Like Belgian Chocolate for the Universal Mind. Interpersonal and Media Gossip from an Evolutionary Perspective. (Charlotte De Backer)


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CHAPTER 3. Introduction to an evolutionary approach to gossip


“The claim that gossip satisfies basic human needs is compatible with the observation that most (and probably all) people engage from time to time in gossip and enjoy it.” (Ben-Ze’ev, 1994: 18).


1 Introduction


To start this chapter, let me subject you to a little experiment. Read the following piece of gossip. Then close this thesis and take a walk around before continuing to read the rest:


“Oh boy, have I got some juicy gossip! Yesterday I was at this party with John, and I saw Ellen leaving with some young, cute guy! Well, I do not know what happened, but I thought she was dating Tim now for quite a while. And I know that when she dated Josh, she cheated on him with Andy. And of course we all know that Tim and Annie are still close, so I think she might have gotten too jealous and might want to take revenge or something. Sue, you know Annie’s sister, told me last week that Annie is still desperately in love with him. Poor girl still cannot accept the facts. And you know what else? Rob, who organised this party at his parent’s house, showed us around. You should have been there; they live in a castle! Such a huge house, with a nice garden and pool! They say his dad is in financial business, but Leslie thinks he is in some illegal business. She is sure he rips off other people or something! Well, he better be careful if he does, because I read in the National Enquirer yesterday that some rich bloke from Orange County was murdered in LA last weekend. They said he was involved in some business of ripping off clients with insurance policies, and apparently one of the people he betrayed took revenge! Oh and did I mention Elise was wearing that horrible dress? That girl definitively has no taste at all. First of all, the purple color did not match her yellow scarf, and man that dress was way to short, she really looked like a slut. I still cannot understand why Peter dumped me for a slut like her! Still John was nice to go out with, I think I might go for dinner with him on Sunday, his best friend owns this nice restaurant at the beach, which opened last month…”


Now, take a piece of paper and write down all the characters that appeared in this gossip story and what was told about them. Some have names, others don’t, and please try to be as detailed as possible. Most of all, be honest and don’t look back.


When you are finished with the first part of this little test, we can continue with the next round. Please read the following number, close this thesis again, take a walk around and then try to write down this number before reopening this thesis again. Ready? Here we go:




Have you written down the number? Then compare what you wrote down with the number indicated here above. Confusing isn’t it? You probably were able to list many of the twenty characters of the gossip story, but I am sure you did not succeed to write down much of the 20-digit number I asked you to memorize. This little experiment is actually inspired by Sperber (1985) who explained that although the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” is much more complex than a 20-digit number, it is far easier to remember this. Trying to unite anthropology and psychology and putting forward an epidemiological theory of the passing on of mental representations, Sperber (1985) tried to answer the puzzling question why some information is retained more easily than other information:


“One can ask, for instance, what formal properties make Little Red Riding Hood more easily comprehended and remembered – and therefore more likely to become cultural – than, say, a short account of what happened on the Stock Exchange.” (Sperber, 1985: 78)


Sperber (1985) tried to answer this question:


“What is it that makes some representations harder to internalise, remember or externalise than others? We might be tempted to answer, ‘their complexity’, and to understand ‘complexity’ as an abstract property of representations. This answer will not do. A figure of twenty digits is not more complex than the story of Little Red Riding Hood; any standard computer can process the former much more easily and with much less memory space than the latter. In fact, while it is easy enough to provide a computer with the text of a version of Little Red Riding Hood, it is not clear how we could provide it with the story itself. Human beings, on, the other hand, remember a story much more easily than a text. So, what is complex for a human brain differs from what is complex for a computer; complexity is not an explanation, but something to be explained. What makes some representations harder to internalise, remember or externalise than others, what makes them, therefore more complex for humans, is the organisation of human cognitive and communicative abilities.” (Sperber, 1985: 80)


Sperber (1985) then proposes that the capacities of our cognitive abilities, that enable us to memorize complex stories more easily than digital numbers, might be the result of the process of natural selection:


“Human genetically determined cognitive abilities are the outcome of a process of natural selection. We are entitled to assume that they are adaptive, i.e. that they helped the species survive and spread. This is not to say that all their effects are adaptive.” (Sperber, 1985: 80)


In this chapter, I will frame my research on gossip in an evolutionary perspective. Adding theories that stem from the study field of biology to what is known about gossip within the standard social sciences might resolve some of the problems on how to define and explain gossip. As Turner et al (1997) nicely outline in their historical overview of the integration of biology in different other disciplines, connecting biological and social sciences is not new. The first attempt, at the end of the 19th century resulted in the abuse of Darwin’s biological ideas to justify the so-called Social Darwinism and eugenetics. Still, some social science branches (such as anthropology) continued to unite their ideas with biological theories, and the biological theories of the last decade have been implemented again in various social disciplines, such as psychology and economy with greater success. Criticisms still exist; some still do not like the idea of biological theories to interfere with their thoughts. But as Turner et al (1997) already said a few years ago, the future trend seems to be in favor for those who do adopt biological theories into the social sciences:


“One possibility is that the various social sciences will adopt some biological ideas and reject others, in piecemeal way, invoking evolution (and psychology) only when it is required to solve a specific problem within the discipline. Another possibility is that psychologists will fully incorporate evolutionary concepts into their work, recognize the relevance of research from the other social sciences and, as a result, develop an ever more detailed map of the cognitive architectural mind. If so, then models of this evolved cognitive architecture may assume increasing importance in economics, sociology, and anthropology which, after all, make many assumptions about human nature and human decision-making.” (Turner et al, 1997: 64)


Evolutionary psychologists (e.g., Buss, 1999; Cartwright, 2000; Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby, 1992; Barrett, Dunbar & Lycett, 2002; Gaulin & McBurney, 2004; Symons 1979; Tooby & Cosmides 1990) say that our human psychology was shaped by the process of selection. Just as our bodies comprise a large number of tissues and organs that each can solve specific problems, our brain houses similar problem-solving mechanisms. The outcome of these problem-solving mechanisms results in higher chances of survival and reproduction for the individual. Our various body parts evolved in response to recurring problems posed by the environment. Similarly, our psychological mechanisms evolved to solve specific, recurring problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.


As I discussed in the introduction of the previous chapter, traditional social sciences focus on proximate explanations for human behavior, and evolutionary psychologists complement this with offering answers to ultimate questions. In stead of wondering how a behavior operates, like standard social scientists do, evolutionary psychologists ask themselves why a behavior evolved and still functions today (Gaulin & McBurney, 2002; Nelissen, 2000).


It was Niko Tinbergen (1958, cited in Gaulin & McBurney, 2004) who first outlined the difference between proximate and ultimate levels of explanation when studying human behavior. At the proximate level, traditional social scientists focus on the development (ontogeny), and physiological requirements (neuronal, hormonal, biochemical) of a behavior. At the ultimate level, the studied behavior is framed in an evolutionary, historical perspective (phylogeny) and a selective perspective; what problems can the studied trait solve? I will overview the phylogenetic history of gossip in this chapter, and look at the possible adaptive value of gossip in the next chapter, wherein I outline which adaptive problems occurred in our evolutionary past to which gossip might have been a solution. Before starting the historical perspective of gossip, I will briefly outline the central thoughts of evolutionary psychology.



2 Evolution and human behavior


“An evolutionary perspective is not a form of ‘genetic determinism,’ if by that one means the idea that genes determine everything, immune from environmental influence. Anyone with a biological education acknowledges that the phenotype is the result of the interaction between genes and environment, and all aspects of the phenotype are equally codetermined by this interaction.” (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990b: 19)


I want to stress what Tooby and Cosmides (1990b) have said: evolutionary psychology is not at all about some genetic determinism of our behavior. Every behavioral outcome is the result of a biological basis (nature) in interaction with the environment (nurture). I will first explain which selection pressures produced biological predispositions, called adaptations, and how this relates to the psychological mechanisms in our mind. After outlining this biological aspect, I will address the environmental element, or rather elements, since multiple environments are central within the evolutionary psychological paradigm.


2.1 Selection pressures


Throughout evolutionary history, different selection pressures have shaped our bodies and minds.


2.1.1 Charles Darwin: natural and sexual selection


In 1859 Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species, in which he explains the principles of natural and sexual selection. Darwin (1998[1]) explained how selection rests on four principles. First, no individual of a species is exactly the same as another individual; there is a lot of variation. Second, some traits are passed on to the next generation, they are inherited. At his time, Darwin was not yet familiar with the laws of genetic inheritance: “The laws governing inheritance are quite unknown; no one can say why a peculiarity in different individuals of the same species, or in individuals of the same species, is sometimes inherited and sometimes not so” (Darwin, 1998: 13). Later, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Mendel, Bateson, Watson & Crick and other researchers of genetics would unravel the mystery of inheritance and outline the crucial role of genes (Snustad, Simmons & Jenkins, 1997).


Third, Darwin (1998) noticed that selection occurred on the variation of inherited traits. Some individuals were more likely to survive and reproduce than others, because they were better adapted to the environment they lived in. Fourth, and last, it is important to understand that these processes of variation, inheritance and selection repeatedly occur. The complete process is a process of accumulation. Changes due to variation get passed on to a next generation if they are inheritable and selected for. But repeated occurrence of this process is absolutely required to assure the trait or behavior to be passed on and spread into following generations. Adaptations (which I will explain more in detail later in this chapter) cannot be understood without the notion of accumulation of variation, inheritance and selection. Altogether variation, inheritance, selection, and the accumulation of these processes form the basis of what Darwin called the process of Natural Selection:


“Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight, and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection…” (Darwin, 1998: 52)


Natural selection refers to ecological, environmental selection pressures that shaped the functioning of our organs, and therefore our brain, which in the end affects our behavior. What Darwin already knew, but many after him misinterpreted, was that selection favors those individuals who are optimal in terms of his or her environment. Evolution is not a struggle of the fittest as such, but a struggle of those most adapted to the environment they live in (for a more detailed discussion about this, see Tooby & DeVore, 1987).


