“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?” Yuval Noah Harari raises the question in his fascinating book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. His answer: “Sometimes. But more often, they gossip about the professor who caught her husband cheating, or the quarrel between the head of the department and the dean, or the rumours that a colleague used his research funds to buy a Lexus.”
Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar argues that human language evolved for gossip. Harari says that “The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end.”
There is no human life without plenty of gossiping. Gossip, among other things, makes the human beings quite different from other animals. When a monkey sees a lion, it can communicate the potential danger to its social group. But when a man sees a lion chasing a herd of buffaloes, he can describe the entire scene vividly. Moreover, he can make up stories about whether some buffaloes were mating when the lion fell on them, which buffalo was having an illicit affair with another buffalo’s mate, and so on.
“Rumour-mongers are the original fourth estate,” says Harari. Our newspapers carry a lot of gossip not just in the City Supplements but in the main sections too. Today we have a lot of apps too to bring all sorts of gossips and propaganda. Even our Prime Minister makes effective use of the human love for gossips: Mann ki Baat, for example. [Modi bhakts are requested not to misconstrue this. I’m not saying that the programme is mere gossip; just that it makes effective use of the psychology associated with gossip.]
Gossip is unavoidable. In fact, it is quintessentially human. It drives most of human communications and interactions. If there are 50 individuals in a group, there can be 1225 one-on-one relationships, says Harari. Those who are familiar with the mathematical theory of permutations and combinations will grasp that quickly. Others can gossip about it as much as they like. In addition to those 1225 relationships are the countless more complex social relationships.
In that complexity, reputations can be made or broken. Myths can be born. Yesterday’s villain can become tomorrow’s hero. Gods can be born. We, human beings, are a peculiar lot. We need all these: our heroes and myths. We love our gossips.