Yuval Noah Harari on #gossip

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What, then, is so special about our language? 

The most common answer is that [with] our language… a modern human can tell her friends that this morning, near the bend in the river, she saw a lion tracking a herd of bison. She can then describe the exact location, including the different paths leading to the area. With this information, the members of her band can put their heads together and discuss whether they should approach the river, chase away the lion, and hunt the bison. 

A second theory agrees that our unique language evolved as a means of sharing information about the world. But the most important information that needed to be conveyed was about humans, not about lions and bison. Our language evolved as a way of gossiping… It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat… 

All apes show a keen interest in such social information, but they have trouble gossiping effectively. Neanderthals and archaic Homo sapiens probably also had a hard time talking behind each other’s backs – a much maligned ability which is in fact essential for cooperation in large numbers. The new linguistic skills the modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that smaller bands could expand into larger bands… 

The gossip theory might sound like a joke… Even today, the vast majority of human communication – whether in the form of emails, phone calls or newspaper columns – is gossip… Do you think that history professors chat about the reasons for the First World War when they meet for lunch, or that nuclear physicists spend their coffee breaks at scientific conferences talking about quarks? Sometimes.

– Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (2011, tr. 2014)

Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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