When Darwin says that individuals ‘struggle for existence’, he not only refers to the survival of an individual, but also to the offspring of that individual: “I should premise that I use the term Struggle for Existence in a large and metaphorical sense, including dependence of one being on another, and including (which is more important) not only the life of the individual, but success in leaving progeny” (Darwin, 1998: 53).


After defining natural selection, Darwin (1998: 73-75) also took notice of a different kind of selection pressure driven by the competition for mates, which he called sexual selection:


“This depends, not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between males for possession of the females; the result is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring. Sexual selection is, therefore, less rigorous than natural selection. Generally, the most vigorous males, those which are best fitted for their places in nature, will leave more progeny. But in many cases, victory depends not on general vigour, but on having special weapons, confined to the male sex” (Darwin, 1998: 73)


Natural selection secures the survival of an individual; sexual selection affects the reproduction opportunities.


2.1.2 Selection after Darwin


After Darwin, many other researchers have further elaborated his thoughts. I here mention some of the most important contributors that extended Darwin’s thoughts and insights. Robert Trivers: Sexual selection expanded


Trivers (1978) further elaborated the theory on sexual selection, adding a more general framework to Darwin’s theory:


“Charles Darwin's (1871) treatment of the topic of sexual selection was sometimes confused because he lacked a general framework within which to relate the variables he perceived to be important: sex-linked inheritance, sex ratio at conception, differential mortality, parental care, and the form of the breeding system (monogamy, polygyny, polyandry, or promiscuity).” (Trivers, 1978: 52)


What drives sexual selection, according to Trivers (1978: 55-63) is the sex difference in parental investment. The sex that invests least in the offspring competes for the sex that invests most. In humans, women invest most in their offspring, paying a higher price, and therefore being more selective in choosing a partner. Trivers’ ideas are actually based on Bateman’s (1948) principle, which explains why men are more competitive over females, who in their turn are choosy to pick the right mate. Bateman (1948) argued that, since male sperm is lower in cost to produce, the more a man spreads his sperm, the more benefits he can get in biological terms. The relatively fewer eggs a female produces are costly, so a woman can, in biological terms, better choose only one, but highly qualified man to fertilize her. What Bateman suggests is that for men, in biological terms, the quantity of mates is more beneficial, while for women the quality of potential mates matters more. What Trivers (1978) added to Bateman’s (1948) principle, is that not only the biological difference in number of gametes accounts for a behavioral sex difference, but that the whole investment in offspring is influential as well. The sex that invests more in the offspring consequently is the choosiest (see also Buss, 1994, 1999: 101-103; Knight, 2000).


An important note I want to add here is that both Trivers’ and Bateman’s ideas explain what is beneficial for men and women in biological terms. As Wright (1994) has stressed, no moral consequences can be derived from biological principles. To say that men benefit most in biological terms from having multiple mates, can therefore not be rephrased as ‘Men should have as many sexual partners as possible’, as is often written in popular excerpts of evolutionary psychology. Trivers and Bateman, and all other evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists make no statement about what we should do or what we should not do. They merely explain which behavioral strategies were favored by the biological principles of natural and sexual selections, without deriving moral judgments from these. Popularizations of evolutionary psychology where such moral statements are used as eye-catching headers to attract many readers should therefore be read with much care. It is the misinterpretation of evolutionary theories that causes misunderstandings. Sexual selection blends with natural selection


Though described as different selection pressures by Darwin, Cartwright (2000) explained how natural and sexual selection are not always that distinct from each other. Some of our human features are not due to either natural or sexual selection, but to both. For instance, body size will be favored by sexual selection, but also by natural selection. Being tall makes you a valuable mate; it has been shown that women prefer tall men over short men (Dunbar, 1995a; Muir, 2000). But being tall can also help in avoiding predators or hunting prey (Cartwright, 2000). Cartwright therefore defines traits selected for by sexual selection as traits that favored our ancestors’ competition for mates, and those traits were disfavored by natural selection. An example of a product of sexual selection is the bright colors of birds feathers. They were favored by sexual selection, but disfavored by natural selection.

I agree with Cartwright’s argument that human traits have often been favored by both natural and sexual selection and that we should keep this in mind. However, I disagree to only incorporate traits that were disfavored by natural selection in the sexual selection paradigm. In my analysis of gossip as a product of evolution, I will discuss human traits that have been favored by both natural and sexual selection, but also human traits that clearly have been selected for by sexual selection, without endangering the fitness of an individual or enhancing the survival of an individual. What I will frame in the context of sexual selection pressure will cover both traits favored by only sexual selection, and traits favored by both sexual and natural selection. Where necessary, I will stress the difference.


2.1.3 Is there selection for sociality


“Humans are an obligately interdependent species, unable to survive and reproduce outside a group context.” (Caporael & Baron, 1997: 328). In our evolutionary past, environmental selection pressures have forced our ancestors to live in larger social groups, that offered protection and cooperation possibilities. A wide range of reasons, why we live in large social groups have been given:


“Returning to the case of our ancestors, we can see there is a wide range of possible selection pressures for sociality. First, as inhabitants of open country, our ancestors were probably more at risk of predation than are the forest-dwelling apes. Second, our hominid ancestors may have eaten more animal prey than modern apes and thus gotten benefits by hunting prey in groups. Third, regardless of the importance of meat eating, the other foods of hominids might have occurred in scattered but rich patches that were difficult to locate but readily sharable once found. Finally, hostilities among neighbors may have favored those hominids who preferred to travel in the relative safety of companions. None of these ideas are mutually exclusive: It is even possible that all of these pressures acted simultaneously.” (Gaulin & McBurney, 2004: 327)


As a result of this, many and maybe even most of the adaptive problems our ancestors faced involved other individuals. Therefore, much of the adaptive problems discussed within the field of evolutionary psychology will be about social evolutionary psychology (see Simpson & Kenrick, 1997).


Next to natural and sexual selection pressures, our behavior clearly has been shaped by the presence of other individuals, which I will refer to as ‘social selection pressure’. Although this term might be linked to group-level selection, I want to stress that I regard social selection pressures to operate on the level of individuals, just like natural and sexual selection pressures do. To rule out misunderstandings, let me briefly overview the debate about levels of selection.


2.1.4 Levels of selection


Selection can, in principle, operate on many levels, from genes to individuals to groups. As I will outline in the next chapter, the formation of groups based on cooperation needs some explanation in evolutionary theory. Altruism does not seem beneficial to an individual if selection operates at the individual level. Why would one invest in another individual if this could harm (oppose costs to) oneself? Therefore, Wynne-Edward (1962, cited in Boyd & Silk, 2003; Buss, 1999; Cartwright, 2000; Gaulin & McBurney, 2004) assumed that selection operates on the group-level, favoring altruistic groups. “Thus, individuals gave alarm calls, despite the costs of becoming more conspicuous to predators, because calling protected the group as a whole from attacks.” (Boyd & Silk, 2003: 211). However, when comparing group selection to individual selection, Maynard Smith (1989, cited in Cartwright, 2000: 72) noticed that group selection could not outstand individual level selection:


“Using mathematical models of population genetics, Maynard Smith concluded that the restrictive conditions needed for group selection to take place are hardly ever met. In effect, selection on individuals in a group will virtually always swamp any group selection effect; individuals will not restrain their selfish interest in favour of the greater good of the group (Maynard Smith, 1989).” (Cartwright, 2000: 72)


Boyd and Silk (2003) further explain why group level selection cannot explain altruism, by pointing to the importance of variation. The strength of selection depends on variation to act on, as Darwin outlined (see above). Variation among groups can never be as large as variation between individuals and:


“[…] when individual selection and group selection are opposed, and group selection favors altruistic behavior while individual selection favors selfish alternatives, individual selection has a tremendous advantage. This is because the amount of variation among groups is much smaller than the amount of variation among individuals, unless groups are very small and there is very little migration among them. Thus, individual selection favoring selfish behavior will generally prevail over group selection, making group selection an unlikely source of altruism in nature.” (Boyd & Silk, 2003: 211)


In the next chapter I will outline how altruism can be explained on an individual level of selection. For here, I just wanted to mention the debate about levels of selection. After Williams (1966) published his book Adaptation and Natural Selection, most biologists and evolutionary theorists agreed upon the idea that selection operates on the individual level, or even more correct on the level below that: evolution operates on genes. This means that genetically encoded mechanisms, like hearts, lungs, and livers, as well as any psychological mechanisms that exist, will serve individual needs. According to this view, in order to understand groups one must first understand individuals.


Some biologists (e.g. Gould, 2003; Wilson and Sober 1994; Wilson 1997a, 1997b) however, argue that group selection is still important, and there are aspects of human psychology that cannot be explained by individual-level selection. Wilson and Sober (1994) do not reject that selection operates at the level of the individual (or the genes), but rather argue that selection operates on different levels. Their new group selectionist theory incorporates multiple selection levels.


