Tuesday, October 16, 2007


The good folks over at Cognitive Daily are usually pretty sharp about the research they review. But I'm afraid they've managed to make me chortle with a little bit of condescension with today's post "The economic value of gossip." There may or may not be economic value to gossip (the article they reference is about what appears to be a variation on a common game-theoretic experiment economists call the ultimate game, hat tip to Greg Mankiw who posted on a related topic a couple days ago), but they print the following quote from New York Times journalist John Tierney without the slightest hint of jest:

Language, according to the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, evolved because gossip is a more efficient version of the “social grooming” essential for animals to live in groups.

Folks, I freely admit that theories about what caused language to develop in humans are rarely if ever based on more than thoughtful speculation. This is the case simply because there is precious little hard evidence regarding the origins of language. Fine. My acknowledgment of that is now on record. That said, this claim that language evolved BECAUSE OF its gossip function strikes me as a clear case of bullshit. But hey, I could be wrong.

I would point the curious reader to Jackendoff's Foundations of Language as a fair primer on these issues.

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