Human language did not evolve just for courtship, so that we could all talk like Cyrano and Scheherazade. It was shaped by many other selection pressures: for communication between relatives, social display to non-mates, coordination of group activities, and teaching things to children. Even if it originated as pure verbal courtship, like bird song, without any survival payoffs at all, it would soon have proved its other virtues. As Terence Deacon and others have observed, it is hard to imagine any social activity that would not benefit from language. The frustrations of visiting places where people speak foreign languages reveal the survival and social benefits of effective communication.
But a frustration is not the same as a selection pressure. We must remember that any theory of language's other social benefits must explain its apparent altruism with some hidden genetic benefit. If those hidden benefits turn out to be sexual, then we are back where we started. Much of the effort invested in apparently non-sexual uses of language may work as indirect courtship. Social display to non-sexual partners can improve one's mating prospects. Opposite-sex friends may become lovers, same-sex friends may have eligible sisters or brothers, and high-status tribe members impressed with your charms may gossip about you to others. Having a good reputation gives one a huge advantage before courting someone, and the two things that contribute to a good reputation are good words and good actions.
Language is useful in coordinating group activities, but here again we have an altruism problem. In the chapter on morality we saw that group benefits like big-game hunting and moral leadership could be favored by sexual selection. If an individual's ability to improve group success through verbal leadership is judged by potential mates, then apparently cooperative uses of language may conceal courtship functions.
Even when non-sexual pressures started to shape human language, sexual selection would have subverted those pressures. This is because sexual choice tries to preempt the effects of natural selection as much as possible. For example, consider language as a way to teach children about plants and animals. Survival selection might favor such pedagogy—one's children would be less likely to die of poisons and bites. Yet individuals might vary in teaching ability. If their differences remain genetically heritable (as they probably would, given the pressures of mutation on complex traits), and if teaching ability was reasonably important, sexual preferences would evolve to favor that ability. Individuals who mated with good teachers would produce children who taught their grandchildren more efficiently, allowing more grandchildren to carry one's genes forward. The ancestral versions of
David Attenborough would have been perceived as sexually charismatic, not just as good parents. At that point, teaching ability would have been favored by both survival selection and sexual selection.
Was this article helpful?