Sunday, 31 May 2009

Southgate Tube Station

One of the most notable of the many tube stations designed for the London Underground by Charles Holden, Southgate Tube Station opened in 1933. It is now a Grade II listed building and retains much of its original appearance.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Alexandra Palace transmission mast

The BBC began transmitting from Alexandra Palace in 1936. Transmissions were interrupted by the war with the closedown occurring in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon. During the war, the transmitter was used to jam the radio navigation system used by the Luftwaffe (a forerunner of GPS). TV transmissions resumed after the war and continued until 1956, when operations were relocated to Crystal Palace. The transmitter is still used for local analogue television transmission, local commercial radio and DAB broadcasts.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980

The period from 1960 to 1980 was underlain by Harold Wilson’s Utopian vision of a Britain “forged from the white heat of technology”. In an era before computers became just another domestic appliance and IT staff were banished to the basements of large companies, computing was seen as a glamour industry with a key role to play in the contemporary arts.

White Heat Cold Logic is aimed at recounting the history of digital and computer-based arts in the United Kingdom from their origins in the 1960s up to the advent of personal computing and graphical user interfaces around 1980.

The editors of this much-needed book argue forcefully against the woeful neglect by contemporary art galleries of British computer art from this heroic period, when artists needed to build their own machines, collaborate with computer scientists and learn complex computer languages rather than simply boot up their Mac or PC. Aside from their relevance to the then-contemporary art scene, the academic papers that make up this attractive illustrated volume will appeal to anybody with an interest in the social and political history of that time.

(A shorter version of this book review appeared in Art World Magazine Issue 11 June/July 2009.)

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Monday, 25 May 2009

High and Over, Amersham

High and Over is a Grade I listed building in Amersham, Bucks. Designed by Amyas Connell and built in the late 1920s, the Y-shaped country house and the smaller Sun Houses nearby were controversial at the time, but are now admired as fine examples of the Modernist style. Originally a single dwelling, High and Over was divided into two units in the 1960s. Local legend has it that the building had to be camouflaged during World War II because enemy bombers were using it as a landmark to help them find their targets.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Empress State Building, Earls Court

Named for the Empress Theatre which formerly stood on the site in Lillie Road, the Empress State Building was constructed in 1961. Originally intended as a hotel, it has thoughout its existence been used as an office building. People of a certain age (including myself!) will recall exterior shots of the building featuring in the 'Sixties SF series Space Patrol. After it became vacant in 1997, plans were put forward for its use as a hotel, and thought was given to its demolition. Fortunately refurbishment turned out to be a cheaper option and this was carried out between 2001-03, with extra floors being added at the top. However it continued to be used as office space and currently the building is occupied by Metropolitan Police and Transport for London.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Friday, 22 May 2009

The Singing Neanderthals (2005), by Steven Mithen

Steven Mithen, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading, is a leading figure in the field of cognitive archaeology and a Fellow of British Academy. In 1996, drawing together many diverse strands, he described the possible evolutionary origins of the human mind in his seminal The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Science and Religion, in which he proposed that full consciousness only arose when the previously-separate cognitive domains that make up the mind became integrated by a process he described as “cognitive fluidity” (Mithen, 1996). Subsequent archaeological discoveries in Africa forced Mithen to revise some of his timescales without affecting the validity or otherwise of his theory (McBrearty & Brooks, 2000). However Mithen, who is himself a lover of music, felt that its role in the development of language had largely been dismissed as “auditory cheesecake”, as Steven Pinker had described it.

Mithen pleaded guilty to himself failing to consider music in his 1996 work. Accordingly, in The Singing Neanderthals, he set out to redress the balance. He begins by considering language.

Language is a very complex system of communication which must have evolved gradually in a succession of ever more complex steps generally referred to as proto-language. But what was the nature of this proto-language? There are two schools of thought – “compositional” and “holistic”. The compositional theories are championed by Derek Bickerton, who believes that early human species including the Neanderthals had a relatively large lexicon of words related to mental concepts such as “meat”, “fire”, “hunt”, etc (Bickerton, 1990). These words could be strung together, but in the absence of syntax, only in a crude fashion. Mithen, however, favours the holistic view, which is championed by linguist Alison Wray. Wray believes that proto-language comprised utterances that were holistic i.e. they conveyed complete messages. Words – where the utterances were segmented into shorter utterances – only occurred later.

Mithen presents evidence that there is a neurological basis for music and that this is distinct from language. He draws on a variety of sources: studies of brain-damaged patients, individuals with congenital impairments, brain activity scans and psychological tests carried out on both children and adults.

Just as definite regions of the brain are involved with language, and that damage to these regions can selectively or totally impair linguistic skills, so is the case for music. The musical regions appear to be primarily located in the right hemisphere of the brain, in regions corresponding to the Broca’s area on the left. However there does seem to some linkage between the linguistic and musical regions.

Infant directed speech (IDS) – that is to say the way in which adults and indeed quite young children speak to infants – has a musical quality that infants respond to. Mithen believes that infants have a highly-developed musical ability, but that this is later suppressed in favour of language. For example, infants often have perfect pitch, but very few adults do. Relative pitch is better that perfect pitch for language acquisition, as the latter would result in the same word spoken by two speakers being interpreted as two different words.

This Mithen argues may give us an insight into how Early Humans, such as Homo erectus and the Neanderthals communicated with one another. He falls back on the notion that “Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny”, i.e. our developmental history mirrors our evolutionary history. He rejects the notions that music arose from language or that language arose from music. Instead, he argues, music and language both evolved from a single system at some stage in our primate past.

A central point of Mithen’s theory is emotion, which he believes underpin our thoughts and actions. A fear response, for example, was necessary to force a flight response from a dangerous predator. Conversely, happiness was a “reward” for successfully completing a task. There are four basic emotions – happiness, sadness, fear and anger, with more complex emotions such as shame and jealousy being composite of these four. Emotions were crucial for the development of modern human behaviour and indeed for the development of any sapient species. Beings relying solely on logic, such as Vulcans, could never have evolved.

Experiments suggest that apes and monkeys and humans – and by implication Early Humans – all share the same basic range of emotions. Now Mithen pulls together two ideas – firstly, music can be used to both express and manipulate human emotions; secondly the vocalizations of primates serve much the same function in these animals. For example vervet monkeys use predator-specific calls to warn others of their kind. Thus a human would shout “get up the nearest tree, guys, there’s a leopard coming” but a vervet would utter a single specific “holistic” call conveying the same meaning. The difference is that the human utterance is referential, referring to a specific entity and instructing a specific response – a command”. By contrast the vervet monkey is using its utterance to manipulate the emotions of its fellows – the call is associated with a specific type of danger, inducing fear. The fear achieves the caller’s desired effect by inducing its fellows to climb into the trees for safety.

Mithen believes that in Early Humans, living in groups, extended child-rearing and the increased use of gestural communications led to an extention of the “holistic and manipulative” vocalization of monkeys and other primates into a communication mode he refers to as “Hmmmmm” – Holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic”, with dance and mime being added to the repertoire. He cites a circular arrangement of animal bones at a Middle Pleistocene Homo heidelbergensis (the common ancestor of both modern humans and the Neanderthals) site at Bilzingsleben, in Germany and claims it was a demarcated space for song and dance routines, in other words a theatre. As with the vocalizations of vervet monkeys, Hmmmmm was intended to manipulate the actions of others. It was more complex than the vocalizations of any present-day non-human primate, but less so than that of modern humans. (For another viewpoint on the role of hominin group living in language evolution, see Dunbar (1996).)