2.2 Adaptations, by-products and noise: products of evolution


“Has it ever occurred to you how lucky you are to be alive? More than 99 percent of all the creatures that have ever lived have died without progeny, but not a single one of our ancestors falls into that group! What a royal lineage of winners you come from!” (Dennett, 1997: 155)


Indeed, as Dennett (1997) states it, we all descend from ancestors that were lucky enough to survive and reproduce in the environment in which they lived. Evolution generates winners, in the sense that selection favors individuals that are best adapted to their environment. Evolution basically generates three outcomes: (1) adaptations, (2) by-products of adaptations, and, (3) random effects or noise (Buss, 1999; Gaulin & McBurney, 2004; Tooby & Cosmides, 1990a). The latter two, by-products and random effects, can be regarded as leftovers of adaptations. Adaptations are central in evolution and therefore the main focus in an evolutionary approach to human behavior (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990a). Williams (1966) was one of the pioneers who defined adaptations. According to Williams (1966) adaptations have the following four features: (1) they are species typical, (2) they reliably develop, (3) they exhibit a degree of complexity, and, (4) adaptations are unlikely to have arisen by chance.


2.2.1 Adaptations and adaptive behavior


The word ‘adaptation’ is often used to refer both to an underlying process, and the outcome of it. For instance, Cartwright (2000), in his introductory book ‘Evolution and Human Behavior’, defines an adaptation as:


“A feature of an organism that has been shaped by natural selection such that it enhances the fitness of its possessor. Adaptation can also refer to the process by which the differential survival of genes moulds a particular trait so that it now appears to be designed for some particular survival-related purpose.” (Cartwright, 2000: 344)


When Reeve and Sherman (1997) proposed an operational definition, they focused on the phenotypic output: “An adaptation is a phenotypic variant that results in the highest fitness among a specified set of variants in a given environment.” (‘Reeve & Sherman, 1997: 121). They used a genotype-free definition because, as Reeve and Sherman argued, most behavioral output is not the outcome of single, definable genotype, but the outcome of a mixture of genotypes. They did not care how phenotypes are related to their genotypes; so long as there is a connection, this is sufficient, they argued. Indeed, most behavior is caused by a mixture of genes (Buss, 1999: 38), but that is not a sufficient reason to exclude non-phenotypic outcome in the definition of an adaptation.


A common misunderstanding of evolutionary psychology often stems from the (false) interpretation that evolution operates directly on behavior. Cosmides and Tooby (1987) have stressed that evolution operates on psychological mechanisms: “The causal link between evolution and behavior is made through the psychological mechanism.” (Cosmides & Tooby, 1987: 277). It is important to keep in mind that selection cannot operate on behavior directly; selection operates on underlying processes (Buss, 1999; Gaulin & McBurney, 2004; Tooby & Cosmides, 1987, 1990):


“Natural selection cannot select for behavior per se; it can only select for mechanisms that produce behavior. There is nothing special about behavior in this regard; the same can be said, for example for digestion. Natural selection can only rearrange patterns in tissues and molecules; these rearrangements have effect, and it is because they have these effects that they are selected for or not. Natural selection gives us teeth, salivary amylase, a peristaltic esophagus, and acid-filled stomach, an absorptive colon: mechanisms that produce digestion. The operation of these mechanisms causes certain molecules to be extracted from plant and animal tissues and incorporated into our own tissues: an effect that we call digestion. Natural selection gives us food processing machinery, and the operation of this machinery results in digestion, which is an effect of the functioning of mechanisms.” (Cosmides & Tooby, 1987: 281-282)


The underlying processes are what evolutionary psychologists call adaptations, psychological ‘adaptations’ or ‘psychological mechanisms’, or even ‘reasoning instincts’ (Cosmides & Tooby, 1994a: 330):


“Although instincts are often thought of as the polar opposite of reasoning, a growing body of evidence indicates that humans have reasoning, learning, and preference circuits that (i) are complexly specialized for solving the specific adaptive problems our human ancestors regularly encountered; (ii) reliably develop in all normal human beings; (iii) develop without any conscious effort; (iv) develop without any formal instruction; (v) are applied without any awareness of their underlying logic; and (vi) are distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently.” (Cosmides & Tooby, 1994a: 330)


As Buss (1999), Tooby and Cosmides (1990) have stressed, these psychological mechanisms, or adaptations, should not be confused with their behavioral outcome. For instance; eating spinach is not an adaptation, it is adaptive behavior and the underlying adaptation is the understanding that ‘if you eat spinach you increase your iron-level, which benefits your health’. Tooby & Cosmides (1990: 394-395) stress that selection operates on adaptations and not on adaptive behavior. This explains why behavior does not necessarily have to occur universally exactly the same to be the outcome of an adaptation. Adaptations are universally alike, not differing from each other, but the behavioral outcome of adaptations might differ because of environmental different influences (Symons, 1992: 139).


To eliminate misunderstanding, I will use different labels; the word "adaptation" to refer to the cognitive processes, and "adaptive behavior" to refer to the phenotypic, observable output. In summary, adaptations are the cognitive processes which can be regarded as the outcome of genotypic foundations in interaction with an environment, which solved problems of survival and reproduction our ancestors faced in our evolutionary past, and which, in interaction with an environment, produce adaptive behavior. The adaptive problems could have been ecological, sexual or social:


“Adaptations are mechanisms or systems of properties “designed” by natural selection to solve the specific problems posed by the regularities of the physical, chemical, ecological, informational, and social environments encountered by the ancestors of a species during the course of its evolution.” (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990a: 383)


2.2.2 Adaptations are relative


Another misunderstanding about adaptations is that they are not always adaptive. As Williams (1966) already stressed, selection does not choose for what is necessary, unnecessary, or adequate for continued survival. Selection only chooses for the immediate better-worse alternatives of competing individuals. Therefore, as evolutionary psychologists (e.g. Buss, 1999; Gaulin& McBurney, 2004; Kenrick, 1995; Symons, 1992; Tooby & Cosmides, 1990, 1992) put it; what once was adaptive, might not have the same beneficial value today. A behavioral outcome of an adaptation is only adaptive if the contextual surrounding is the same as the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness[2] for that adaptation. Adaptations are therefore relative; they are only adaptive in the right context, and can even become maladaptive when operating in a different context as they are designed for (see later, mismatch hypothesis).


2.3 How modular is our mind?


Having outlined what psychological mechanisms and adaptations are, I can ask the next question; how many of these psychological mechanisms are housed in our minds? There is an on-going debate to answer this question, and different researchers take different positions. Here I will briefly discuss this debate, starting with an explanation the different kinds of modules researchers have described, and then turn to the debate of whether our mind houses only a few or many of these mental modules.


2.3.1 Three different kind of mental modules


Evolutionary psychologists have been strongly criticized for their massive modularity hypothesis (MMH), which states that the human mind is entirely build up by innate special-purpose computational mechanisms (adaptations), shaped by natural selection. To clarify the confusion and to resolve the discussions about ‘how modular’ our human mind really is, Samuels (2000) compares the different approaches that consider the mind to be built up of modules. He differentiates for Chomskian modules, Computational modules, and, Darwinian Modules.


Chomsky’s (1980) computational theory of language involved a specialized mental module. Chomsky (1972) believed that humans have a Language Acquisition Device (LAD), present at birth. His LAD can be regarded as some innate manual on how to learn and use language in a proper way. As Chomsky himself argued (1980), the computational mechanism to perform this task should be very specialized. Just like all our other body organs are specialized to perform a specific function, Chomsky argued that our brain must be composed out of multiple, specialized mental mechanisms that each can solve specific problems. According to Samuels (2000) Chomskian modules or mental representations are domain specific bodies of mentally represented knowledge or information. These representational structures are truth-evaluable, which means that we can ask the question if the representations are true or false. The restrictions that differentiate these modules from general beliefs are (1) that these representational structures are innate, and (2) that these modules are subject to informational restrictions.


The second kind of modules Samuels (2000) discusses are computational modules, which, just like the Chomskian ones, are domain specific to solve specific problems, but differ from the first modules because these modules do not consist of representations, but manipulate representations. They are autonomous components of the mind and can co-exist with the Chomskian modules. Computational modules have been best described by Fodor (1983). According to Fodor, computational modules are: (1) encapsulated with information, (2) mandatory, (3) fast, (4) shallow, (5) neurally localized, (6) susceptible to characteristic breakdown, and, (7) largely inaccessible to other processes.


Third and lastly Samuels (2000) mentions that evolutionary psychologists, referring to the Darwinian modules, subscribe to Fodor’s description, with the exception that they do not agree that modules have encapsulated information. Samuels criticizes the evolutionary psychologists for not having a clear definition for their Darwinian modules. Other than stating that these modules are innate computational mechanism shaped by natural selection, they do not give further characterizations.


2.3.2 Strong and weak massive modularity hypotheses


Among the researchers who regard our brain as being modular, discussions exist on how modular our brains are. Fodor (1983) for instance regards the human brain as being modular, but restricts the modularity to input systems (senses) and language, whereas more central processes such as reasoning are not modular in his view. Gigerenzer (1997), discussing Fodor’s view calls this the ‘weak modularity thesis’, that contrasts the ‘strong modular hypothesis’ as upheld by evolutionary psychologists such as Tooby and Cosmides. Intelligence, as Gigerenzer (1997) argues is modular as well, different modules account for social intelligence, and Cosmides’ (1989) and Cosmides and Tooby’s (1992) work on cheating detection as a form of social intelligence (see also next chapter) supports this idea. Samuels (2000) as well classifies Tooby and Cosmides under the ‘strong modular hypothesis’, but other evolutionary psychologists adopt the weaker version, he claims:


“To sum up, while some evolutionary psychologists think that strong MMH might be true, evolutionary psychology is only committed to the weaker thesis. Moreover, I claim that given the current state of our knowledge, this is the more plausible of the two positions to adopt.” (Samuels, 2000: 29).


