Fact and Fantasy

Scheherazade attracted her sultan with fantasies. If sexual choice shaped language as an entertaining ornament and a fitness indicator, why does language have any factual content at all? Other sexually selected signals such as the songs of birds and whales do not say anything other than "I am fit—mate with me." We saw earlier that life stories, social gossip, and large vocabularies can work as good fitness indicators. They all demand content. But they do not seem to demand enough factual content to explain our interest in the truth, or the efficiency of language as a communication medium.

I think that, as with human morality, there was an equilibrium selection process at work. Every possible sexual signaling system can be viewed as an equilibrium in the grand game of courtship. There are more than a million sexually reproducing species on Earth, each with their own sexual signals. That means there are more than a million possible equilibria in the courtship game. At each equilibrium, individuals are displaying the best signals they can, and choosing the best mates they can, and nobody has any incentives to deviate from what they are already doing. In the vast majority of equilibria—(i.e. species)—apparently more than 99.9 percent of them—sexual signals convey no information other than fitness information. They are pure fitness indicators. Human language is the only signaling system that conveys any other sort of information in courtship. It is still a fitness indicator, but it is much more as well.

The Scheherazade problem is this: there could be "fantasy" equilibria where people impress mates by making up stories about fictional worlds, and "fact" equilibria where people impress mates by displaying real knowledge of the real world. As long as both displays are good fitness indicators, sexual selection should not favor fact over fantasy. Was it just blind luck that we ended up on a relatively factual equilibrium, where people care about truth and knowledge?

Imagine a fantasy equilibrium where verbal courtship display consists exclusively of spinning wild stories about battles waged with magic spells between wizards from alien civilizations. Individuals talk about nothing else. If the ability to invent wizard stories was a good fitness indicator, sexual selection would be perfectly happy with this equilibrium. The pointless waste of breath talking about wizards would not worry sexual selection any more than the peacock's tail does.

The trouble with a purely fantasy equilibrium is that the individuals would literally not know what they are talking about. How would they learn what any of their words mean? Their words refer only to fictional magic spells from alien civilizations. Their parents could not take them a hundred light-years away, point to a magic spell that creates a lethal hail of neutron stars, and say, "Look, that's a xoplix!" Words must be grounded in the real world in order to have any meaning. Humpback whale songs might accidentally be referring to actual events on alien worlds, but we wouldn't know, and neither would they. No animal playing a purely fantasy equilibrium could tell it from an ordinary fitness-indicator equilibrium.

The only way a signal can activate a concept in another individual's head is for the signal to be grounded, directly or indirectly, in some real-world meaning. This excludes all purely fantasy equilibria. Scheherazade's stories recombined real-world ideas in fantastic ways. She did not refer exclusively to fictional ideas. I suspect that there are only two kinds of sexual-signaling equilibria that are evolutionarily stable, in any naturally evolved species anywhere in the universe: pure fitness indicators, and language systems that make reference to objects and events in an organism's perceivable environment.

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