The Hmmmmm of the large-brained Neanderthals was richer and more complex than that of earlier humans. It enabled them to survive in the harsh conditions of Ice Age Europe for 200,000 years, but their culture remained static and their scope for innovation limited by the lack of a true language which would have enabled complex ideas to be framed. Indeed, the sheer conservatism, lack of innovation, symbolic and artistic expression in the Neanderthal archaeological record is, to Mithen, proof that they lacked language. He dismisses the “problem” of the Châtelperronian culture, where there is indeed evidence of innovation and symbolic behaviour. Although the archaeological record is ambiguous with some claiming that the Châtelperronian horizon predates the Aurignacian horizon and the arrival of modern humans (Zilhão et al, 2006), Mithen believes this is incorrect and the Châtelperronian is a result of Neanderthal acculturation from modern humans. The coincidence of independent origin just before the arrival of modern humans is just too great to be believed, he states.

If Neanderthals lacked language, how did Homo sapiens acquire it? Mithen believes that language as we know it came about through the gradual segmentation of holistic utterances into smaller components. Though initially holistic, utterances could be polysyllabic, for example suppose “giveittome” was a holistic, polysyllabic utterance meaning “give it to me”. But if there was also a completely different utterance, “giveittoher”, meaning “give it to her”, then in time the “givitto” part would become a word in its own right. That two random utterances could have a common syllable or syllables that just happened to mean the same thing, and that this could happen often enough for a meaningful vocabulary to emerge strikes me as being implausible. However Mithen cites a computer simulation by Simon Kirby of Edinburgh University in support. Mithen also claims that Kirby’s work is turning Chomsky’s theory of a Universal Grammar on its head. Chomsky claimed that it was impossible for children to learn language without hard-wired linguistic abilities already being present, but Kirby’s simulations apparently suggest the task is not as daunting as Chomsky believed.

Language would have been the key to the “cognitive fluidity” proposed in Mithen’s earlier work (Mithen 1996) as the basis of modern human behaviour. Language would have enabled concepts held in one cognitive domain to be mapped into another. Derek Bickerton believes that language and the ability for complex thought processes arose as a natural consequence of the human brain acquiring the capacity for syntax and recursion (Bickerton, 1990, 2007) but if these capacities were also required for “Hmmmmm” then if the Kirby study is to believed, a changeover to full language could have occurred gradually and without any rewiring of the brain. Mithen argues that this was the case and that the first wave of modern humans to leave Africa, who established themselves in Israel 110-90,000 years ago (Lieberman & O’Shea, 1994; Oppenheimer, 2003) were still using “Hmmmmm”. By 50,000 years ago, “Hmmmmm” had given way to modern language and at this point modern humans left Africa, eventually colonising the rest of the world and replacing the Eurasian populations of archaic humans. That language was crucial to the emergence of modern human behaviour has also been suggested by Jared Diamond (Diamond, 1991).

“Hmmmmm”, for its part, did not disappear and music retains many of its features.

To sum up, this is a fascinating theory that clearly demonstrates that music is as much a part of the human condition as is language. Its main weakness as a theory is that it cannot, by definition, be falsified since all the “Hmmmmm”- using human species such as the Neanderthals are now extinct.

Another problem for me is the idea that anatomically-modern humans got by with “Hmmmmm” for at least 100,000 years and only gradually drifted into full language by the method outlined above. Given that creoles can arise from pidgins in a single generation, this seems implausible, unless we allow some change in the mental organization of modern humans occurring after then.

Mithen mentions the FOXP2 gene, which has been shown to have a crucial role in human language. One study suggested the human version of this gene emerged some time after modern humans diverged from Neanderthals (Enard et al, 2002). Supporters of a “late emergence” for modern human behaviour such as Richard Klein cited have cited this as evidence that otherwise fully-modern humans did in fact undergo some form of “mental rewiring” as late as 50,000 years ago (Klein & Edgar, 2002). However it has since been shown that the Neanderthals had the same version of the gene that we do (Krause et al, 2007), weakening the “late emergence” argument.


Bickerton D (1990): “Language and Species”, University of Chicago Press, USA.

Bickerton D (2007): “Did Syntax Trigger the Human Revolution?” in Rethinking the human revolution, McDonald Institute Monographs, University of Cambridge.

Diamond J (1991): “The Third Chimpanzee”, Radius, London.

Dunbar R (1996): “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language”, Faber and Faber, London Boston.

Wolfgang Enard, Molly Przeworski, Simon E. Fisher, Cecilia S. L. Lai,
Victor Wiebe, Takashi Kitano, Anthony P. Monaco & Svante Paabo (2002): Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language, Nature, Vol. 418 22 August 2002.

Klein R & Edgar B (2002): “The Dawn of Human Culture”, John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York.

J. Krause, C. Lalueza-Fox, L. Orlando, W. Enard, R. Green, H. Burbano, J. Hublin, C. Hänni, J. Fortea, M. de la Rasilla (2007): The Derived FOXP2 Variant of Modern Humans Was Shared with Neandertals, Current Biology, Volume 17, Issue 21, Pages 1908-1912.

Daniel E. Lieberman and John J. Shea (1994): Behavioral Differences between Archaic and Modern Humans in the Levantine Mousterian, American Anthropological Association.

McBrearty S & Brooks A (2000): “The revolution that wasn’t: a new
interpretation of the origin of modern human behaviour”, Journal of Human Evolution (2000) 39, 453–563.

Mithen S (1996): “The Prehistory of the Mind”, Thames & Hudson.

Mithen S (2005): “The Singing Neanderthal”, Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Mithen S (2007): “Music and the Origin of Modern Humans”, in Rethinking the human revolution, McDonald Institute Monographs, University of Cambridge.

Oppenheimer S (2003): “Out of Eden”, Constable.

João Zilhão, Francesco d’Errico, Jean-Guillaume Bordes, Arnaud Lenoble, Jean-Pierre Texier and Jean-Philippe Rigaud (2006): Analysis of Aurignacian interstratification at the Châtelperronian -type site and implications for the behavioral modernity of Neandertals, PNAS August 15, 2006 vol. 103 no. 33.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Thursday, 21 May 2009


Unveiled on 19 May 2009 in a blaze of publicity by Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg at the American Museum of Natural History, “Ida” is the 47 million year old fossil remains of an Eocene primate.

Named for the six-year-old daughter of Norwegian palaeontologist Jørn Hurum, “Ida” is being touted as “the eighth wonder of the world”, “the missing link in human evolution”, “the lost Ark of archaeology” and “the scientific equivalent Holy Grail”. It is claimed that “Ida” will “be in all textbooks for the next hundred years” and it will affect palaeontology “like an asteroid falling to earth” (ironic because there is already an asteroid named Ida).

Others have said that the find “confirms” Darwin’s theory of evolution. Technically this is correct, but no more so than my dropping an apple and seeing it hit the ground would “confirm” Newton’s theory of gravity. I’d also like to know how something that has been found can be described as a “missing link”.

Shunning more prestigious publications such as Nature, Hurum and his collaborators published on 19 May 2009 in PLoS ONE, the open access journal of the Public Library of Science. “Ida” received the systematic name of Darwinius massilae (Darwin's creature from the Messel pit), to celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth. The paper was immediately available over the internet for download, and was accompanied by a TV documentary entitled Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link.

So what exactly is “Ida”, why has she caused so much excitement and is it justified?

The fossil was recovered in 1983 by a private fossil hunter at the Messel Pit, a disused quarry 35 kilometres from Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. The fossil was split into two parts, which were sold separately. One part was sold to Dr. Burghard Pohl of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center at Thermopolis, Wyoming; the other part to a private collector. In 2007 the latter became available for sale and was purchased for a substantial price by the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo (Norway). The two pieces were subsequently re-assembled and are in an astonishingly good state of preservation, 95% complete and missing only the left rear leg. Such is the state of preservation that the outline of the soft body and the contents of the digestive system are clearly discernable.

