Human Brain = "Sexually Selected Ornament"

Human Brain = "Sexually Selected Ornament"

Love might be blind, but she is rarely deaf: Language and love have always been intimately entangled. Indeed Darwin believed love was one of the main reasons we have language and why it's so witty and ornamental.


Shakespeare (about three centuries before Darwin extended the connection) wrote, "If music be the food of love, play on." In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin laid out the remarkable, but now little remarked upon, differences between natural selection and sexual selection. Though of course that's not to say sexual selection is not natural. The crucial point is that the drive to survive pushes towards efficiency, whereas the equally important drive to reproduce can push in the opposite direction.

Darwin wrote, "Some early progenitor of man probably first used his voice in producing true musical cadences, that is in singing... and... this power would have been especially exerted during the courtship of the sexes." Hence music, and subsequently language, weren't just the food of love, they were likely also its audition. Modern developments of this view have extended far beyond the simple analogy with courtship songs. Suggesting that language (and our other sophisticated mental and behavioral traits) gained considerable complexity in the competition to impress the opposite sex. That leads to the seductive view that the modern human brain could be a "sexually selected ornament."

As I wrote on The Guardian's Books Blog:

"The most widely-known sexually selected ornament in nature is the peacock tail. It clearly doesn't fit the Darwinian view of evolution, in which species are ruthlessly honed to be lean-mean-survival-machines. Instead, peacock tails became so ostentatious (compared to peahen tails, which are small and a drab gray) in pursuit of the need to be wooing-machines. Often what makes you fittest makes you sexiest, but not always. The peacock tail is a substantial survival liability; surviving despite that is precisely what the peacock is advertising.

And that's where our conspicuous excess in the language of love comes in. The same pressures have driven us to ornament ourselves with sophisticated language to advertise our impressive brains, and our access to expensive resources like education and leisure time. It's not enough to be eye-catching (in Japanese, "getting one's eyes stolen") we also have to be ear-catching. Once a mating preference arises, sexual selection applies strong competitive pressures, resulting in an escalating charms race. Mother Nature has made bilinguists of us all. "

This post originally appeared here

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.

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