By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Just look at these people! Makes me want to have a Revolution.

Just look at these people! Makes me want to have a Revolution.

It really annoys me that so many Americans are obsessed with the British royal family.  I am not what you would call an ultra-patriot, but I must say that every time there is a big happening across the pond with the royals, and the American media has a hissy-fit, I suddenly feel a great swelling of pride in our nation’s revolutionary heritage.  Damn straight we kicked off the yoke of George III, and we will do it again with William and Kate’s aristocratic progeny if need be! As you can see, I get flustered by the discordant love Americans have for these nobles, and I often angrily wonder why this love exists.

When I was getting ready to write this blog, I remembered seeing some recent news stories that compared the Royals to Reality TV stars, and I thought, ‘Ah-ha!  That’s it!”   Our obsession with British royalty comes from the same dark orifices of our souls that obsess over shows like ‘Jersey Shore’ and ‘Pawn Stars’.  Family drama and dysfunction?  Like reality TV, the Royals have their fair share. They are the ‘Real Housewives of Windsor Castle’.

But wait just a minute.  Realizing that America’s love affair with the royal family is similar to our love/loath affair with reality TV stars really skirts the most important question: Why do people give a darn about either?  The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar may provide an answer.

In 1996,  Dunbar published Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, a book that tackled the extremely difficult, and oft-asked question of why did humans develop the capability of speech?  Very simply put, Dunbar argued language was a reaction to complexities of social relations within our large social groupings.  Dunbar theorized that humans have the mental ability to have close, personal relationships with about 150 people.  In comparison, chimps and bonobos usually live in groupings of about 50 others. Why the676x380 difference? What Dunbar surmised was that 50 was the maximum number each chimp could personally and physically groom. For chimps, grooming is a way of playing politics, soothing hurt feelings, and creating social bonds.  As human groupings got larger, this ability to personally ‘groom’ each member became more and more time consuming, and less realistic for our Homo forebears. The way to overcome this challenge was language.  Those who could replace physical grooming with ‘verbal grooming’ were more successful in the Darwinian sense.  According to Dunbar, much of this ‘verbal grooming’, or what we would call gossip, allowed us to play politics, sooth hurt feelings and create social bonds more efficiently than our chimp cousins. Gossip allowed, and allows, us to control social relations without a physical presence.  Not surprisingly, Dunbar discovered that much of our time today is still taken up with this verbal grooming.  In other words, each of us is a ‘chatty Cathy’

With modern media, our gossip capabilities have greatly evolved. We still love to talk about other people, but the size of our social groupings have greatly enhanced. This is most notable in the world of social networking websites. I have had students inform me that they have up to 4000 Facebook ‘friends’.   Such ‘friends’ stretch the definition of the term.  We can’t possibly know much personal information about our 1759th friend. Interestingly however, the opposite trend seems to be occurring when it comes to our celebrity ‘friends’.  Modern social mass media allows the average person to know innumerable personal details about movie stars, reality TV personalities, politicians (hello Anthony Wiener), and, yes, even royalty.  Tabloids, ‘TMZ’, blogs, exposes, and biographies give us extreme detail about the intimate decisions and actions of our chosen celebrity obsession.

This combination of celebrity information overload and our need for ‘verbal grooming’ discards the negative aspects of gossip.  Gossiping about your personal friends, or your enemies,  has one big downside: What if the word gets back to him/her.  You may lose a friend, or gain yet another enemy. There is no such fear with celebrity gossip.  We can talk all day about Justin Bieber urinating in some kitchen, and it will not hurt our friendship with him.  We can gossip about Tom-Kat’s messy divorce, and the future of little Suri without ever fearing Tom Cruise will get his revenge.  So, why not talk incessantly about William and Kate and baby George?  There is no danger in it?  Right?

Wait! What am I writing?  No! This baby is going to be King George, for goodness sake!  Read the Declaration of Independence people!  I prefer my King George to be an 18th century ‘tyrant’ (little American hyperbole there), not a cute and cuddly baby!

(Cue Yankee Doodle)


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