“Ida” is a juvenile female, retaining some of her deciduous teeth. Her sex is implied from the lack of a baculum, or penis bone. It is believed that she was about 9-10 old at the time of her death. She had a healed fracture of the distal end of her right forearm. This would have hampered her movements and possibly contributed to her death. Her climbing abilities would have been impaired. Unable to drink from water trapped by tree leaves, she would have had to venture down to the lake to drink. This would have been her undoing – in the Eocene the region was tectonically active and large quantities of carbon dioxide were sporadically released. This would have immediately suffocated anything in and around the water. “Ida” would then have fallen into the water and been preserved in the sediment deep at the bottom.

Her unusual state of preservation does give us considerable insight into the anatomy of an Eocene primate, but Hurum and his collaborators are claiming that “the skeleton’s features clarify morphologies that have been given critical weight in primate phylogeny, and call into question accepted wisdom about the origin of higher primates.”

Although genetic and other evidence now suggests that primates first evolved as long ago as 85 million years, primates of the modern aspect (i.e. possessing all the features of modern primates such as nails rather than claws) are more recent and first appeared around 55 million years ago. Traditionally the primates are divided into two groups, the prosimians (lemurs, lorises, bush-babies, aye-ayes and tarsiers) and simians or anthropoids (monkeys, apes and humans). However it is now believed that tarsiers are more closely related to the anthropoids than they are to the other prosimians. Accordingly most authorities now divide the primates into two suborders, the Strepsirrhini (“wet nosed”) and Haplorrhini (“dry nosed”) based on the defining feature of a rhinarium, the wet, naked surface around the nostrils of most mammals (e.g. cats and dogs). The Strepsirrhini possess this feature, but it is absent in the Haplorrhini. Among the living primates, the Strepsirrhini comprise the prosimians minus the tarsiers; the Haplorrhini comprise the tarsiers, monkeys, apes and humans.

In addition, fossil primates of the modern aspect are all believed to belong to one group or the other. 47 million years ago, there were two main primate groups in existence – the tarsier-like omomyoids and the larger lemur-like adapoids. The former are often claimed to be ancestral to the haplorrhines and the latter to the strepsirrhines. However it should be noted that these relationships are not universally accepted and attempts to resolve the issue have been stymied by the lack of conclusive fossil evidence.

Hurum and his collaborators are claiming that conclusive evidence now exists, and that it overturns the orthodox position. Darwinius massilae is claimed to be an adapoid, but it is also linked to the haplorrhines – and by implication, to humans – on the basis that it lacks a “grooming claw” and a “tooth comb” of lower incisors and canines, two features that are characteristic of strepsirrhines. By implication, the adapoids are haplorrhines, not strepsirrhines; and thus they rather than the omamyoids could be ancestral to the later anthropoids, including humans.

My view is that this is certainly interesting, but it is hardly earth-shattering to the man in the street. Furthermore the evidence is hardly conclusive – the fact that Darwinius massilae lacks two features characteristic of strepsirrhines doesn’t automatically make it a haplorrhine.

In short, “Ida” is a spectacular fossil of considerable interest to palaeontology, but she has been massively oversold. She is not another Lucy, Homo floresiensis, Taung Child or Turkana boy. This kind of hype is just “bad science” – once the hoo-hah has died down, people will say “what was all that about”, with the worry that discoveries of considerably greater significance could be ignored by the general public in the future. This has happened in the past. In 1973, the long-period comet Kohoutek was hyped as “the comet of the century”. Comets are notoriously unpredictable and in the event, Kohoutek failed to live up to public expectation, though it was observed from the Skylab space station – the first comet ever to be observed from space. Less than three years later though, a genuinely great comet did appear, Comet West. But the media, having got its fingers burned once, ignored it and as a result, very few people saw it.


Jens L. Franzen, Philip D. Gingerich, Jorg Habersetzer, Jørn H. Hurum, Wighart von Koenigswald, B. Holly Smith (2009): Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology, PLoS One.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Monday, 18 May 2009

de la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill

Constructed in 1935, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, East Sussex was one of Britain's first Modernist public buildings.

The seafront building was the brainchild of Herbrand Sackville, 9th Earl de la Warr, Mayor of Bexhill. The Earl, who was a socialist, persuaded Bexhill council to develop the site as a public building. A competition was announced in the Architects Journal in February 1934 and run by the RIBA. The requirement was for an entertainment hall to seat at least 1500 people; a 200-seat restaurant; a reading room; and a lounge. Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff were selected from over 230 entrants. Construction work began in January 1935 and the building was opened on 12 December of the same year.

The building was damaged when a nearby hotel was bombed during the war and it was neglected during the postwar era. However in 1986 it was awarded Grade I listed building status and three years later a Trust was formed dedicated to restoring the building to its former glory. These efforts were eventually successful and with the aid of a £6 million Lottery grant the building was restored and converted into a contemporary arts centre. This opened in 2005, as the building marked its seventieth anniversary.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Monday, 11 May 2009

Centre Point

One of the first skyscrapers in London, Centre Point was built as a speculative office development by property developer Harry Hyams. Designed by Richard Seifert and constructed between 1963 and 1966, it is now a Grade II listed building.

Centre Point became a cause célèbre with the political Left throughout the 1970s as Hyams left the building empty for many years, wanting to let it out on a long lease to a single tenant. With property prices rising, he could afford to wait. The building was eventually let out to the CBI in 1980.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Benedict Arnold

Regarded by most Americans as an arch traitor, Benedict Arnold spent the latter years of his life at an address in Gloucester Place, Central London, a fact commemmorated by this plaque which I came across by complete accident. The house is less than a mile away from the US Embassy, whose website draws attention to both it and the plaque. Despite the considerable improvement in relations between Britain and the US since the War of Independence, the website makes it fairly clear that it does not endorse the sentiments on the plaque!

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language(1996), by Robin Dunbar

Robin Dunbar (born 1947) is a British anthropologist and evolutionary biologist specialising in primate behaviour.

His 1996 work Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language pulls together his work on the social group sizes of various primates, including humans and the correlation with neocortex size relative to body mass. Although not intended as a work of popular science, the book’s style is very accessible and it may be read by non-specialists as well as academics.

The work appears to have been a considerable influence on the science-fiction novel Evolution, by Stephen Baxter.

The following is a chapter-by-chapter summary of this work:

Chapter 1. “Talking Heads”.
Describes the experience of being groomed by a monkey from the viewpoint of one of its peers: notes the similarities with the innuendoes and subtleties of everyday social experience of humans. The social life of humans, with its petty squabbles, joys and frustrations, is not unlike that of other primates. But there is one major difference – human language.

Curiously, when humans talk, most of the conversation is social tittle-tattle. Even in common-rooms of universities, etc, conversations about cultural, political, philosophical and scientific matters account for no more than a quarter of the conversation. The Sun devotes 78% of its copy to “human interest” stories and even the Times only devotes 57% to serious matters. Our much-vaunted capacity for language seems to be mainly used for exchanging information on social matters [anybody doubting Dunbar’s assertion needs look no further than Facebook]. Why should this be so?

Chapter 2. ”Into the Social Whirl”.
The answer may lie with our primate heritage. Monkeys and apes are highly sociable, their lives revolving around the small group of individuals with whom they live. They could not exist without their friends and relations.

Our ape ancestors faced disaster 10 million years ago as the climate became dryer and colder, causing their forest habitat to retreat. Monkeys became a nuisance, able to eat unripe fruit because their stomachs contain enzymes to neutralise the tannin that they contain that would give apes and humans an upset stomach. About 7 million years ago, one population of apes found itself forced out onto the savannahs bordering the forests. Mortality would have been desperately high but those that survived did so because they were able to exploit the new conditions.