However, Samuels’s definition of strong modular hypothesis is different from Gigerenzer’s definition. According to Samuels (2000) the strong MMH says that all cognitive mechanisms are Darwinian modules. The weak MMH, he argues, still leaves space for more general modules to exist. If we look at Cosmides and Tooby’s (2000) theory about the adaptive function(s) of emotions, they do not tend to defend the strong MMH according to Samuels (2000), but rather support what Samuels classifies as the weaker MMH. As they outline, emotions can either solve very specific problems and be considered as a rather large number of very specific modules, or emotions can function in a more general sense; to coordinate other modules in action. Solving a problem sometimes requires different mental mechanisms to be activated. A proper functioning of different modules requires some coordination and: “This coordination is accomplished by a set of superordinate programs- the emotions. They are adaptations that have arisen in response to the adaptive problem of mechanism orchestration.” (Cosmides & Tooby, 2000: 2). This is a more general, less specified function attributed to emotions that fits in the weaker MMH Samuels talks about.


In summary, as Gigerenzer (1997) outlined, evolutionary psychologists adopt a stronger modular view on the mind than Fodor but they do not take the very extreme view that the mind does not house any general modules at all, as Samuels (2000) argued. Their modularity hypothesis is stronger than average, but not in maximum terms.


2.4 The importance of the environment


Adaptations are fit to a specific environment, and they need environmental triggers to be activated as well. When studying behavior in an evolutionary perspective, researchers are often asked ‘How much of this behavior is caused by the genes and how much by the environment?’, to which they expect an answer like ‘X is caused for 60% by genes and 40% by the environment’. However, an outcome (phenotype) is always the interaction of genes with an environment, and statements with percentages are therefore wrong, as they do not capture the essence (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). I will now outline which environmental conditions shape our behavior in interaction with adaptations, and describe these environments.


2.4.1 Not one but three environmental conditions shape our behavior


“Every aspect of an organism's phenotype is the joint product of its genes and its environment. To ask which is more important is like asking; Which is more important in determining the area of a rectangle, the length or the width? Which is more important in causing a car to run, the engine or the gasoline? Genes allow the environment to influence the development of phenotypes.” (Cosmides & Tooby, 1997: 14)


Critics of evolutionary psychology often remark that this evolutionary biological approach to human behavior does not pay enough attention to the cultural, contextual influences on behavior. Still, evolutionary psychologists do not look at one contextual influence on behavior, but rather focus on three different contexts that have shaped and still shape our behavior. The three different contexts that shape our behavior are: (1) the historical selective context, (2) the ontogenetic context, and, (3) the situational context (Buss, 1995, see also figure III.1).


Figure III.1. Three different contexts that shape(d) human behavior




The historical context refers to the selective forces that shaped our behavior. It is the context wherein an adaptation was selected because it could solve a problem our ancestors faced. Education and culture define the ontogenetic context. An individual’s surrounding in which he or she is raised will influence the triggering of adaptations. For instance, when an individual lacks the proper social context that is required to develop language (and gossip), the proper psychological mechanisms will not be triggered and the individual will not develop language as other individuals who are raised in a social context will (see also chapter 6 on how gossip develops in a lifetime for more details). Third and lastly, every action we undertake is also influenced by the immediate contextual influences of that specific moment (Buss, 1995).

Let me give you an example of the influence of the three environmental contexts. When walking through Rattlesnake Park in the hills of Santa Barbara, you might be cautious of encountering snakes. Because venomous bites from snakes can endanger your life, the historical environment translated into a selection pressure to avoid this danger. Selection shaped our human mind to fear snakes (Buss, 1999). Our overall cautious behavior is caused by evolutionary contexts. As an example of the ontological influence, consider that you are in the company of a person who grew up living next to Rattlesnake Park, walking the trail every week, and hardly ever encountering a snake. She knows that chances of encountering a snake are low, and from her experiences she also knows that when encountering a snake it is better to ignore it, and walk away from it, rather than throwing a rock at it in defense. Let us now consider the situational influence. On a walk, you and a friend encounter a snake. This specific situation will trigger a fear-mechanism, producing the fight or flight response (as Ledoux, 1998 outlined) in both of you. You might decide to throw a rock at the snake (fight), while your friend might decide to step back and change the route (flight). The impact of the historical influence is the same for both of you; you both will fear the situation. The impact of different ontological contexts (different experiences in your lifetime) causes the difference in reaction to the situation. Finally, the specific context of encountering the snake was necessary to activate the behavior of the both of you.


Of these three contexts, the historical context, or Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness is most central for evolutionary psychologists.


2.4.2 The environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA)


What exactly is this Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA)? To answer this question, I will overview some critical misunderstandings here. The EEA is not a place, nor a time period


The common mistake is to regard the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA) as a certain place, or even a time period. The EEA is not such a simplification, but consist of the statistical composite of selection pressures that shaped an adaptation. An EEA for a certain trait, such as the human eye, can therefore be different than the EEA for other traits, such as language (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990a):


“As a complex statistical composite of structurally described contingencies of selection, the idea of an EEA involves no oversimplification. Rather the error is to think that a literal place or a habitat, defined by ostension, is a description of the ancestral condition component of the definition of an adaptation. The concept of ancestral conditions or the EEA, as a statistical composite, is necessarily invoked whenever one is making an adaptiveness claim, whether researchers are aware of it or not. As a composite, it is necessarily ‘uniform’ in the abstract sense, although that uniform description may involve the detailed characterization of any degree of environmental variability.” (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990a: 387)


When referring to our historical past, evolutionary psychologists (e.g. Symons, 1979; Cosmides, Tooby & Barkow, 1992) often refer to the Pleistocene, when our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. They do so because for approximately 99% of our evolutionary past our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers (Hawkes, O’Connell & Rogers, 1997). Therefore many human behaviors of today are adapted to living circumstances of life as hunter-gatherers. What did these circumstances look like? Hunter-gatherer societies


Information about hunter-gatherer societies, as they existed in our evolutionary past, is scarce (Boesch & Boesch-Achermann, 2000: 272; Lummaa, Vuarisola, Barr& Lehtonen, 1998; Mithen, 1998: 46-52). Knowledge about these historical societies stems mostly from paleontological anthropology. Although some researchers (Boesch & Boesch-Achermann, 2000: 272; Lummaa, et al, 1998) object that current hunter-gatherer societies are different in lifestyle from ancient hunter-gatherer societies, these societies are also considered as a main source of knowledge about our historical context.


Ancestral environment were probably populated with small groups of about fifty to one hundred people (Tooby & Devore, 1987). Paleontological research has revealed that our ancestors lived in such relatively small groups, with high cooperative and competitive levels. Small cooperative groups competed with other small cooperative groups (Krebs & Denton, 1997; Lewin, 1993; Tooby & Devore, 1987).


Caporael and Baron (1997) analyzed the anthropological literature on nomadic hunter-gatherer groups and came to three important levels of group structure: workgroups, bands and macrobands. Workgroups have an average size of five people, often kin related. Workgroups are the teams that collect food (hunting or gathering). Bands, which on average consist of thirty people, of which many are still kin related, are the group of people that move from place to place together. They cooperate with each other for food storage and childrearing. Macrobands, 300 people on average, are the number of people who meet for seasonal gathering. Macrobands exchange individuals, resources and information. Caporael and Baron (1997) add a fourth important level to these three: the dyadic level. Most infant interaction occurs in dyadic context. They first learn how to interact at this basic level, developing their interaction skills, before interacting at higher structural levels.


2.4.3 The current environments: ontological and situational influences


As outlined above our current behavior is not only influenced by ancient environments, translated in selection pressures, but by current circumstances as well. The context wherein we grow up will influence which adaptations get activated. I will discuss this more in detail in chapter 6, where I outline how gossip develops in a lifetime. In addition, contextual aspects of the very specific situation of an action will influence how we behave as well.


Although most aspects of human environments closely resemble the EEA (otherwise humans would be going extinct), there are some important differences between our historic and our current environments. As I just outlined, hunter-gatherer societies were populated with small groups, while today we live in communities that often house a large number of people (Buss, 1999: 400-402). Another difference might be that our ancestors lived in groups of people they knew (most were kin related), or at least recognized, while today we hardly even know who our neighbors are. When looking at the functioning of current behavior, we should be aware of these contextual differences. Adaptations were selected in environments that are different from our current environment, and “[a] discrepancy between ancestral and modern environments might change the nature of the adaptive problem, or it might render the adaptive problem irrelevant in current environments.” (Buss, 1999: 400). Our minds are adapted to ancient environments and this can sometimes result in non-adaptive or maladaptive outcomes if adaptations get triggered in current environments.


2.4.4 Stone aged minds and the mismatch hypothesis


Because our present environment mismatches the EEA in some aspects, evolutionary psychologists talk about the mismatch hypothesis when referring to outcomes of adaptations due to modern contextual triggers that are different from the contextual triggers in the EEA. Before I explain this more in detail, I present a short note on why we have so-called ‘Stone Aged Minds’. Stone aged minds


During approximately ten million years of our evolutionary past, our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. This is an extremely long time period when compared to the length of time humans lived in agricultural (10,000 years), civil (1000 years) and industrial (200 years) societies (Cosmides & Tooby, 1997: 9; Ridley, 1993: 184). If we add upon this that selection is a slow process, and it takes many generations for changes to occur, we come to the conclusion that our current bodies house stone aged minds (Cosmides & Tooby, 1994: 329):


“Because biological evolution is a slow process, and the modern world has emerged within an evolutionary eye-blink, these devices are inherited from the past and remain functionally specialized to solve the particular distribution of problems that were characteristic of humans’ hunter-gatherer past, rather than those of the modern world (e.g. habitat selection; foraging; social exchange; competition from small armed groups; parental care; language acquisition; contagion avoidances; sexual rivalry).” (Cosmides & Tooby, 1994: 329). The mismatch hypothesis


Because the current environment is different on some points from the EEA, the outcome of triggered adaptations can become different than their outcome in the EEA. It sometimes happens that adaptations are activated in the present by cues that are not actually fitness-relevant (either in the past or the present). Such mismatches between our psychological adaptations that evolved in the past and cues we encounter in the current environment often explain behaviors that would otherwise make no sense, in evolutionary terms. When the current, modern environment is different from (mismatches) the EEA, triggered adaptations can have irrelevant or maladaptive outcomes.


