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).

Even the best of us are slaves to gossip. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Grooming in Japanese macaques. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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!

5 Responses to “Gift of the gab: how gossip shaped human evolution”

  1. Andrew Katsis says:

    Tash, I’m pleased to say I’ve never read it! So I had to take the words of those millions of discriminating readers who purchased the book.

  2. Natasha says:

    I would argue that MOST things are more erotic than Fifty Shades of Grey…

  3. Andrew Katsis says:

    @Rebecca: Rest assured that you’re not alone – we all love a little bit of gossip! I should clarify that it all depends on how gossip is defined. Some authors use the term to embrace any exchange of social information (that’s the 70% quoted in my blog post), while others restrict it to “malicious” gossip told in somebody’s absence. The latter is pretty immoral, in my view, but the former is simply necessary if we’re to be a fully-functioning member of human society.

    @Josua, I believe many excellent scientific studies have been conducted on our obsessive use of Facebook. There’s a blog post in that, no doubt! You’re absolutely right, society wouldn’t function if we didn’t make the occasional “white lie”, and I wouldn’t be surprised if deception was somehow built into our evolutionary history: I remember reading one study in children that correlated tendency to lie (about disobeying rules) with higher intelligence. The widespread stigma against gossip and lying may well be a cultural development with little or no evolutionary basis.

  4. Josua Troesch says:

    So Facebook has a very scientific basis, after all?

    I just explained to a friend why I think that a little white lie sometimes is necessary. You may, for example, not want to offend a friend by being totally honest or you don’t want to embarrass other people in public. I remember reading an article, which very convincingly explained that our society would simply not work if we were absolutely honest all the time. I think this goes along the same line as the gossiping you mention in your article. It’s something that is generally regarded as bad, but in reality is necessary to living in a community.

  5. Rebecca Wilson says:

    Haha Love IT!

    Now I have a reason as to why I love to hear gossip so much, because I am genetically engineered to be like that because of thousands of years of human evolution! Although it’s not hard to see why or how. I can just picture a little hermit caveman whom didn’t like to socially interact not having many dates!