All primates have had to deal with predators ranging from various felids, canids, monkey-eating eagles and even other primates. There are two main ways of dealing with primates. One is to be larger than any likely predator; the other is to live in a large group. The latter option reduces the risk in a number of ways: more eyes to detect a marauding predator; strength in numbers – a large group can drive off or even kill a predator; finally a large number of group-members fleeing in different directions will confuse a predator, often for long enough for all to get away.

But group living has disadvantages too. Social animals have to strike a balance between the dangers of predators and the problems of social tensions. The primate solution is for small groups to form coalitions within the larger overall living group. Such alliances take many forms, depending on the overall social and sexual dynamics of the species concerned. In all cases, however, grooming is the key to maintaining these alliances.

Primate alliances are built on the ability of animals to form inferences about the suitability and reliability of potential allies, but apes and monkeys can also practice deception and manipulative behaviour. They can do this because they can calculate the effect their actions are likely to have.

Chapter 3. “The Importance of Being Ernest”.
Grooming takes up a considerable amount of a monkey’s time, typically 10% though it can be as much as 20%. Grooming apparently releases endorphins, but while this encourages animals to groom it isn’t the evolutionary reason for it. One problem among social animals is “defection”, i.e. where one fails to return a favour. A solution is to make defection expensive, and grooming requires a considerable investment of time. Building alliances therefore requires commitment and it is therefore usually better to maintain existing relationships than try to build new ones.

In addition to grooming, monkeys use vocalisation to maintain their alliances. Monkeys make contact calls when moving through dense vegetation to enable the animals to keep track of one another. But subtle differences have been found in the utterances made by vervet monkeys depending on whether they are approaching a dominant animal or a subordinate one. Other calls were given when spotting another vervet group, or when moving out into open grassland. When these calls were recorded and played back, monkeys would look up when hearing calls from animals dominant over them, but ignore those from subordinates. Vervets also make a variety of predator warning calls which depend on the type of predator spotted. Other species use contact calls to keep in touch with preferred grooming partners.

But does any species, other than humans, have language? Attempts to teach apes to use language since the 1960s have produced unconvincing results, the oft-cited cases of Washoe, Kanzi etc notwithstanding. Human communications are on another level. What are they used for and why did they evolve?

Chapter 4. “Of Brains and Groups and Evolution”.
While bigger brains generally mean a smarter animal, the rule doesn’t always hold good because the size of the animal must also be taken into account. For example, whales and elephants have larger brains than humans, but they have to deal with a far greater muscle-mass than a human brain. When the relative brain-size is computed, it can be seen that the distributions for various groups of animals lie on different plains. Dinosaurs and fish lie below birds, which in turn lie below mammals. But among the mammals, there is also a hierarchy: marsupials lie at the bottom, followed by insectivores, then ungulates, then carnivores and finally at the top, primates. Here again there are levels: the prosimians at the bottom and the monkeys and apes at the top. The human brain is about nine times the size of the brain of a typical human-sized mammal and twelve times that of a human-sized insectivore [if such a species existed].

Why is this? It could not be due to chance, because of the high energy budget of a large brain, which is 20% of total in humans despite accounting for just 2% of total body mass. 1970s theories focussed on the need for greater problem-solving abilities; for example fruit eaters need bigger brains than herbivores, because supplies of fruit are harder to find.

Finding brightly-coloured fruit does require colour vision, which in turn requires more brain-power to process the input. Primates possess superior colour vision to other mammals [but so do birds and insects]. However this theory fails to explain why not all fruit eaters have large brains.

That social complexity might be linked to primate brain size was considered but not taken seriously until 1988, when British psychologists Dick Byrne and Andrew Whiten proposed what has become known as the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis. This is based on the fact that monkeys and apes are able to use very sophisticated forms of social knowledge about each other. This knowledge about how others behave is used to predict how they might behave in the future and relationships are based upon these predictions.

The main problem with the theory was that many thought it was too nebulous to test. One problem for Dunbar was confounding factors: fruit eating primates require larger territories than leaf-eaters because the fruit is more widely-spaced. But many fruit-eaters such as baboons and chimpanzees are larger than leaf-eating monkeys and live in larger groups. There are four factors – body-size, brain-size, group-size and fruit-eating. The problem was to ensure that correlation between any two of these factors was not a consequence of both being correlated for quite distinct reasons with a third.

Dunbar decided to consider not the total brain size but the neocortex, which is the “thinking” part of the brain, where consciousness arises. The neocortex comprises the “grey matter” popularly associated with intelligence and it surrounds the deeper white matter in the cerebrum. In small mammals such as rodents it is smooth, but in primates and other larger mammals it has deep grooves (sulci) and wrinkles (gyri) which increase its surface area without greatly increasing its volume.

Dunbar then correlated the size of the neocortex against group size. He chose this as a measure of social complexity because of the volume of data available from field workers on many primate species and because it is a simple numerical value rather than a subjective assessment. Also group size is a measure of social complexity – the larger the group, the more relationships there are to keep track of. Dunbar found that there was a very good fit between the data and the ratio of neocortex volume to total brain volume. The findings provided support for the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis – large brains were linked to the need to hold large groups together. Dunbar was also able to find the same the same correlation between neocortex ratio and group size in non-primate mammals such as vampire bats and some of the larger carnivores.

But just how does neocortex size relate to group size? There are possibilities beyond simply keeping track of social relationships. One is that the neocortex/group size correlation is more to do with quality rather than quantity of intra-group relationships. The Machiavellian hypothesis suggests that the key is the use primates make of their knowledge of others. There are two interpretations: firstly the relationship might be with the size of coalitions primates habitually remain rather than total group size, though larger coalitions are required in larger groups. The second is that primates need to be able to balance conflicting interests – playing one off against another, keeping as many happy as possible.

Research showed that primates form “grooming cliques”, with grooming occurring outside these groups being perfunctory and lacking enthusiasm; and distress calls from non-members likely to be ignored. Grooming seemed to be the glue that held coalitions together. When data about grooming clique size was combined with the data about group size and neocortex ratio, a good fit was found. As group size increases, so larger coalitions are required for mutual protection when living in these large groups.

Since humans are primates, it should be possible to predict group size for humans. The number turns out to be approximately 150 – Dunbar’s Number, as it is now known. Modern living – with millions living in cities – makes this prediction hard to test. However when considering hunter-gatherer societies – which is how we lived in pre-agricultural times, the largest grouping is a tribe, typically numbering 1500-2000 people who all speak the same language or dialect. Within tribes, smaller groupings known as clans can sometimes be discerned. Clan size - with very little variation – averages 150.

150 turns up elsewhere – early Neolithic villages typically had a population of around that number; religious communities such as the Hutterites and the Mormons lived in groups of 150; businesses can function informally with fewer than 150 employees, but require a formal management structure when the headcount exceeds this; army companies typically number around 150 men and so on.

The number of close friends and relatives people have tends to be around 11-12 with a fair degree of consistency. This corresponds to the “grooming clique” in primate societies, suggesting a neurological basis. Finally the maximum number of faces people can put a name has been found to be around 1500-2000 – suspiciously close to the size of a tribe in traditional societies.

Returning to grooming, a problem arises in that the larger primate group size is, the larger the grooming cliques need to be, and the more time needs to be devoted to grooming. Baboons and chimps have a group size of 50-55 individuals, and the amount of time they spend grooming is close to the upper limit of time that can be so spent without making inroads into the time needed to feed etc. If humans relied on grooming, then 40% of the day would have to be devoted to this activity.