For example, let’s go back to the example I gave above, when you went hiking Rattlesnake Park. Consider you just came back from your adventurous trip, almost bitten by a rattle snake. You enter the garden of your friend who lives right next to this park. A quick peripheral glance at her garden hose might make you startle and jump away (you just learned to flee instead of fight snakes). Your friend will laugh; the hose is harmless! Still, the behavior makes sense when we consider the EEA: snakes were a real threat to the survival and reproduction of our ancestors, and it is very likely that we possess psychological adaptations that cause us to quickly remove ourselves from the presence of objects that just might be snakes (as frequently happens when we see branches on a hiking trail).


This was an example of the irrelevant outcome of the activation of an adaptation in the current environment. Next to this, outcomes can also become maladaptive. The classical example for this is the difference in access to calories in the modern environment, compared to the EEA. In the EEA calories were scarce, and our ancestors’ strategy to take in all calories they found was adaptive; it secured their survival and reproduction. Today, calories are easy accessible (consider walking in a supermarket). Taking all calories we can access has become a maladaptive strategy. Obesity is a major health problem in our current societies, and is an example of a maladaptive outcome of an adaptation (Gaulin & McBurney, 2004: 225-227). Our stone aged minds in media land


Our modern, Western, societies house various forms of media. Of course these developments are less than an eye blink in evolutionary terms. Because media are so omnipresent, and their influence on our behavior has been subject to many studies within the communication studies and psychology, I will pay extra attention to the functioning of gossip in our media environments in the last chapter (see chapter 7) of this theoretical part of my dissertation.


2.5 An evolutionary approach to human behavior: practical guidelines


Having outlined some of the basic principles of evolutionary psychology, I now turn to a more practical part. I will first outline how an evolutionary analysis of human behavior is best conducted, and then start applying this to human gossip.


2.5.1 Guidelines for a functional analysis


Dennett (1997), referring to the fact that evolution is a blind process selecting individuals that are best adapted to the environment they live in without taking note of future implications, suggests that an adaptationist study consists of reversed engineering. When studying behavior we must ask ourselves why it emerged and evolved.


Tinbergen (cited in Gaulin & McBurney, 2004: 15-16) suggested that an evolutionary analysis should consist of four major parts. First, researchers should look at the phylogenetic past; how did the trait emerge and evolve? Secondly, an ontogenetic analysis must be done; how does the trait develop in a lifetime? Third, a structural analysis should explain which mechanisms the adaptation contains. Fourth, and lastly, a functional analysis should explain why the adaptation was selected; which problems it can solve?


Tooby and Cosmides’ (1990a: 384-385) guidelines to conduct an adaptationist analysis of human behavior are very similar to the four part analysis. I will outline their rules to follow, and apply them to gossip in the next section and in more detail in the next chapter. The authors state that:


Step 1:

A functional analysis starts from general evolutionary models, like the theories about fitness, kin selection, altruism, cooperation, sexual selection.

I have already tackled part of Step 1 in this chapter. In the next chapter, I will frame gossip in those general evolutionary models in more detail.


Step 2:

Next an analysis of the phylogenetic past of the trait needs to be conducted.

I will do this in the next section of this chapter.


Step 3:

Followed by a description of the inherited adaptations that evolved (what are the mechanisms?).


Step 4:

Furthermore we need to analyze the present conditions and look at the ontogenetic development.

In chapter 6 I discuss the underlying mechanisms of gossip behavior (step 3), and how these develop in a lifetime (ontogenetic, step 4).


Step 5:

Finally, explain the present behavior.

For this I refer mainly to chapter 4 of this theoretical part of my dissertation.


Besides these five general steps, Tooby and Cosmides (1990a) also added some additional rules that we will have to keep in mind. An additional constraint is that the researched trait should be universally present. Gossip, listed as a human universal by Brown (1991) passes this constraint. Criticisms of evolutionary psychology might say: “yes, but a lot of variation exists in how gossip is used in different societies.” This does not embarrass evolutionary theory though, because variation is a property of evolution. Evolution results in variation, because selection always has to be defined in terms of the environment in which individuals live (Cosmides & Tooby, 1987).


There is a second additional guideline Tooby and Cosmides (1990a) added; be aware that adaptations are universal, but their adaptive outcome might differ because of differences in the current environments as I discussed this above. A third extra constraint is that the adaptation studied should have been present in the Pleistocene. That gossip has a long history will become clear from my phylogenetic analysis, which I present later in this chapter. A last important extra criterion Tooby and Cosmides mention is that the design of an adaptation must be species specific. This as well is the case for gossip, and will be proven in my phylogenetic analysis.


2.5.2 Sex differences in evolutionary perspective


Evolutionary psychologists often pay a lot of attention to sex differences in behavior. As Symons (1979) said, women are the higher investing sex in our species. As I explained earlier, in biological terms women benefit more from carefully choosing one or a few qualitatively good mates, while men, in biological terms, benefit most from having multiple partners. Sexual selection pressures cause men and women to be different in what they want. Although their behavior might be alike, what they fantasize about can differ (Symons, 1979). In the next chapter I will focus more in detail on gossip in the context of human mating problems (caused by sexual selection). What I want to stress here is that not only sexual selection, resulting in mating behavior, accounts for male/female differences. Two other sources of male/female differences are sexual division of labor and moving patterns. Both are very related to sexual selection, but need some more explanation. Sexual division of labor


Aside from a few exceptions, in most current hunter-gatherer societies men hunt and women gather food (Bird, 1999). Men favor large animal prey, while women frequently do just the opposite; taking plants and other small, more-predictable resources (Hawkes et al, 1997; Kaplan & Hill, 1992). Data on women’s foraging pattern show that they can hunt, but avoid doing so. One reason why women specialize in collecting and foraging smaller food items is the higher costs they have to pay when pursuing dangerous, mobile prey while hunting (Kaplan & Hill, 1992). From a men’s perspective the motivation for division of labor can be twofold, says Bird (1999). She explains that the cooperation model explains that men specialize in hunting and women in gathering as a cooperation strategy to provide their offspring at the maximum rate. However, the conflict model which Bird (1999) puts forward explains men’s hunting as a strategy to get maximum access to mating opportunities.


Due to this division of labor, which results from differences in investment in offspring (cooperation model) or mating strategies (conflict model) and are therefore linked to sexual selection, our male and female ancestors faced different ecological and social selection pressures? While hunting, men were more often confronted with problems of traveling great distances, and estimating distances to prey. Women, while working more in collaboration with other women and caring for children, were confronted more often with social problems of group living and working. As a result, today men, on average, still outscore women on spatial abilities and women, on average, perform better on verbal tasks (Gaulin & McBurney, 2004: 192-194). Difference in residence patterns


A common myth about hunter-gatherer societies is that bilocality (living with the husband’s or the wife’s family) is the norm (Ember, 1978). Bilocality means an equal relocation pattern of men and women; young men and young women both leave their band to move in with the band of their spouse after marriage. This is a myth because, in reality, patrilocality seems to be the rule. Patrilocality means living with the husband’s family. This is, women leave their band for marriage and move in with the band of their husband, while men stay with their kin related group members throughout their lifetime. According to Ember (1978) studies from all hunter-gatherer societies today (listed in the Ethnographic Atlas) show that in 62% of all cases patrilocality is the rule. Burton, Moore, Whiting and Romney (1996) agree on this; reporting that patrilocality occurs in 70% of our human societies.


Studies tend to confirm that in our evolutionary past women migrated more often than men to live with his family after marriage (Oota et al, 2001, Rodseth et al, 1991). Dominance of female migration patterns is not only common among humans, but also occurs in other non-human primates (Gerloff et al, 1999) and has even impacted the population structure of large mammals (Tiedemann, et al 2000). These facts support the hypothesis that throughout the evolutionary history, our female ancestors were more confronted with adaptive problems due to relocation, such as learning about their new social environment and establishing new social contacts.


As Kaplan and Hill (1992) said, men travel as well; to exchange information on foraging techniques and get information about marriageable women. The difference is that men travel and stay with another band for a short while to exchange information, while women, when leaving their band, stay for the rest of their lives with other bands.


If this is true, we could suppose that those behavioral adaptations still exist today, and we could expect men to have better spatial skills, and females to be socially the more active sex. Support for this can be found in the fact that social contacts in general are more important for woman than for men. By forming allies with others, women secure themselves, and can even achieve power (Yanca & Low, 2004).


In my functional analysis of gossip, I will pay attention to these different selection pressures and how they shaped male/female differences in (desires to) gossip.



3 Phylogenetic analysis of gossip


Outlining the basic principles of evolutionary psychology in section 2 of this chapter, I performed part of the first step of my functional analysis of gossip that will be continued in the next chapter, where I focus more specific on some general evolutionary theories. In the remainder of this chapter, I present you the second step of my adaptationist analysis, which is a phylogenetic analysis of gossip.


3.1 Gossip and the emergence of language


For the phylogenetic analysis of gossip, I will focus on the emergence of language. Gossip is a linguistic behavior, and the phylogenetic roots of gossip are therefore best explained by looking at the emergence and evolution of language in general.


