Why Do Women Have Higher Verbal Ability than Men if Language Was Sexually Selected

When sex differences do show up in human mental abilities, women typically show higher average verbal ability, while men show higher average spatial and mathematical ability For example, women comprehend more words on average, and this sex difference accounts for almost 5 percent of the individual variation in vocabulary size. But sexual selection normally predicts that males evolve larger ornaments. If language evolved as a sexual ornament, it seems that males should have much higher average verbal abilities. Is this a fatal problem?

The standard predictions of sexual selection are hard to apply because language is used for both speaking and listening—both verbal display and the judgment of verbal displays by others. Normally, sexual selection makes males better display-producers and females better display-discriminators. Peacocks can grow bigger tails, but peahens may be better at seeing and judging tails. Most tests of human verbal abilities are tests of language comprehension, not tests of language production. Given a strict male-display, female-choice mating system, we should expect female superiority in language comprehension and male superiority in language production.

For example, females should recognize more words, but males should use a larger proportion of their vocabulary in courtship, biasing their speech towards rarer, more exotic words. In this simple picture, more women might understand what "azure" really means (so they can accurately judge male word use), but more men might actually speak the word "azure" in conversation (even if they think it means "vermilion"). Standard vocabulary tests measure only comprehension of word meaning, not the ability to produce impressive synonyms during courtship. Reading comprehension questions are more common than creative writing tests. Women are faster readers and buy more books, but most books are written by men.

But the male-display, female-choice system is not an accurate model of human conversation anyway. Throughout this book I have stressed the importance of mutual mate choice in human evolution. Human courtship means, above all, men and women talking to one another. It is not restricted to men standing up and pouring forth a stream-of-consciousness verbal display to anyone who will listen. Such male verbal broadcasts can be observed in churches, parliaments, and scientific conferences, but human speech is typically more private and more interactive. The interactiveness of conversation makes terms like signaler and receiver problematic. All humans are both. As with other mental abilities, mutual display and mutual choice tend to produce sexual equality in the display ability

How should we interpret the female superiority on language comprehension tests, given the male motivation to produce public verbal displays? The latter has not been so well quantified yet, but it is still obvious. Men write more books. Men give more lectures. Men ask more questions after lectures. Men dominate mixed-sex committee discussions. Men post more e-mail to Internet discussion groups. To say this is due to patriarchy is to beg the question of the behavior's origin. If men control society, why don't they just shut up and enjoy their supposed prerogatives? The answer is obvious when you consider sexual competition: men can't be quiet because that would give other men a chance to show off verbally. Men often bully women into silence, but this is usually to make room for their own verbal display. If men were dominating public language just to maintain patriarchy, that would qualify as a puzzling example of evolutionary altruism—a costly, risky individual act that helps all of one's sexual competitors (other males) as much as oneself. The ocean of male language that confronts modern women in bookstores, television, newspapers, classrooms, parliaments, and businesses does not necessarily come from a male conspiracy to deny women their voice. It may come from an evolutionary history of sexual selection in which the male motivation to talk was vital to their reproduction. The fact that men often do not know what they are talking about only shows that the reach of their displays often exceeds their grasp.

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