The solution, Dunbar suggests, was language, which enabled several individuals to be “groomed” at once. When it comes to social networking, language has other advantages over grooming in that detailed information can be exchanged about individuals not actually present. Language is a “cheap and ultra-efficient form of grooming”. Dunbar rejects the conventional explanation of language evolving as a means to co-ordinate activities such as hunting more efficiently and suggests instead that it evolved primarily to allow humans to exchange social gossip.

Chapter 5. “The Ghost in the Machine”. Language is for communication [contra Bickerton, 1990], somebody trying to influence the mind of another individual. We also consider implications of what people are saying, their body language, etc. We assume everybody behaves with conscious purpose and try to divine their intentions, often extending this to animals and even inanimate objects. Philosophers however doubted if consciousness existed outside of the human world.

Rene Descartes assumed that while humans had minds, animals – which lack language – did not and were nothing more than automatons. However in the second half of the 19th Century Darwin and his contemporaries began to reconsider the emotional and mental lives of animals. A view eventually emerged that since it was not possible to see into the minds of animals, studies should focus on their observable behaviour. The result was the psychological school known as “Behaviourism”, which held sway right up until the 1980s.

Since then, however, attention has switched to “Theory of Mind”. This means the ability to understand what another individual is thinking, to ascribe beliefs that might differ from one’s own and to believe that that individual does experience those beliefs as mental states. Furthermore ToM enables individuals to handle “orders of intentionality” or beliefs about what another believes; for example “I believe x” is first-order intentionality, “I believe that he believes X” is second-order and so on. Humans can at most handle six orders, as in the following sentence due to Dan Dennett:

“I suspect [1] that you wonder [2] whether I realise [3] how hard it is for you to be sure that you understand [4] whether I mean [5] to be saying that you can recognise [6] that I can believe [7] you want [8] me to explain that most of us can only keep track of five or six orders.”

In the 1980s it was discovered that children are not born with a theory of mind and that this does not develop until 4 - 4 ½ years old. Up until then they will fail the so-called “false belief test” which asks if the child is aware that somebody can hold a false belief. For example, the child is shown an object such as a doll or some sweets being put in a particular place in the presence of another individual called (say) Fred. Fred then leaves and the object is moved. Fred returns and the child is asked where they think Fred thinks the object is. Very young children fail the test by saying they think Fred thinks the object is in the new location. They cannot grasp that Fred doesn’t know the object has been moved and that he would assume it was still in its original location. Only older children, with ToM, pass this test. Autism is a failure to develop ToM.

Tests have been carried out on animals to see how their ToM compares with humans and to see if they have self-awareness. An early test was the mirror test, to see if an animal could recognise that a reflection of itself in a mirror was not another individual. Chimps can readily pass such tests, other great apes appear to be competent but gibbons and monkeys invariably fail, as do non-primates such as elephants and porpoises. The validity of this approach has been questioned, as animals do not encounter mirrors in the wild [though of course they might see their reflections in water].

“Tactical deception” is where one individual tries to exploit another by manipulating its knowledge of a situation. To practice tactical deception, an individual must have at least second-order intentionality. It appears to be virtually absent from the prosimians, rare in New World monkeys, but common among the socially-advanced Old World monkeys (baboons, macaques) and chimpanzees. The frequency with which species practiced tactical deception was found to show a good fit with relative neocortex size.

Dunbar reasoned that in species with a large relative neocortex size, low-ranking males should be able to use their brains to exploit loopholes in the system and mate with females, gain access to bananas, etc. Tests showed that this was the case; for example a low-ranking male would feign disinterest in a box containing a cache of bananas in the hope that a higher-ranking male who arrived on the scene shortly after would conclude that the box was locked.

Tests aimed at showing whether apes and monkeys have ToM have involved obtaining a food reward from a baited box and two human assistants, one of whom is not present when the bait is moved. The ape or monkey then had to choose which assistant they wanted to open a box. Chimps did reasonably well at the test, though less so than six-year-old children. This and other tests led researchers to conclude that chimps had limited theory of mind, but monkeys completely lacked it.

Chimps seem to be able to go to third-order intentionality on occasions, but humans can readily surpass this. Humans can envisage people and situations that do not exist in actuality – a prerequisite for producing literature. Humans are able to detach themselves from their immediate surroundings. Dunbar argues that this is a pre-requisite for both science and religion, though some of his colleagues object to the comparison! However both require one to question the world as we find it, which in turn requires third-order intentionality at minimum.

If fourth-order intentionality and above is required for science and religion, it is no mystery why only humans have these things. But if third-order intentionality will suffice, could apes not also have science and religion? It is conceivable, but the main problem is that apes lack language and so could not transmit their ideas to their peers.

Chapter 6. “Up through the Mists of Time”.
Five million years ago, one ape lineage seems to have made more use of the woodlands that lie beyond the edges of the shrinking forests. Animals travelling between the trees here are more exposed to the sun and Peter Wheeler has calculated that an animal walking upright under these conditions receive up to a third less heat from the sun, especially around the middle of the day. They also benefit from the slightly breezier conditions at heights above three feet. Also these upright apes could have shed body hair over the parts of their bodies not exposed to direct sunlight and improved cooling properties by sweating through the skin. A naked biped ape would expend half the amount of water on sweating compared with a furry quadruped ape.

Bipedalism begun fairly early in the hominid lineage, because “Lucy”, 3.3 my old, was already bipedal as inferred from the shape of the pelvis and the articulation of the knee and hip joints. The Laetoli footprints in Tanzania, 3.5 my old, were also made by bipeds. Quite likely these early hominids were naked although they were still more apes than humans.

In their new woodland habitat, these apes had to contend with greater predation, and in response they grew larger and increased their group size. While Lucy was a diminutive 4ft tall, the Narikitome Boy had reached a height of 5ft3 at age 11 and would have topped 6ft had he survived to adulthood. But how do we know their group size increased? The link with neocortex size offers a clue, and the link with grooming time might offer a clue as to when language evolved.

Archaeologists [in 1996] favoured a recent date of 50,000 years ago – the date of the [now abandoned] Upper Palaeolithic Revolution. Anatomists [even then] favoured a date of around 250,000 years ago, co-incident with the emergence of Homo sapiens. This was based on the fact that an asymmetry between the two halves of the brain could be detected at this point. In modern humans, the left hemisphere – where the language centres are located – is larger than the right. This, they argued, was evidence for the appearance of language.

To try to resolve the issue, Dunbar and Leslie Aiello tried to solve the group size issue and find the group size threshold that precipitated language. They reasoned it must lie somewhere between the 20% maximum grooming time for any existing primate and the predicted grooming time of 40% for humans, possibly 30%. They then discovered that in primates and carnivores [but obviously not elephants and whales], neocortex ratio is directly related to total brain size [I assume that means a linear relationship]. Given that estimates for cranial capacity were available for extinct hominids, it was possible to calculate the predicted group sizes. These remained within the ranges of existing apes at first, but rose above this with the appearance of genus Homo. 150 was reached 100,000 years ago, but by 250,000 years ago group sizes would already have reached 120-130, and grooming time would have hit a prohibitive 33-35%. But even 500,000 years ago, group sizes were at 115-120 with corresponding grooming times of 30-33%. [Rather confusingly, Dunbar then cites this time as coinciding with the emergence of Homo sapiens, having dated this event to 250,000 a short while previously. In 1996, humans from this far back were generally lumped together as archaic Homo sapiens; the term Homo heidelbergenis is now generally preferred.]

Homo erectus [then described as the predecessor to our own species] had a predicted group size of 100-120, with grooming time requirements of 25-30%. Dunbar and Aiello took the view that H. erectus lacked language. They also noted no drastic jump in grooming time at any point, which they take to mean that language emerged gradually over a long period of time.