Framing language in a historical, evolutionary perspective, I will discuss some basic questions, such as when language emerged, how this happened and for which reasons. The goal of this historical analysis is to show that gossip is not a recent phenomenon, but can be considered as a product of evolution, a human trait that was present in the Pleistocene.


3.1.1 When did language emerge?


Setting a date on the first appearance of language in our evolutionary past is difficult and very much depends on how language is defined. Are the first vocalizations our ancestors uttered definable as language? Or does some syntax or grammar need to be present before we can define sound as language? The debate on how to define language is too general to discuss here, however I want to note that much of the discussion about the first roots of language are due to different definitions used by different researchers. Aitchison (1997) notes that in the most general sense, two different theories exist that each frame the emergence of language in a different time period. Either language is seen as a fairly recent product, dating back a few thousand years ago, or language is seen as a million year old product of evolution.


Those who consider language as a recent product, frame the emergence of language in the Cultural Revolution. Cave paintings, cultural variation, our ancestors who crossed the oceans, and language are all features that occurred between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago, says Byrne (1995: 162-163). Therefore he talks about language as an invention, rather than a product of selection.


At the other end of the spectrum, I situate Deacon’s (1992, 1997) vision on language. He places the first appearance of language between 1.5 and 2 million years ago, at the time of Homo erectus. Deacons (1997) links languages to the use of symbols, humans are what he calls a symbolic species. The use of symbols and language goes hand in hand with the making of tools, which occurred at the time of Homo habilis, he argues. If we take account of the Baldwin effect (which states that our behavior directs evolution, so that behavior is not only a result but also a cause of evolutionary change), Deacon says that the use of tools, symbols, and language must even have been present among Australopithecus. No proof for this can be found in the archeological analysis of skulls, but the behavior of Australopithecus might have caused the transition to Homo habilis. Skull analyses of Homo habilis, do confirm that language might have been present at that time (Deacon, 1997).


Still, linking verbal language to the use and construction of tools has been criticized. For instance, studies among current indigenous societies reveal that knowledge about tool use and construction is transferred nonverbally, through gestures, and language does not contribute to this learning process (Johanson& Edgar, 1996: 106-107).


Somewhere in-between these two extreme time frames, Aiello and Dunbar (1993) situate their vision on the first signs of language. They claim language arose as some kind of group bonding mechanism (as I will discuss later in this chapter as well). Johanson and Edgar (1996: 106-107) counter that many primates live in social groups, interacting with each other without using language. But Aiello and Dunbar (1993) neglect this criticism and claim that somewhere in our evolutionary past, our ancestors started living in such large and socially complex groups (as protection against predators) that could not have emerged without some group bonding mechanism being present. They therefore assume that language, and more specificly gossip (Dunbar, 1998a), arose as a social bonding system at the time of Homo sapiens, about half a million years ago. Barret, Dunbar and Lycett (2002: 330-331) say that support for Aiello and Dunbar’s (1993) hypothesis can be found if we look at anatomical changes that occurred in the same historical time period. Our ancestors’ chests and nervous system expanded at the time of Homo erectus, as well as the shape of the tongue, enabling certain sounds to be produced.


The discussion about when language first emerged actually relates very closely to the question whether language is a cultural product, completely submissive to a learning process as the standard social scientists claim, or whether some biological predisposition for language is present at birth. Taking an evolutionary perspective, the latter seems more plausible. Language, and therefore gossip, most probably has some genetic basis for selection on which to operate.


3.1.2 How did language emerge: the continuity debate


Next to the debate whether language is a fairly recent, or a two million year old product, and relevant to frame gossip and language in a Darwinian perspective, is the debate whether gossip and language evolved out of some other forms of communication present among other species, or not. Aitchison (1998) explains that this continuity debate holds two opposite theories. According to the continuity vision, which agrees with the Darwinian Theory, language cannot have emerged out of the blue, because of the complexity of this human trait. Language is a complex system that must have evolved out of other less complex systems. The adepts of the discontinuity vision argue that language is unique to humans, and does not occur in other species. Further, they do not believe in some connection to older forms of communication that does exist in other species.


Experiments on language use within other, closely related species falls within the continuity vision of language. One of the most famous experiments is, of course, Savage-Rumbaugh’s (Savage-Rumbaugh & Lewin, 1994; Savage-Rumbaugh, Shanker & Taylor, 1998) study of the bonobo Kanzi. Savage-Rumbaugh and her fellow researchers discovered that language could be taught to bonobos, who are our closest relatives:


“What Kanzi tells us is that humans are not the only species that can acquire language if exposed to it at an early age. Humans simply appear to be the only species that can make the proper sounds actually to speak, and thus the only species that has exploited the sound system to a significant degree for communicating novel messages to conspecifics.” (Savage-Rumbaugh, Shanker & Taylor, 1998: 74)


Other primates, such as bonobos of course, do not produce language as humans do. This is due to physical constraints, Savage-Rumbaugh, Shanker and Taylor (1998: 190) argue: “…locked in a body that cannot express what the mind can understand and conjure.” It is true that humans have physically different speech mechanisms than other primates. The human larynx is located lower than the larynx of other primates, and this offers humans the possibility to produce a wider variety of sounds (Bradshaw, 1997: 106).

Still, criticisms of the research of language-use among bonobos, such as Kanzi, often point to the fact that no matter how much effort these researchers put into teaching Kanzi and other primates how to use language, these other primates never outperform a human child at the age of two to three. Therefore we cannot conclude that a specialized language mechanism, present in humans, can be found among other primates, says Mithen (1998: 93-97).


If we cannot trace proper language use down to our closest relatives, is human language not a product of evolution? Pinker and Bloom (1992: 484-486) do not see any problem:


“[…] we completely disagree with the premise that the debate over ape signing should be treated as a referendum on whether human language evolved by natural selection. Of course human language, like other complex adaptations, could not have evolved overnight. But then there is no law of biology that says that scientists are blessed with the good fortune of being able to find evolutionary antecedents to any modern structure in some other living species.” (Pinker & Bloom, 1992: 484)


In the evolutionary tree, the human branch split of from our last common ancestor with other primates about 6 million years ago, which according to Pinker (1994) is sufficiently long enough in history for selection to operate on and make us fundamentally different from all other species, when it comes to language use: “…the gradualness that Darwin made so much about applies to lineages of individual organisms in a bushy family tree, not to entire living species in a great chain.” (Pinker, 1994: 346). Tooby and Cosmides (1989a) support Pinker’s statement. Evolution rests indeed on (1) common descent, and (2) adaptation driven by natural selection. An evolution-minded perspective, they argue, can either be phylogeny-minded; focusing on homologous features from common ancestors, or is adaptation-minded, in search for the adaptive design unique to the species being investigated. Tooby and Cosmides (1989a: 179) then specifically comment on ape-language research:


“One can see the interplay of these sentiments in the ape-language controversy: Half of the scientific audience cheers for the apes, hoping they can duplicate human linguistic feats, while the other half is confident that the apes’ linguistic abilities will prove very limited. The phylogeny-minded form the apes’ cheering section: They reason that if a human can learn a language, then our nearest relatives should be able to do so as well. The adaptation-minded are skeptics in the ape language controversy: They (correctly) see the acquisition of a language as a species-specific mental ability, requiring highly complex and specialized cognitive mechanisms that are not likely to be shared by other primates, who were not selected to participate in communication through linguistic behavior (Chomsky, 1975).” (Tooby & Cosmides, 1989a: 179)


A related critique on the continuity debate stems from Narasimhan (1998), who discusses Bickerton’s (1990, cited in Narasimhan, 1998) solution to this debate. Bickerton assumed that the evolution of human language can be divided into two stages. In a first stage, language or what he refers to as protolanguage, resembled a more representational device, used to refer to the environment rather than to communicate with others. In a second stage, this protolanguage evolved to the communicative social language use as we know it today. However Bickerton, along with Calvin (Calvin & Bickerton, 2001), does not wholly believe that the social language use of today evolved out of some kind of call system our ancestors used, and that can be traced in other species as well:


“The amazing thing is that some people still believe that language must have developed out of some kind of hominid call system. In that case it would be strange indeed that the hominid call system – screams, crying, laughter, finger-painting, fist-shaking and the like- still continues to exist alongside language.” (Calvin & Bickerton, 2001: 21)


The fact that syntax use and vocalization use are located at different places in our brain (syntax in the left hemisphere, vocalizations above the corpus callosum), further makes Calvin and Bickerton (2001) assume that our modern language use has different origins than the use of other vocalizations:


“It makes you think in terms of a second language system, operating in parallel, with an older one, and not necessarily an intensification of the first system. The second system could have its origins in something like face recognition and social relationships, rather than producing vocalisations.” (Calvin & Bickerton, 2001: 21)


Worden (1998) supports the idea that language evolved out of social intelligence, rather than having its roots in primitive forms of vocalizations. Language always involves other people, he argues, making it a social behavior. Ulbaek (1998) also agrees with this:


“The correct theory of evolution of language, in my opinion, is this: language evolved from animal cognition not from animal communication. Here lies the continuity. Language grew out of cognitive systems, already in existence and working: it formed a communicative bridge between already-cognitive animals. Thus, I not only reject the seemingly natural assumption that language evolved out of other communication systems, but I adopt the far more radical assumption that cognitive systems were in place before language.” (Ulbaek, 1998: 33)


Indications that other species have evolved the cognitive-systems that preceded language, can be found in following features that are present among other species (Ulbaek, 1998; Donald, 1998): the use of tools, cognitive maps for territory, learning through imitation, social knowledge (such as the pecking order among pigeons), deception, theory of mind, and the capability of learning a language system.


