The Scheherazade Strategy

Because verbal courtship is mutual, we might expect men to feel equally frustrated by women lapsing into habitual silence as a relationship ages. This seems less often lamented, either because men develop less hunger for conversation, or because women maintain their verbal courtship effort at a higher pitch for longer.

Earlier we saw that male mate choice grows stronger later in courtship, as men may be tempted to abandon a woman after she has become pregnant, and search for a new woman. In the Pleistocene age, females who could keep a useful male around for longer would have enjoyed more comfortable lives, and their children would have prospered. Through their courtship efforts, ancestral females could maintain male sexual commitment and paternal investment in their offspring. Sexual selection through male mate choice created modern women's drive to keep men sexually attracted to them over the long term. They do this, in part, by continuing to use verbal courtship long after men might prefer to read the newspaper.

The female incentives for sustained verbal courtship are illustrated by the classic Arabian folk tale of a thousand and one nights. The story goes like this. Shahriyar was a powerful Sassanid king who discovered his wife having sex with a slave. Mad with rage, he killed them both. To avoid further problems of female infidelity, he swore to sleep with a new virgin every night and to kill her in the morning. That way, no other man would have slept with her before him, and no other man could sleep with her after him. He did this for three years, until few young women were left in the city, except for the Grand Vizier's two daughters, Scheherazade and Dunyazad.

Scheherazade swore to save the women of the city from further danger, and offered herself next to Shahriyar. After Shahriyar deflowered her, Scheherazade begged him to let her say goodbye to her sister Dunyazad. Dunyazad, as previously arranged, asked Scheherazade to invent a story to help them pass their last night together in sisterly solidarity. The sultan, overcome with insomnia, agreed to hear her out. Scheherazade began a story that grew so complex and entertaining that she had still not finished it when dawn broke. Shahriyar was so enthralled by the story that he could not bear to kill the storyteller, so he agreed to spare Scheherazade 's life for one more day. The next night, the same thing happened: Scheherazade wove one story into the next, and was in the middle of a complicated plot as dawn broke. Again Shahriyar agreed to spare her life for one more day. This pattern continued for many months of storytelling and lovemaking.

After a thousand and one nights, Scheherazade had borne Shahriyar three sons, and she begged the king to allow her sons to be brought before him. Displaying the boys—a toddler, an infant, and a newborn—she asked for their sake to spare her life, observing that no other woman would love his sons as she would. The king embraced his sons and exclaimed that even before their arrival, he had fallen in love with Scheherazade for her creativity, eloquence, intelligence, wisdom, and beauty. The next morning he publicly spared Scheherazade's life, and they lived happily together until death delivered them both to Paradise.

This story presents an uncannily accurate picture of the male mate choice pressures on ancestral human females, and the solution they apparently evolved. Shahriyar's fear of being cuckolded reflects what biologists call "paternity uncertainty": the male never knows for sure whether a female is being sexually faithful, and therefore whether his alleged children actually carry his genes. To guard against this paternity uncertainty, Shahriyar adopted an absurdly short-term mating strategy. By bedding a virgin every night, he knew she was not already pregnant with another man's child; by killing her the next morning, he knew that she would not be unfaithful in the future. This proved to be counterproductive: no heirs were produced to carry his selfish genes, and he had killed off most of the fertile women.

The pressures on Scheherazade were intense. Given a sexually jaded despot obsessed with his paternity uncertainty and caught in a pathologically short-term mating strategy, how could she elicit his long-term investment in herself and her offspring? Her verbal courtship ability proved her salvation. She invented stories that kept him entertained, and which persuaded him of her intelligence, creativity, and fitness. The thousand and one nights constitute a massive, long-term verbal courtship display. Shahriyar realized that Scheherazade's mind was an oasis of narrative fascination in his desert of sexual novelty-seeking. She made monogamy fun. She also made it pay genetically for both of them: Shahriyar's genes prospered jointly with Scheherazade's.

Evolution has extended human verbal display from the early stages of courtship through the entirety of sexual relationships. Talking keeps relationships interesting. Women use the Scheherazade strategy, but so do men. Long after partners grow overfamiliar with each other's bodies, the Scheherazade strategy—trying to keep conversations interesting throughout a relationship—keeps them from growing bored with each other's company. This probably brought mutual benefits to our ancestors. It allowed our female ancestors to keep useful males around, and it may have helped those males to overcome their sexual novelty-seeking when it became counterproductive.

As brain size increased over the last two million years, infants had to be born relatively earlier in their development so their heads could fit through the birth canal. All human babies are born prematurely relative to other primate babies. Human babies are less competent and more vulnerable at birth than almost any other mammal. This may have tipped the balance for men, making assistance to their own offspring more beneficial to their genes than seeking new mates. The sexual novelty-seeking characteristic of all male mammals was an ancient instinct, not easy to overcome. By evolving an appreciation of the cognitive novelties offered by good conversation with an established partner, men may have muted their obsession with the physical novelties of other women. This is why Shahriyar learned to listen, once Scheherazade started talking.

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