As group sizes increased, so vocalisation began to supplement grooming; probably this process began two million years ago, with the emergence of Homo erectus. As time passed, so the meanings conveyed by the vocalizations increased, though the purpose would have remained largely social. Humans were exploiting the greater efficiency of language as a bonding mechanism to allow themselves to live in larger groups without increasing the amount of time required for social networking. Interestingly, modern hunter-gatherers spend around 3.5 hours for women and 2.7 hours for men on social interaction in a 12 hour day, or about 25%, compared to the 20% maximum observed for other primates.

On this view, the Neanderthals must also have possessed language. They did not become extinct for lack of language, but lacked the technological and cultural sophistication of the incoming Cro-Magnons. Later, the Native Americans and Australian Aborigines suffered the same fate [basically Dunbar is advancing an Upper Palaeolithic version of the Guns, Germs and Steel argument advanced by Jared Diamond (Diamond, 1997)].

What drove the increase in human group size? Baboons can get by with group sizes of 50, why can’t we, especially as we are larger and can carry defensive weapons? Indeed, hunter-gatherers typically live in temporary camps of around 30-35 individuals. Dunbar puts forward three possibilities:

Firstly, our forbears may have occupied more open habitats than those of baboons and needed greater protection. Gelada monkeys live in very open habitats with high risk of predation. They live in groups of 100-250 [so why don’t geladas have bigger brains than humans?].

The second possibility is that human groups were threatened by rival human groups, and bigger group sizes were needed to fend them off.

The third possibility is that following the emergence of Homo erectus, humans became nomadic and left Africa. In unknown territory, they would have had to wonder further to find resources and they would have encountered hostile residents determined to exclude them. This does occasionally happen with hamadryas baboons. Migrants are always at a disadvantage, but one solution is to establish reciprocal alliances with neighbouring groups. This happens with the !Kung San of the Kalahari, who live in communities of 100-200 individuals, but these are dispersed into smaller family-based groups of 25-40. This is known as a fission-fusion system, because members are constantly coming and going. The same characteristic is seen with chimpanzees – the primary community is around 55, but foraging parties often only occupy 3-5 individuals. That we share this characteristic with chimpanzees suggests it emerged very early in our history.

Dunbar opts for this third theory.

The theory that language emerged to facilitate social bonding should be testable. Investigating conversations in various informal situations, Dunbar and his students discovered that conversation groups did not typically exceed four. Conversation groups start when two or three people start talking. Others join in, but once the number of participants rises above four it is difficult to hold everybody’s attention and the group tends to fissions as two distinct conversations start. At any one time, only one person will normally be speaking and the others will be listening, just as at any one time only one ape or monkey will be doing the grooming. If the speaker corresponds to the “groomer” then they are “grooming” up to three others rather than only one, meaning group size could potentially treble. The group size of 55 for chimps and baboons becomes very close to the “Dunbar Number” of 150.

The limit of four people in a conversation group arises from the distance apart people must stand if they form a circle. Once the diameter of the circle increases beyond a certain point, it is not possible for everybody to hear everybody else clearly without shouting, assuming normal background noise levels. The critical distance turns out to be two feet, and it is difficult for more than four people to all remain within this distance of each other.

The researchers also learned that as per Dunbar’s predictions, 60-70% of the conversations concerned social topics. Politics, religion, work etc took up no more than 2-3% and even sport and leisure topics accounted for barely 10%.

Taken together, this data supports Dunbar’s theory that language evolved primarily to facilitate social bonding.

The expensive tissue hypothesis is based on the enormous energy costs of running a brain, which in humans takes up 20% percent of the total energy budget. But total energy production of mammals is a function of size and humans generate no more energy than any other mammal of that size, despite having a brain nine times larger than a typical human-sized mammal. Where does the energy to run the brain come from? Clearly it must come from savings elsewhere [unlike governments, humans have to balance the books]. In addition to the brain, the biggest energy consumers are the heart, kidneys, liver and gut – indeed these use up between them 85-90% of the body’s energy budget. The heart, kidneys and liver cannot be downsized, which leaves only the gut. With a smaller, less-efficient gut, humans have to eat high energy easy to assimilate foods. Meat is one such food, and the shift from the predominantly vegetarian diet of the australopithecines to one with higher meat content seems to have corresponded to the initial increase in brain size. Initially this would have come from scavenging, but the second phase of brain expansion, 500,000 years ago seems to correspond to the beginnings of organized hunting. Aiello and Wheeler believe that big brains only became possible with a switch to meat eating.

But big brains had another cost – the problem of getting a large brained infant down the narrow birth canal. The problem was solved by what is in effect premature birth, with a huge investment required by the parents in post-natal care. Women couldn’t do it all on their own; men had to do their bit. The tendency to male-female pair bonding was the result. Sexual dimorphism, considerable in even australopithecines, reduced. Differences in canine teeth, pronounced in cases of sexual dimorphism, almost vanished. Human males are only slightly larger than females. The implications are a shift from a strongly polygamous mating system to one that is only mildly so. Harem groups became smaller, with males having to make do with two females, and many having to get by with just the one! Provisioning more than one female would also have been expensive [a trend that has continued to the present day].

Chapter 7. “The First Words”. There are three competing theories for the origins of language. The first states that the earliest languages were gesture-based; the second that it arose from monkey-like vocalizations; and the third is that it arose from music.

The gestural theory arises from the fact that fine motor control used for speech and aimed throwing is generally located in the left hemisphere of the brain. In addition to fine motor control, precise control of breathing is required and for this it was necessary for the monkey’s dog-like chest to change to the flattened chest characteristic of apes. When the body’s weight is on the arms, it restricts the chests ability to expand and contract and monkeys can only breathe once with each stride.

When apes adopted a climbing lifestyle, the monkey rib-cage was a major problem. In monkeys, the shoulder blades prevent the arms swinging in a circle, which prevents them from reaching above their heads while climbing. Eventually the scapula moved round to the back of the ribcage and arm-joints became positioned on the outer edge of the chest. The flattened rib cage of the apes was the result, which had the additional benefit of freeing the constraints on breathing.

The anatomical changed permitted aimed throwing. Chimps could out-throw Olympic athletes, but their accuracy is poor because they lack the fine motor control of humans. But our fine motor control, so the theory goes, could also be used to control speech.

The problems with this theory are language involves conceptual thinking, which is quite different to aimed throwing; the complexity possible with gestures is limited; and gestures require people to be in visual contact. Communication would be impossible after dark, when one might have expected a lot of social gossip to take place.

But why did fine motor control evolve in the left hemisphere? Dunbar suggests it is because the right hemisphere was already fully utilised processing emotional information. He speculates the speech evolved in the left hemisphere because there was room there, and fine motor control evolved there later – either for the same reason or because the left side is associated with conscious thought, which is required for aimed throwing. This is the reverse of the sequence of events required by the gesture theory. The reason the majority of us are right-handed is because sensory and motor control nerves from one side of the body cross over to the other side of the brain; the left hemisphere controls the right hand side of the body, and vice-versa.

There is a greater sensitivity to visual cues on the left hand side of the visual field. This lateralization seems to have appeared very early on and fossil trilobites tend to have more scars on the right side, suggesting pursuing predators attached more frequently from the left hand side.

Lateralization of language in the left hemisphere meant that this side became the seat of consciousness, where as emotional behaviour was seated in the right hemisphere [as Dunbar points out, this was the basis of Julian Jaynes’ theory about “bicameral minds” (Jaynes, 1976)].

It turns out that music and poetry are located in the right side. This also suggests that the theory of a musical origin for language cannot be correct.

