’s hair!