To conclude this debate, I propose that language, and therefore gossip, evolved out of some older forms of communication and/or cognition. Taking an adaptation-minded perspective, I do not seek support in the studies of language among our closest relatives. It is important not to search for homologies in behavioral strategies, but to focus on the underlying hardware that might be found in similar forms in other animals as well. Little changes to these mental mechanisms are sufficient to produce a very different behavior outcome:


“However, behavioral output is the combined simultaneous output of all psychological mechanisms activated in an animal at the time: A change in any one mechanism may affect the combined interacting output, making this level the most variable between species.” (Tooby & Cosmides, 1989a: 181)


Language, and therefore gossip, is a human-specific trait, not shared by other living creatures. For my functional analysis of gossip it is sufficient to assume continuity in evolution, as Darwin outlined, without arguing in detail out of which older systems language and gossip evolved.


To end both the discussions on when and how language emerged, I present the overview of Ulbaek (1998: 30), which can be outlined in following scheme:


Table III.1. Ulbaek’s classification of the different scientific approaches to the phylogeny of human language





Language as product of evolution, present a birth.

Bickerton, Pinker, Ulbaek, …


Language as cultural product, completely submissive to learning process.






Four approaches to language can be differentiated for, based on different views on how and when language emerged. If language is an old product of evolution then some biological basis is present at birth. Those who do not believe this statement regard language as a cultural, recent product. Both approaches to language can either accept or reject the continuity vision on language, which states that language evolved out of some older systems, such as vocalizations or social intelligence, that are also present in other species. Note that those who do not believe in continuity can still regard language as a product of evolution. For example, Chomsky (1972) supported the discontinuity vision, but still proposed that humans possess a language module (Language Acquisition Device) present at birth, that enables us to learn language.


3.2 Language and the different selection pressures


Assuming language is a product of evolution, and taking continuity in evolution for granted, I must mention one last discussion within the phylogenetic perspective on language. In addition to the discussion of when and how language emerged, researchers argue about which selection pressures played a role in the evolution of language.


The debate how and why social communication or language in general, emerged and evolved is closely related to the explanation of the expansion of our human brain throughout evolutionary history. Language requires more intelligence, and therefore more brain capacity.


3.2.1 Language, intelligence and big brains


The emergence of language goes hand in hand with the explanation why humans have such (relatively) big brains. The evolution of the human brain had two important growth spurts. With the emergence of the hominoid lineage, about 2 million years ago, the brain of our ancestors (Homo habilis and Homo erectus) almost doubled in volume to 1000cc. A second major increase in brain volume occurred 10,000 to 200,000 years ago, with the emergence of Homo sapiens and the Cultural Revolution. New brain structures emerged, most notably the frontal lobe of our brain, which is important for communication and strategic planning expanded (Bogin & Smith, 1996; Bradshaw, 1997: 145-155; Donald, 1991: 99-100; Johanson& Edgar, 1996: 80-81; Mithen, 1998: 6-8; Savage-Rumbaugh& Lewin, 1994: 223).


As Bradshaw (1997: 145-155) comments, the encephalization (growth) of our brain not only resulted in the emergence of new brain structures, but also enabled new computational capacities, such as new cognitive maps to store information.


Several theories have tried to explain the encephalization of the human brain in terms of the emergence of intelligence throughout our evolutionary history. The different, competing theories use different selection pressures to explain brain growth; they either attribute it to ecological reasons (natural selection), to mating reasons (sexual selection) or to social reasons (social selection). I will now overview these different approaches.


3.2.2 Ecological selection pressures and big brains


Within the area of ecological selection pressures that shaped human intelligence, attention has been paid to the use of tools for ecological reasons and dietary shifts. Man the toolmaker hypothesis


In the context of ecological selection pressures and intelligence, some (Bradshaw, 1997: 145-155; Donald, 1991: 99-100; Johanson& Edgar, 1996: 80-81; Mithen, 1998: 6-8; Savage-Rumbaugh& Lewin, 1994: 223) say that the use of tools can be linked to intelligence and might have co-evolved with the expansion of our brains. But Wynn (1988) comments on this:


“I am not arguing that tools were not important in human evolution. They clearly played a role in changing subsistence patterns, geographic expansions, and so on. However, the question here is intelligence, not ecological success, and we cannot assume that the two are tied directly to one another through the agency of tools.” (Wynn, 1988: 283).


Beyond linking tool-use to intelligence, most attention is paid to the role of dietary shifts, as ecological selection pressures, for increasing our brain and intelligence capacities. Dietary shifts


Those in support of the dietary shifts hypothesis (Kaplan, Hill, Lancaster and Hurtado, 2000; Milton, 1988) suppose that human intelligence (and larger brains) emerged because of a dietary shift from fulivores to frulivores to carnivores. The patchy and sparse distribution of fruits and hunting of prey required more intelligence to collect food. As Kaplan et al (2000) say, the skill requirements to forage fruits and meat are much higher than the skill requirements to collect food such as leaves. Humans need more complex hunting skills to be able to insure their daily food intake. Therefore Kaplan et al (2000) argue that bigger brains, and intelligence, evolved to handle these ecological pressures. As acquisition and handling of food becomes more difficult, more intelligence (and a bigger brain) is required.


The expansion of the human brain co-evolved with a longer lifespan and juvenile period, unique to humans. This is because more difficult skills needed to collect and handle food require a longer learning-period. Juveniles learn the skills they will use in a later stage of their life. Bogin and Smith (1996) also uphold this opinion: “An adolescent stage of human growth may have evolved to provide the time needed to practice complex social skills needed to be an effective parent.” (Bogin & Smith, 1996: 709).


During the juvenile period children do not (or hardly) contribute to the collecting of food, and are dependent on others. But as Kaplan et al (2000) explain, more nutritious food also expands the maximum lifespan, and women who have ended their fertile period and raised their own children help younger women to raise the juveniles (grandmother hypothesis).


To test whether dietary shifts correlate with an increase in brain-volume, Kaplan, Mueller, Gangestad and Lancaster (2003) used multivariate analysis, wherein they regressed brain size with body size, age at first reproduction, maximum life span, percent of fruit in the diet, range size and group size. They incorporated group size in their analysis, since a competing hypothesis to explain the brain expansion in evolution is linked to the social selection pressure of increase of group size (see below). Kaplan et al (2003) concluded that all variables, except group size, were significant predictors of the increase of brain size. Their results therefore confirm the ecological hypothesis and reject the social hypothesis. Language and the hunting hypothesis


Corresponding to Kaplan et al's (2000 & 2003) opinion that juveniles need to learn techniques to become skilled hunters, Scalise Sugiyama (2001) further contributes to the ecological explanations for increased intelligence. She says that the telling of stories have evolved because of the ecological selection pressure for information acquisition about hunting skills and techniques. First-hand information may be very costly and risky to obtain when dealing with mobile prey, thus it is far better of to rely on narratives as second-hand information to get experience at low costs. Transmitting information about how to gather food and hunt for prey might have been the drive to make people use language to disseminate experiences to others.


Proof that language evolved in the context of hunting can be found, according to Savage-Rumbaugh and Lewin (1994), in the many clicking and hissing sounds of our modern language. These authors say that these sounds refer to the sounds of braking branches (clicks) and rustling leaves (hisses) that are associated with hunting. Pinker (1994) as well supports this idea:


Hunter-gatherers are accomplished toolmakers and superb amateur biologists with detailed knowledge of the life cycles, ecology, and behavior of the plants and animals they depend on. Language would surely have been useful in anything resembling such a lifestyle. It is possible to imagine a superintelligent species whose isolated members cleverly negotiated their environment without communicating with one another, but what a waste!” (Pinker, 1994: 367)


Aitchison (1996) has criticized their view, however. According to her, language is not an ideal tool to express three-dimensional thoughts (as common in hunting techniques). If we want to express three-dimensional thoughts, she says, we communicate non-verbally. Nevertheless, I will argue, in the next chapter, that gossip, as a specific form of language, does have adaptive values in the contexts of these above outlined ecological selection pressures that shaped our increased intelligence.


3.2.3 Social selection pressures and our big brains


Different from pointing to ecological selection pressures to explain the brain expansion, the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis focuses on social selection pressures. Machiavellian intelligence


“[…] although most research on animal and human intellect has focused on how intelligence deals with the physical or technical world (and the very concept of intelligence has been shaped by this), in reality intelligence is applied also in dealing with other individuals.” (Whiten & Byrne, 1988a: 2)


In 1988 Byrne and Whiten published a bundle of papers that all explored the idea of “Machiavellian Intelligence”. Their hypothesis enfolds “the idea that intelligence began in social manipulation, deceit and cunning co-operation […]” (Byrne & Whiten 1997: 1). According to Byrne and Whiten (1997) intelligence (or what they call cognitive capability) is linked with social living and the complexity this can pose. Human groups are complex, and different from other animal aggregations (e.g. termites) because our social relations rest on recognizing each other, interacting with each other over a whole lifetime, and past interactions influencing future ones (Cords, 1997). This complex social environment (and not the ecological context) was a significant selective pressure for primate (human and non-human) intelligence.

The idea is based on Humphrey’s (1988) vision on the social function of intellect. As Humphrey explained, social interactions require intelligence to look at past interactions in order to plan future ones:


“When a man sets out to solve a social problem he may reasonably have certain expectations about what he is getting in to. First, he should know that the situation confronting him is unlikely to remain stable. Any social transaction is, by its nature, a developing process and the development is bound to have a degree of indeterminacy to it. Neither of the social agents involved in the transaction can be certain of the future behavior of the other; as in Alice’s game of croquet with the Queen of Hearts, both balls and hoops are always on the move. Someone embarking on such a transaction must therefore be prepared for the problem itself to alter as a consequence of his attempt to solve it – in the very act of interpreting the social world he changes it. Like Alice he may well be tempted to complain ‘You’ve got no idea how confusing it is, all the things being alive’; that is not the way the game is played at Hurlingham – and that is not the way that non-social material typically behaves. However, secondly he should know that the development will have a certain logic to it.” (Humphrey, 1988: 22-23)


What Humphrey argues is that primate intelligence is not ‘just social’ but Machiavellian in its origins. He sees social interactions as games in which the winner is the one who outwits the other (Whiten & Byrne, 1988a). The term ‘Machiavellian’ is commonly used to describe manipulative, deceptive tactics for short-term advantages, but as Byrne and Whiten (1997) stress, the term has a broader meaning in this theory. Not only short-term, but also long-term goals are incorporated and not only manipulative tactics, but cooperation as well is included in this theory.