Dunbar turns to the vocalizations of monkeys as the origins of language [a conclusion that Bickerton (1990) rejects]. He considers the predator-specific calls of vervets and also conversational patterns of gelada monkeys. The calls of these animals appear to be timed in anticipation of others rather than in simple response, just as human conversation is carried on by one individual anticipating the end of the speaker’s phrase or sentence rather than simply waiting for them to stop speaking. The vervet’s calls are an archetypal proto-language in which arbitrary sounds can be used to refer to specific objects, and overtones can be applied to increase the information content. Formalizing sound patterns to carry more information is but a small step; language is but a further small step [though Bickerton would disagree].

If it is accepted that the beginnings of language were the vocalizations of primates, there are still alternative views on the next step. One theory is that language arose out of song-and-dance rituals designed to co-ordinate the emotional states of group members [c.f. Mithen, 2006]. While Dunbar believes language arose to exchange social gossip, he considers this alternative viewpoint.

No society lacks song-and-dance, which on the face of it odd. Much has parallels with bird-song, which is used to defend territory or advertise for a mate. Maasai warriors, Maoris, All Blacks and Scots Guards use ritual song and dance (the Haka, bagpipes, etc) before going into battle. But song is also used in churches and bars in circumstances not associated with battle. Here Dunbar considers the “crowd effect” which leads to groups of people being amenable to far more extreme and intolerant views than individuals. Psychologists identified this phenomenon in the 1960s and referred to it as a “risky shift”. It led to the Crusades, Northern Ireland, Rwanda and Yugoslavia [the Nazis were of course consciously exploiting the phenomenon back in the 1930s at Nuremberg, though Dunbar does not mention this].

Dunbar believes that the explanation is that song and dance is an expensive activity. Deep bass tones are particularly difficult to produce. They are associated with a large and powerful body. Even among humans, there is a tendency to assume powerful, successful people to be tall. In every US presidential election since the war, the taller candidate has won. [The sequence was broken in 2000, when George W Bush (6ft) defeated Al Gore (6ft1) and subsequently held off the challenge of an even taller man, John Kerry (6ft4), in 2004. However in 2008 the taller candidate won when Barack Obama (6ft2) defeated John McCain (5ft9).] People often comment on how small the Queen is [she was positively dwarfed by Michelle Obama (5ft11)]. There is no doubt that smaller people have to work harder to get to the top and have to be fairly bloody-minded. But, as Napoleon and others have shown, it certainly can be done.

It does however appear to be almost universal that deep voices are needed to create a lasting impression. The peculiar deep voice associated with Margaret Thatcher is about half an octave below her natural voice. Thatcher’s advisers encouraged her to lower her voice after she became Tory leader in 1975.

Trying to hold together a group of 150 people is difficult even now and it must have been even harder 250,000 years ago in the woodlands of Africa. Song and dance would have had a role to play. The activity would have stimulated endorphin production. Chris Knight believes that the use of ritual to coordinate human groups by synchronising emotional states is a very ancient feature of human behaviour, coinciding with the rise of human culture and language. Ritual language would have been required to co-ordinate such activities, and this may have been the final stimulus for the evolution of language [I have to say I’m dubious; such organized rituals would surely have required the participants to already be behaviourally modern]. Dunbar is unconvinced and believes this use for language only came later. He believes song-and-dance may well have preceded language, but it was at first informal, unstructured and spontaneous, like chanting at football matches. [This probably explains why attempts by clubs and fan groups to orchestrate the atmosphere at football clubs with schemes such as “singing sections” invariably fail; also fans tend to devote at least as much time to chants abusing the referee or rival teams as they do to songs encouraging their own side.]

If language evolved to facilitate group cohesion, then who spoke first – men or women? In most primate species, females form the core of society. Males typically leave their birth group at puberty, often wondering from group to group in search of enhanced mating opportunities. Chimps [though not bonoboes] are an exception.

If early human societies were matriarchal [like the bonoboes] then language may have evolved first among females, and Chris Knight believes this was principally to help keep the men in line and ensure they invested in them and their children. This would explain that among modern humans women are generally better at verbal communication and have better social skills than men [says who?].

But in fact human society seems to be patriarchal. Evidence for this is that among most [but not all, e.g. the Karen people of Burma – see Wells (2002)] traditional societies, brides move to the village of their new husband, a system known as patrilocality. But most of these societies live in conditions where men control all the resources needed for successful reproduction, such land and hunting grounds. In more equitable societies, such as hunter-gatherers and modern industrial societies, female kinship and alliances are much stronger and matrilocality (where the man moves) may be the norm. [Does this explain the strongly sexually-differentiated culture in one particular work place with which I was familiar? On one occasion the women seemed to be in unusually high spirits all day but refused to share the reason for their good humour with any of the men. It eventually emerged that one of their numbers had just got engaged – to a man she’d already been living with for some years. At least the question of who had to move where after the marriage did not arise!]

Among Central African hunter-gatherers, Y-chromosomal genes are more widely distributed than X-chromosomal genes, which tend to be clustered, suggesting women remain close to their kin-groups, whereas men move across wide areas. A similar picture emerges from the impoverished east end of London in the 1950s, where women were dependent on the support of female kin in order to reproduce successfully and men tended to live closer to their in-laws than to their own parents.

Female kin-bonding may have been a more important force in human evolution than is often supposed [possibly because the people doing the supposing were mostly men]. The pressure to evolve language may have come from the need to form and service female alliances rather than male hunting activities.

Chapter 8. “Babel’s legacy”.
Languages change with surprising speed, the Romance languages for example having all arisen from Latin within two millennia (and having emerged as distinct languages well before that).

The Tower of Babel actually did exist and was a seven-stage ziggurat built some time during the 6th/7th century BC in what is now Iraq during the second flowering of Babylonian culture. Dunbar suggests that the Biblical story is a folk memory of a time when everybody in the world spoke the same language, but I am highly dubious. Even if we accept as late an emergence for human language as 50,000 years ago, it is inconceivable that a folk memory could persist for such a period of time. Dunbar cites the Norse legend of Ragnarok - the end of the world - as a possible folk memory. This legend tells of a world fire followed by the Fimbulvetr, a great winter lasting three years. This he equates to the folk memory of a period of global cooling. He cites a “little ice age” that affected northern Europe around 1000 BC. A more likely explanation is the eruption of Thera in the Mediterranean in 1600 BC, which would have produced a “volcanic winter” - a period of global cooling induced by dust and aerosols ejected into the upper atmosphere. These would also have led to spectacular sunsets around the world, possibly accounting for the “world fire”. At all events, the timescales are vastly different. The Babel legend is more likely a metaphor for poor project management of the kind that continues to bedevil large projects to the present day.

Dunbar then discusses the origins of the Indo-European languages, supporting Marija Gimbutas’ Kurgan Hypothesis. As I have already discussed this topic in this articleI will skip this section. Dunbar goes on to discuss attempts to reconstruct Nostratic, other linguistic superfamilies and the so-called “proto-World” [which might be ancestral to these superfamilies, but almost certainly wasn’t the first language ever spoken, since behaviourally-modern humans were probably living in Africa for at least 150,000 years before migrating to other parts of the world (McBrearty & Brooks, 2000)].

Why do languages change? This is followed by a section on language change that is also covered by my article about Indo-European origins, before asking the central question of just why does this happen? Dunbar notes that the vocalizations of other animals also show regional variations which he equates with linguistic dialects. He speculates on a common cause and believes there must be an evolutionary purpose for it.

