Lice and Language

by Translation Guy on January 14, 2011

I think it’s safe to say that anyone reading this blog is most likely a primate. And primates stick together. I mean, how else could you explain Facebook? And next question, what does Facebook explain about us human primates? Language is the glue of community and our place in it, “to share knowledge and experience in a way no other species can,” says psychologist Robin Dunbar. And this extraordinary and powerful tool is used mostly for the most mundane and seemingly pointless purpose. Gossip.

This morning, with roll and coffee, instead of getting a jump on my email, I became an expert on Julian Assange’s predilection for riding bareback. After the staff meeting, I got a full brief on the drinking habits of Kabuki great, Ichikawa Ebizo, and the beating he got from some low-level Japanese yakuza gangster punk a few weeks ago.

“What characterizes the social lives of humans in the intense interest we show in each other’s doing,” says psychologist Robin Dunbar. “What makes groups of primates different from groups of other species is their ‘business’… the whole welded together by a constant watchfulness, taking in who-is-doing-what-with-whom.”

This nosy interest in the activities of others is the key to survival and reproduction in primate societies from bush babies to rocket scientists. And no monkey is an island. Alliances are essential for success. “Grooming is intimately related to an animal’s willingness to act as an ally of another individual.” In some species, grooming accounts for a fifth of a primate’s time.

That kind of time sink would seem to be better spent eating grubs than combing for lice, but the time sink allows primate pals to demonstrate that they are truly sincere, and committed to investing the time to prove their loyalty.

But those same demonstrations of sincerity mean that dance cards quickly fill. The bigger the group, the more allies required. The more allies required, the more grooming time that must be scheduled.

And that’s just one problem with this particular evolutionary road. The more players in the game, the harder the social game becomes. As the number of social relations increases, primates are forced to switch from Three-card Monte to 52 Pickup. Managing that many interactions takes a lot of brain power.

Dunbar proposes that increasing primate brain power allowed our human ancestors to replace nitpicking social grooming with language “because the grooming time required by our large groups made impossible demands on our time…. [Language] allows us to reach more individuals at the same time; it allows us to exchange information about our social world so that we can keep track of what’s happening among members of our social network.” And most importantly, it allows us to produce the re-enforcing effects of grooming from a distance.

And that’s exactly what we are doing now. Consider it a tickle-rub that is guaranteed to put you to sleep in no time. Come back next time, and I’ll give you a nice scratch behind the ears.


  1. What about animals and humans grooming one another? For instance, my cat takes the grooming of myself very seriously :-) however, I think it’s more a form of reconciliation and a means of conflict resolution for mr. wiggles as he tends to groom more often after I’ve given him heck for scratching the carpet..

    • Ken says:

      Sherry, I respect your choices, but I must caution you, too much cat licking can lead to hair balls.

      On a related note I’ve always wondered what cats are thinking when they run up against you. Probably not much, really. I mean they’re cats, right? . But is that rub a sign of affection or territoriality, as in “I love you,” or “you are mine,” which if you think about it may not be so different after all.

    • Ken says:

      Sherry, sounds like you and mr. wiggles have a great relationship. But when it comes to reciprical grooming I’d advise caution. Coughing up a hair ball is no fun.

  2. No doubt that human/animal mutual grooming plays a role in pair-bonding.

  3. The piece on, for lack of a better word, forced evolution is quite intriguing. I would how social media will sway us to evolve… we are now managing thousands of relationships on LinkedIn :-)

    • Ken says:

      The zeitgiest these days says that social media is bad for us. Some researchers say that we really can’t manage more than 150 relationship in our lives at a time. My own experience has been different though, since all this social media stuff has allowed me to enjoy so many more great friendships and associations with hundreds more than that, and these kids today…. Are we pre-adapted, hypnotized by our flashing iPhones just as our ancestors once were hypnotized by flickering camp fires.

  4. Vicki Salono says:

    I pay my respects to the great Jane Goodall here. Good post Ken.

  5. Sue Adler says:

    Primates we are!

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