Verbal Courtship

Much of human courtship is verbal courtship: "boy meets girl" usually means boy and girl talk. At every stage of courtship, language is displayed, and language is subject to mate choice. Teenagers agonize over the words they will use when they telephone someone to ask for a date. Stuttering, sudden changes in voice pitch, awkward grammar, poor word choice, and uninteresting content are usually considered such fatal errors by their perpetrators that they often hang up in shame, assuming that they will remain sexual failures forever. Things are not so different a little later in life. Adults in singles bars nervously rehearse their pickup lines, and mentally outline their conversational gambits.

After basic greetings, verbal courtship intensifies, progressing through self-introduction, observations concerning immediate social surroundings, compliments, and offers of minor favors. If mutual interest is displayed, people go on to trade more personal information, searching for mutual acquaintances, shared interests, and ideological common ground. If there is no common language or if accents are mutually unintelligible, courtship usually breaks down. At each stage, either person may break off courtship or attempt to escalate intimacy, but usually at least several hours of conversation precede even minor physical contact, and at least several separate conversations over several encounters precede real sex. This verbal courtship is the heart of human sexual selection. Although people may be physically attracted before a word is spoken, even the most ardent suitors will offer at least a few minutes of verbal intercourse before seeking physical intercourse.

All of this is quite obvious to any adult human with a modicum of social experience. But whereas toddlers can learn to speak reasonably well within three years of birth, it usually takes at least a decade of practice before young adults are comfortable with the basics of verbal courtship. To an evolutionist interested in sexual selection, adolescence is fascinating. The 19th-century biologist Ernst Haeckel's claim that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" is often misleading, but there are cases, especially in sexual selection, where stages of life-cycle development may reflect past stages of evolutionary history. The awkward, uneven, sometimes witty verbal courtship of teenagers may not be such a bad model for the verbal courtship of our ancestors during the evolution of language. There must have been some similarities: poor vocal control, small vocabulary, uncertainty about conversational conventions, difficulty in finding phrases to express thoughts. As every parent of a teenage boy knows, the sudden transition from early-adolescent minimalist grunting to late-adolescent verbal fluency seems to coincide with the self-confidence necessary for dating girls. The boy's same-sex friends seem to demand little more than quiet, cryptic, grammatically degenerate mumbling, even when playing complex computer games or arguing the relative merits of various actresses and models. Girls seem to demand much more volume, expressiveness, complexity, fluency, and creativity. If natural selection had shaped human language for the efficient, cooperative communication of useful information, we would all speak this sort of "Early Adolescent Mumbled Dialect." At least in males, only with the demands of verbal courtship do we witness the development of recognizably human-level language.

Computer pioneer Alan Turing alluded to the importance of verbal courtship for testing someone's mental capacities in the original 1950 version of his "imitation game," which has come to be known as the "Turing test." In the imitation game, an interrogator tries to determine whether he is interacting with a real woman or a computer program that imitates a woman. Turing was more interested in intelligence than female flesh, so he eliminated the physical cues of womanhood, and limited the interrogator to typing questions on a terminal, and receiving answers on a screen. The questions can be as challenging as the interrogator likes, such as "Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge." In Turing's view, if a computer can successfully lead an interrogator to believe that he is interacting with a. real woman, it should be considered intelligent. Turing emphasized that the computer must be capable of credibly demonstrating a very wide range of behaviors—his list included being kind, using words properly, having a sense of humor, catching us by surprise, claiming to enjoy strawberries and cream, falling in love, and making someone fall in love with it. (Strikingly, many of these behaviors overlap with the courtship adaptations we have considered in previous chapters.)

After Turing, philosophers of artificial intelligence dismissed the sexual aspect of the imitation game as a confusing distraction, and stripped it away from modern versions of the Turing test. However, Turing's original version subtly pointed to the special challenges of demonstrating human intelligence during courtship. Even a very simple 1970s computer program like ELIZA can fool people into thinking that they are interacting with a real psychotherapist—but no one has fallen in love with ELIZA, as far as I know. Turing's more sexualized imitation game offered a key insight: human intelligence can be demonstrated very effectively through verbal courtship, and any machine capable of effective verbal courtship should be considered genuinely intelligent.

The idea that language evolved for verbal courtship solves the altruism problem by identifying a sexual payoff for speaking well. Once the rudiments of language started to evolve, for whatever reason, our sexually motivated ancestors would probably have used their heritable language abilities in courtship. Language complexity could have evolved through a combination of runaway sexual selection, mental biases in favor of well-articulated thoughts, and fitness indicator effects.

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