Most higher organisms, including humans, tend to favour kin over non-kin. Bill Hamilton showed that there are two ways of getting one’s genes into the next generation. One is to reproduce oneself and the other is to help a relative to reproduce. This principle is known as kin selection. But how does one identify kin? One way is by accent and dialect – if these are the same as your own, then in pre-industrial times they were likely to be related to you. If a group migrates, then over a few generations the language will gradually change to a distinctive dialect. The group will thus gain a distinct identity.

There is some evidence to suppose dialects evolve faster in regions of higher population density. In pre-agricultural times, the rate of language change might have been much slower.

Chapter 9. “The Little Rituals of Life”.
This chapter is concerned with sexual section, first proposed by Charles Darwin, of which the peacock’s tail is the classic example.

Leda Cosmides was able to show that people could solve the so-called “Wason Selection” test with a far higher success rate if it was framed as a social problem rather than in terms of pure logic. She believes that humans have an inbuilt social problem-solving ability which recognises social contract situations and detects violations. Without such a mechanism, human social groups would collapse, with everybody acting in their own interest. Co-operation is essential to the survival of not only a group, but its individual members, so there is evolutionary pressure to develop such mechanisms for policing rules established for the common good. Dunbar believes that language is an important part of this system.

Language may ensure the bonding of a group in a number of ways. In addition to enabling one to keep track of friends, it can also be used to exchange information about cheats. Finally it may be used to influence what people think about us, i.e. for reputation-management. You can flatter people or be rude to them, depending on circumstances. But which function was the crucial one driven by evolutionary pressure, and which were the ones that were convenient spin-offs?

A study carried out for Dunbar showed that only 5% of conversation time is devoted to criticism and negative gossip, with a similar amount of time being spent on giving advice on how to handle social situations. Most of the time was devoted to who is doing what etc, suggesting that “policing” cheats might not have been languages primary function. While a primary function might not be one that’s needed that often, Dunbar argues it is a very expensive mechanism considering there is the far cheaper option of simply beating up the cheats! Indeed the problem of cheats is a consequence of living in large groups, which would not have happened without language in the first place.

Another study did show that while single sex groups were likely to simply exchange gossip, in mixed-sex groups there was a considerable increase in discussions about work, academic matters, politics etc with men showing the greater increase. A further study showed that of the time devoted to social gossip, men spent far more time talking about themselves than did women.

Dunbar interpreted the results as a “vocal lek”. A lek is a display area where males gather to advertise their qualities to potential mates. It is common among antelope and some birds, such as the peacock, which do not pair for life. Each peacock will defend a small territory in an area frequented by females, displaying whenever one approaches. The females wonder from one male to another before making their choice. In the “vocal lek” the men were basically trying to impress the women.

Body language and eye contact play a key part in initiating new relationships, especially for women. This [unsurprisingly] is an ancient primate habit. In species where one male controls a harem, such as the hamadryas baboon, even if a rival male is more powerful than the harem male, he will only move in if a female’s body language indicates she is not particularly interested in her current male. Normally the females follow the male closely, but sometimes they will delay and the male stops and looks back. Rival males can detect such subtle cues.

Males also need to advertise their fitness to reproduce, and in hunter-gatherer societies, one way they may do this is by hunting large mammals. From a purely economic point of view, hunting a large antelope makes much less sense than putting out a dozen or so traps, but a successful kill with all the attendant dangers is far more impressive. Dunbar draws a comparison with chivalric tales of medieval Europe when aspiring young men had to prove their worth by performing difficult tasks such as killing dragons, rescuing sleeping beauties, etc. Risk-taking tasks have the advantage that they are difficult to cheat and thus provide a good demonstration of one’s fitness to father somebody’s children.

Geoff Miller has suggested that the evolution of the human brain was driven mainly by the demands for sexual advertising – both to catch a prospective mate and hang on to them in the face of subsequent competition. A modern male can do this by making his partner laugh – an activity which triggers endorphin release. A study has shown that women are more likely to smile or laugh than man, and more likely to do so in response to men. But unfortunately for any aspiring female comedians, men are more likely to laugh in response to other men. While this may reflect a male-dominated society, Dunbar thinks it is far more likely to be a way women access the relative merits of their current partner against other males that happen to be on the scene. A man’s ability to make a woman laugh may be as good a test of fitness as any other.

Men and women differ considerably in the way they learn accents: men will tend to pick up the regional working-class accent; women by contrast tend to pick up a more neutral middle-class accent, the so-called Received Pronunciation or RP. One explanation is that women can improve their reproductive chances by hypergamy, or marrying up the social scale, whereas less well-off men need to be seen to belong in their environment in order to tap into the social network. Being poor with the wrong accent is a disasterous state of affairs.

But this is changing and a survey of dating agencies and personal ads show that women now want “new men” rather than rich but otherwise unreconstructed men; this is a reflection of the greater economic independence of women, and that the general levels of wealth and comfort are far higher now than they were in earlier times. With less pressure on hypergamy, Dunbar feels that women will eventually abandon RP and adopt the regional accents of men.

Sexual selection can lead to intense selection for males possessing certain traits, causing them to proliferate. This, according to Geoff Miller, was what led to the second phase of brain expansion in humans: a need to keep ones mate entertained.

Dunbar extends this theory to invoke the role of language in making people laugh, in turn triggering endorphin release.

While the ideas proposed in this chapter might not have been the main driving force behind language and large brains, they might have been valuable components that were added into the system as it developed and indeed may have driven them to levels beyond what might have occurred on the social bonding model on its own.

Chapter 10. “The Scars of Evolution”.
This final chapter summarises the work and ends with a few cautionary tales. In particular teleconferencing seems less effective if there are more than four participants. While this limitation came about from the number of people that could stand in a circle and hear each other, it seems to have become hard wired into our brains. Finally there was the case of a medium-sized company which happened to have 150 employees. The company began to struggle when it moved into new premises without a tea room, where much of the synergy that had made the company so successful in the past had been generated.


Aiello L C & Dunbar R I M (1993): "Neocortex Size, Group Size and the Evolution of Language", Current Anthropology, Vol 34, No 2 (April 1993) pp. 184-193.

Baxter S (2002): “Evolution”, Gollancz.

Bickerton D (1990): “Language and Species”, University of Chicago Press, USA.

Diamond J (1997): “Guns, Germs and Steel”, Chatto and Windus.

Dunbar R I M (1996): “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language”, Faber and Faber, London Boston.

Jaynes J (1976): “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, Mariner Books, USA.

McBrearty S (2007): “Down with the Revolution”, in Rethinking the human revolution, McDonald Institute Monographs, University of Cambridge.

McBrearty S & Brooks A (2000): “The revolution that wasn’t: a new
interpretation of the origin of modern human behaviour”, Journal of Human Evolution (2000) 39, 453–563.

Mithen S (2005): “The Singing Neanderthal”, Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Wells S (2002): “The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey”, Penguin.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Wedmore Court, London N19

Although it will probably never attain Grade I Listed status, the slightly retro Scandinavian style of this small North London private estate has stood the test of time rather better than the Toytown architecture that was typical of 1980s and 1990s speculative housing developments.

Constructed in 1986 on land formerly owned by British Rail, Wedmore Court comprises just over 50 houses and flats. The estate is run by Wedmore Court Management, a limited company wholly-owned by the residents, who also own the freehold of the flats through a sister company, Wedmore Gardens Limited. The estate has its own website

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Sunday, 3 May 2009

BT Tower, London

One of the most iconic buildings of 1960s London, the Post Office Tower as it was then (and widely still is) known was Britain's tallest building when it opened in 1965. Although still in use as a communications facility, its microwave horns are now redundant but cannot be removed following the 177-metre high tower's Grade II listing in 2003.

Sadly the tower has not been open to the public since 1981 and its famous revolving restaurant is now used only for BT corporate functions.

© Christopher Seddon 2009