In parallel with the Machiavellian hypothesis, a growing body of evidence shows that humans have a very good understanding of each other. What is termed Theory of Mind can be summed thusly: “If an individual is able to respond differentially, according to the beliefs and desires of another individual (rather than according only to the other’s overt behavior), then it possesses a theory of mind.” (Byrne & Whiten, 1997: 8). Premack and Woodruff (1978, cited in Byrne & Whiten, 1997: 7) first used the term theory of mind (ToM) to explain actions of chimpanzees (for an overview of studies about ToM and non-human primates see Whiten 1997). Ever since it has become a research topic for other human orientated disciplines (see work of Baron-Cohen, 199’, 1995 and Leslie 1994a,b, 2000a,b).


The weakness of the Machiavellian hypothesis lies in the fact that (1) social complexity is hard to measure and (2) in the generality of the theory. Group size can be used as a proxy for social complexity (see below), but as Gigerenzer (1997) says, statements such as ‘the social world is more complex and less predictable than the rest of nature’ are difficult to make concrete.


“To summarize, the possibility of a special social intelligence, different from technical, ecological, and other forms of intelligence, has been attributed to the alleged facts that social environments are more ‘complex’, ‘unpredictable’, or ‘challenging’. Justifications such as these sound plausible but under closer inspection turn out to be either empirically empty (untestable and vague) or possibly false (they project the 20th-century control over nature into the past). Last but not least, none of these supposed reasons for a special social intelligence has helped to specify the mechanisms of social intelligence, Machiavellian or otherwise.” (Gigerenzer, 1997: 270)


Gigerenzer (1997), trying to solve the problems of the Machiavellian hypothesis weaknesses, suggests a modular version of the social intelligence hypothesis, that focuses more on specialized modules (adaptations) that compromise social intelligence. I will adopt his idea in the next and following chapters.


To end this section of the social selection pressures that shaped human intelligence, I will again outline a clear link to language. The Machiavellian hypothesis and language: Dunbar


Dunbar (1992a,b, 1993, 1995, 1998a,b,c) further elaborated this Machiavellian hypothesis, focusing on the role of language in our evolutionary past. Although the Machiavellian hypothesis has been heavily criticized, because social complexity is hard to operationalize and measure (Byrne & Whiten, 1997; Gigerenzer, 1997), Dunbar (1998a,b) argues that group size can be used as a proxy for measuring social complexity. Since, as the number of individuals in a group increases, the complexity of the group also increases.


Different from Kaplan et al (2000) Dunbar did not correlate the increase of the total brain with different variables, but only focused on the increase of the neocortex. The neocortex (front part of the brain) is the region that increased most throughout our history, he argues. When plotting the increase of the neocortex ratio (ratio of neocortex to total brain volume) against percentage of fruit in the diet, the mean home-range size, types of extractive foraging, and mean group size in anthropoid primates, Dunbar (1998b) noticed that only group size correlated with the increase of the neocortex ratio. He therefore argues that evolutionary pressures probably selected larger brain size and super-intelligence to solve problems occurring in larger groups. This is what he calls: “… the so called ‘social brain’ hypothesis which emphasizes the claim that the primate brain is largely a social brain rather than an ecological tool.” (Dunbar, 1998a: 94).


His social brain hypothesis has two main premises (Dunbar 1998a). The first premise is that there exists a correlation between the average group size of primates and the relative size of the neocortex. The size of the neocortex actually constrains the amount of people we can socialize with, since the neocortex determines our capacity to process information. According to this theory, we humans live in groups of on average 150 people, which is on average three times as large as the groups other primates live in.


The second premise is that some primates use grooming as a social bonding system. So grooming not only has the function to take away fleas and other bacteria, it also has a social function; to construct bonds and maintain social contacts. Concerning the amount of time spent on social grooming, Dunbar (1998a) noticed a correlation between time spent on grooming and average group size. Primates spent on average about 20% of their daily time on social grooming. Considering the fact that the average group size of humans is about 150, the correlation predicts that we should be spending 40% of our daily time on social grooming, which is an impossible high amount of time. Therefore Dunbar reasoned that either we should be living in smaller groups, or there should be some other, more efficient mechanism to socialize.


Since we do live in quite large aggregations of people, it seems obvious the latter is true. This more efficient mechanism that can bond people in a social context is, according to Dunbar (1998a), language, more specific: social talk. You can talk to more than one person at a time, the average conversational groups size seems to be four people: one person speaking and three listeners. (Dunbar, Duncan & Nettle, 1995; Dunbar, Marriott & Duncan, 1997). Dunbar therefore argues that the existence of larger groups became possible with the emergence of language.


A side effect of this is however that cheating can occur more easily in these larger groups. Since our ancestors did not have enough encounters with every one of these larger group’s members, it was sometimes difficult to know who was a cheater and who wasn’t. Dunbar (1998a) suggested that gossip, or rather social talk, since he defines gossip as “the exchange of social information about you and others”, was a solution to this problem. By spreading information about ‘who is doing what to whom’ gossip could act as a social control system. Critics on Dunbar


One of Dunbar’s central arguments in his approach to social communication is that language is three times as efficient in terms of social bonding, than grooming is. Human groups are three times as big as other primate groups; we talk to three people on average, which makes his number three become a central number supporting his theory. However, this has been criticized by Nakamura (1999).


Looking at Dunbar’s data, Nakamura (1999) noticed that Dunbar had not taken role-taking into account in his analyses. When redoing the analyses, taking role-taking into account, Nakamura concluded that the efficiency of grooming was nearly as efficient as human conversation. These results could of course greatly disrupt Dunbar’s ideas. However, Nakamura's claim is that human conversation is not the only social bonding mechanism used by humans. Other kinds of communication should be taken into account as well: “Grooming and conversation both have an aspect that functions as a group bonding mechanism. However, these are not the only mechanisms, nor are they incompatible.” (Nakamura, 1999: 193).


As an example of another bonding mechanism within humans, Nakamura refers to singing: “Chorus is not strictly conversation, but it surely helps bonding among the participants.” (Nakamura, 1999: 293). A more striking example of another bonding mechanism that humans use comes from Dimberg (1997) who focuses more on physical forms of human grooming, like hair stroking, massaging and, squeezing out pimples:


“From these reports it seems likely that in the industrialized German society of today social grooming is still occurring, and at least for a number of persons, the motivation to carry out grooming seems comparable to that in traditional cultures. Some people, who admit to enjoy acts of social grooming, rationalize their inclination by stating that “pimples must be squeezed out, otherwise they become infected” or by giving similar, quasi-medical, and often wrong explanations.” (Dimberg, 1997: 73)


3.2.4 Different selection pressures co-acted on the evolution of language and gossip


As some researchers (Byrne & Whiten, 1997; Cheney & Seyfarth, 1988; Gigerenzer, 1997) have argued, it is not about one or the other, but about one and the other when comparing ecological to social selection pressures that shaped our intelligence throughout evolutionary history. Cheney and Seyfarth (1988) concluded from their studies on social and non-social knowledge in vervet monkeys that:


“Although ecological factors are undoubtedly important, primates do not appear to manipulate objects in their environment to solve ecological problems with as much sophistication as they manipulate each other to solve social problems […]. The challenge of exploiting widely dispersed and ephemeral food items thus have led to increased intelligence not simply because food collection itself becomes more difficult, but also because ecological complexity sets the stage for increasingly complex social competition.” (Cheney & Seyfarth, 1988: 270)


Byrne and Whiten (1997) even go one step further; not only ecological and social factors might have shaped human intelligence, they say, but even other forces might be involved as well:


“We appear confronted, at present, with ‘either/or’ choices, between Machiavellian manipulation, cognitive mapping, extractive foraging, and technical skill, as pressures for intelligence. However, given the multi-faced nature of intelligence, and the long evolutionary history leading to modern humans, it is perhaps unlikely that the answer will be so simple. Most likely, more than one of these spheres may have had some role in shaping intelligence at different periods of primate and human evolution; and quite other spheres of challenge may have been important for the evolution of intelligence in other groups of animal. More tricky to tease out, it may be that interactions between various selection pressures, were crucial in selecting for intelligence, rather than any one in isolation.” (Byrne & Whiten, 1997: 17)


In line with this thinking, I suggest looking at all different selection pressures that shaped our human mind, to be involved in the emergence and evolution of social intelligence. Different selection pressures influenced how human intelligence evolved, and even in interaction with each other. In the next chapter I will more detailed outline how gossip (which can be classified as social intelligence) could solve adaptive problems of survival (ecological selection), mating (sexual selection), and group living (social selection), our ancestors faced. Focusing on specific functions of gossip, as central in the evolutionary psychological approach, this functional analysis will show that not one function can be attributed to gossip, but many, which indicates that gossip is a too broad term, and needs classification (which I also discussed in chapter 1).


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[1] The original book On the origin of species dates from 1859, I use a reprint version of 1998.

[2] See section 2.4.2 of this chapter for more explanation on what the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness refers to.