More on Human Language and Gossip

In my last post I wrote about human language evolving to help us do more than just describe our environments. Language seems helpful to ask someone how many cups of flour are in a cookie recipe, where the nearest gas station is, and whether there are any cops on the freeway (or for our ancestors, what nuts are edible, where one can find edible nuts, and if there is a lion hiding near the place with the edible nuts). However, humans use language for much more than describing these aspects of our environment. In particular, we use language for signaling, gossiping, and saying things without actually saying the thing out loud.
We might use language to say that we believe something which is clearly, objectively false (that the emperor has nice clothes on) to signal our loyalty. We may gossip behind someone’s back to assess from another person whether that individual is trustworthy, as Yuval Noah Harari argues in his book Sapiens. And we might ask someone if they would like to come over to our house to watch Netflix and chill, even if no watching of Netflix is actually in the plans we are asking the other person if they are interested in engaging in. As Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler explain in The Elephant in the Brain, we are asking a question and giving the other person plausible deniability in their response and building plausible deniability into the intent of our question.
These are all very complicated uses of language, and they developed as our brains evolved to be more complicated. The reason evolution favored brain evolution that could support such complicated uses of language is due to the fact that humans are social beings. In Sapiens, Harari writes, “The amount of information that one must obtain and store in order to track the ever-changing relationships of even a few dozen individuals is staggering. (In a band of fifty individuals, there are 1,225 one-on-one relationships and countless more complex social combinations.)” In order for us to signal to a group of humans, gossip about others, or say things that we know will be commonly understood but plausibly denied, our brains needed a lot of power. History suggests that tribes typically ranged from about 50 on the low end to 250 people on the high end, meaning we had a lot of social interactions and considerations to manage. Our brains evolved to make us better social creatures, and language was one of the tools that both supported and drove that evolution.

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