Sex, Lies and Gossip An evolutionary explanation for President Clinton, and our interest in him, reveals a baser side of human nature.
What follows is an Op-Ed piece I wrote for the L.A. Times that never ran because they were inundated with commentary on the man and his morals. I think my take is a little different and since it uses science (to the extent that you think evolutionary psychology is a science) I thought it might be of interest to this group. Feel free to pass along to anyone you like, along with the usual plug for how to sign up for the Skeptic Mag Hotline by sending an e-mail to: email@example.com
Humans are, by nature, storytelling animals, as evidenced by the wealth of myths and tales we have been telling about our world and ourselves for thousands of years. But when you examine those stories closely, a number of common themes leap out, not the least of which is sex, lies, and the moral status of the perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. Most of us, most of the time, are bystanders (you can only have so many affairs and tell so many lies before being caught). But as seen on Bills Black Monday, this does not prevent us from gossiping endlessly about other peoples transgressions. Gossip is the basest form of storytelling.
We all pretend to disdain gossip, but lets face it, its fun talking about sex and lies, particularly when it is someone else on the hot seat. Why? In most hierarchical primate species the alpha male wins more copulations by virtue of being on top (metaphorically I mean). If he defects on his alliances by showing he is untrustworthy, however, his status may collapse and he may fall from grace. Sound familiar?
In primates, status relationships are determined by an array of nonverbal forms of communication, such as grooming, staring, gesturing, and so on. In humans, language is our primary tool of keeping track of status, and gossip is what we call this tool. The etymology of the word "gossip," in fact, is enlightening. The root stems are "god" and "sib" and meant "akin or related." Its early use included "one who has contracted spiritual affinity with another," "a godfather or godmother," "a sponsor," and "applied to a womans female friends invited to be present at a birth" (where they would gossip). The word then mutates into talk surrounding those who are akin or related to us. Not surprising, we are especially interested in gossiping about the activities of others that most effects our status and the status of those around us, such as relatives, close friends, and those in our immediate sphere of influence in the community, plus members of the community or society that are high ranking or have high social status. And our favorite subjects of gossip are sex, cheating, aggression, violence, social status and standings, births and deaths, political and religious commitments, physical and psychological health, and the various nuances of human relations, particularly friendships and alliances.
But why, in our culture, do we gossip about total strangers, especially celebrities and other famous figures? The mass media makes these figures so familiar to us that they seem like our relatives, friends, and members of our community. Why would anyone care who President Clinton slept with? Because our Paleolithic brains are being tricked into thinking that President Clinton is someone we personally know and someone we should care about.
Perhaps we should. In those long-gone Paleolithic millennia we lived in small villages of approximately 150 people, where morality was enforced through shunning and ostracization, and gossip was the means of keeping track of who you could trust and who you couldnt. (It turns out that 150 is the average number of each of us knows and has in our personal address books.) Thanks to modern transportation and the mass media, we now live in a global village, perhaps not that different in principle from our those our ancestors lived in. Our gossiping about Bill Clinton is how we are deciding the future of his status as our alpha male, because today it not only takes a global village, it takes a global leader.
Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine and the author of Why People Believe Weird Things (1997, W. H. Freeman). His ideas on gossip, storytelling, mythmaking, and religion will be presented in his next book, Why People Believe in God.
The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM