Scheherazade Versus Science

Language must be grounded in reality, but how tightly grounded? Sexual selection still has elbow room to favor Scheherazade equilibria (fantastic stories based on recognizable objects) or science equilibria (useful, true descriptions of the world). Now I am no longer sure which equilibrium our species is playing. Most people in most cultures throughout most of history have talked reasonably accurately about ordinary objects, people, and events, but they have talked absolute fantasy about astronomy, cosmology, theology, and any other phenomena that could not be directly observed.

One might think that a group of individuals playing a science equilibrium would out-compete a group playing a Scheherazade equilibrium, because science brings survival benefits. Wouldn't group competition favor sexual displays concerning falsifiable hypotheses and empirical facts, rather than sexual displays concerning Aladdin and his genie? The science-displayers would develop useful theories about the world as a side-effect of their sexual status games. The Scheherazades would not. The science-displaying groups should have had competitive advantages.

Indeed they have, but only in the last five hundred years. For all of human evolution we muddled along playing half-fact, half-fantasy games with our language. We learned useful words, certainly, but then immediately invented as many useless synonyms as possible so we could display our vocabulary sizes. We learned useful facts about other individuals through gossip, and then immediately embellished and distorted those facts to make more entertaining stories. We revealed our life stories, but only the good bits, and only as if we were always the protagonist, and never the chorus.

Language evolved as much to display our fitness as to communicate useful information. To many language researchers and philosophers, this is a scandalous idea. They regard altruistic communication as the norm, from which our self-serving fantasies might sometimes deviate. But to biologists, fitness advertisement is the norm, and language is an exceptional form of it. We are the only species in the evolutionary history of our planet to have discovered ft system of fitness indicators and sexual ornaments that also happens to transmit ideas from one head to another with telepathy's efficiency, Cyrano's panache, and Scheherazade's delight.

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