For every word written in scientific journals about the evolution of astonishing language ability, at least a hundred words have been written in women’s magazines about men’s apparent inability to articulate even the simplest thought or feeling. Women commonly complain that their sexual partners do not talk enough to them. If language evolved through sexual selection, and if sexual selection operates more powerfully on males than on females, you may legitimately wonder why your boyfriend or husband cannot share his feelings with you. Is it possible that, his early courtship efforts having brought success, he no longer feels driven to be as verbally energetic, interesting, and self-disclosing as he was before? The man who used to talk like Cyrano now talks like a cave-man. Once he was a poet, now he is prosaic. His verbal courtship effort has decreased.
I have already argued that effective verbal courtship is a reliable fitness indicator precisely because it is costly and difficult. Animals evolve to allocate their energies efficiently. If it took a million words to establish a sexual relationship with you, your boyfriend was apparently willing to absorb those costs, just as his male ancestors were. But if it takes only twenty words a day to maintain exclusive sexual access to you, why should he bother uttering more? His motivational system has evolved to deploy his courtship effort where it makes a difference to his reproductive success- mainly by focusing it where it improves his rate of sexual intercourse. Men apparently did not evolve from male ancestors who squandered high levels of verbal courtship effort on already established relationships. Of course, if an established partner suspends sexual relations, or threatens to have an affair, evolution would favor motivations that produce a temporary resurgence of verbal courtship until the danger has passed. Frustratingly, a woman may find that the greater the sexual commitment she displays the less her man speaks.
This analysis may sound heartlessly unromantic, but evolution is heartlessly unromantic. It is stingy with courtship effort, stacking it heavily where it does the most good, and sprinkling it very lightly elsewhere. Human courtship, like courtship in other animals, has a typical time-course. Courtship effort is low when first assessing a sexual prospect, increases rapidly if the prospect reciprocates one’s interest, peaks when the prospect is deciding whether to copulate, and declines once a long-term relationship is established. We all enjoy a desired partner besieging us with ardent, witty, energetic courtship. That enjoyment is the subjective manifestation of the mate preferences that shaped human language in the first place. As with any evolved preference, we may desire more than we can realistically get. Evolution’s job is to motivate us, not to satisfy us.
So, when women universally complain about their slothfully mute boyfriends, we learn two things. First, women have a universal desire to enjoy receiving high levels of verbal courtship effort. Second, high levels of verbal courtship effort are so costly that men have evolved to produce them only when they are necessary for initiating or reviving sexual relationships. Far from undermining the courtship hypothesis for language evolution, this phenomenon provides two key pieces of evidence that support it.
– The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (pg. 382) by Geoffrey F. Miller
I love most articles on this blog but this sounds like complete baloney to me. The attempt at explaining a very specific western modern phenomenon by simply pointing to natural selection and constructing a fitting narrative has been done a hundred times. The excerpt above is screaming just-so story. Here an article that explains how cultural phenomena like “boyfriend can’t communicate” more likely arise: https://aeon.co/essays/how-culture-works-with-evolution-to-produce-human-cognition. Side note: On what planet does communication equal courtship? I communicate with my (male) friends.
Thank you for the kind words ^_^
I often quote and write about sexual attraction and the use of fitness displays, not because I have a bone to pick, but because it explains a lot about why we are so often in denial about the quality of our own experience. For instance, being happy is a fitness indicator, so we end up in practice investing a lot of time convincing ourselves that we are happier than we truly are with a given situation in order to avoid looking bad in the eyes of others. Likewise, we tend to believe that we understand our own consciousness better than we do, since having excellent introspective skills is likewise a fitness indicator. In the realm of high-quality phenomenology, we do often find a lot of overconfident noise precisely for this reason (I could be wrong, but that’s my experience). Same with, e.g. how people jump to conclusions about what psychedelics do or “mean”, the nature of spirituality, and so on. We fail, precisely for this reason, to notice even the most basic phenomenological properties of altered states of consciousness, such as identifying the wallpaper symmetry groups in our visual field or recognizing the relationship between harmony and valence. It’s all quite obvious in retrospect, though.
To my knowledge, studies show that men tend to show off their verbal skills when possible intimate relationships are at stake. Poetry competitions are cross-cultural and ubiquitous throughout history; definitely not a western invention 🙂 Of course these studies could fail to replicate. But it’s worth considering what they entail about how our mind works, and how we often deceive ourselves.
IMO, the ideal consciousness research environment is fully aware of these traps and compensates for them. In turn, I expect consciousness research to give us tools to avoid self-deception. MDMA’s incredible self-honesty comes to mind 🙂
Hey, I saw this just now! Thanks for your kind, in-depth response, idk if my comment deserved it tho. I was mostly just affronted at the implication that women want to be their man’s centre of attention 24/7 and men stop caring about their woman as soon as the sperm hits the ovum. I’ve read the Elephant in the Brain recently (I’m guessing you will know this book) and now I understand better where author here is coming from.
I still think I might have had a minor point. Yes, language definitely does involve courtship motives. But concluding from that that men stop communicating with their girlfriends because the courtship motive is fading seems a bit far of a stretch. We are still heavily shaped by our culture (think anorexic beauty standards; definitely not very adaptive) and this phenomenon could stem from any number of factors.
There’s a couple of things that speak against the courtship explanation. First, if courtship is to prove one’s fitness to potential mates, why would women still want these enourmous amounts of courtship when already in a relationship? How could fitness displays be of any help when his genes are already on the way, so to speak? (Assuming the couple has had sex.) Secondly, if men speaking to their girlfriends is considered courtship and extremely costly, why do women speak to their boyfriends then? Wouldn’t that be just as costly? How is it in her interest to hold a costly conversation, but not in his?
You see, none of this seems conclusive to me. Maybe that’s just because my brain doesn’t want it to be. There’s that sneaky self-deception again—I’m glad you worry about this as much as I do now. And indeed an interesting observation that this extends to us thinking we understand our own consciousness better than we do!
Cheers, Luise 🙂