Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind

Chapter 10: Cyrano and Scheherazade


Daniel Adams

Danielle Lowy

Sarah McFarland

Nicole Murph

Jennifer Capps




 Miller proposes that language is not simply an altruistic tool for humans to share information.  He recognizes that language “is a signaling system of almost miraculous power and efficiency” (342) and also points out that it allows human beings to collaborate ideas and actions, it allows for group work and survival.  Yet he argues that language has a greater purpose, that there are many more selfish reasons for language. One reproductive advantage that language provides is “the ability to fall in love by talking” (343).  He investigates why our ancestors developed language as part of the courting process.

            Miller proposes that many prominent language researchers and scientists have approaches the question of language evolution from the wrong angle. He says that Darwin had the correct approach in recognizing that language is an “unusual human adaptation” (343) that most likely evolved through sexual selection. Miller points out that language evolved in the last five million years, after our ancestry split away from chimp ancestry.  He points out that studying chimpanzees is therefore a waste of time. He says Neanderthals, and the language present in their day, are the only useful species to research that would provide a clue for language’s evolution. Neanderthals unlike chimpanzees are a direct ancestor who shared the use of language. He says “the presence of language in Neanderthals would tell us much more about the evolution of human language than the absence of language in chimpanzees” (344). He then criticizes Noam Chomsky’s search for the innateness of language.  He reveals that although we have distinct evidence that language evolved and comes naturally to human beings we still have not tackled the question of why it evolved. He points out that Chomsky was “demonstrating an adaptation’s [language] complexity, elegance, and innateness” (344) but that he never considered how and why language evolved.  Many researchers, like Chomsky, have reviewed language's power and complexity distracting them from considering the basis for the evolution of language.  He also informs the reader that much research has been done on the evolution of language yet “ very few theories of language evolution identify particular selection pressures that could favor the gradual accumulation of genetic mutations necessary to evolve a complex new mental capacity that has costs and well as benefits” (345).  Basically stating that the research has not given way to the reasons for language evolution.  He points out that the sexual pressures that shaped language pale in comparison to the survival pressures, yet states that he will consider the sexual pressures significance.

            Miller goes on to discuss that language is a seemingly altruistic quality, yet really is quite selfish.  He points out that “evolution cannot favor altruistic information sharing any more than it can favor altruistic food sharing” (346). He concludes that language must have evolved so that the speaker could manipulate the listener’s behavior. Language is a fitness indicator in this sense; it is a signal of good genes and makes the listener vulnerable to “lies, sweet talk, and propaganda” (347).  He points out that unrelated animals signal about their own welfare rather than the welfare of the group.  For example a business executive talking about his brand new Ferrari is purely relaying information about his own fitness and is not helping the listener in the least.  On the other hand, a mother will signal to her children that a predator is coming for the semi-altruistic reason of the child’s welfare; and for the selfish reason that the child carries half of her genes.  Alongside fitness indicators Miller discusses desperation indicators which also relay information about the speaker. Miller explains that language evolution has a hidden survival or reproductive benefit that must be uncovered.  The three areas to look for this hidden benefit are kinship, reciprocity, or sexual selection.  He feels that all three play an important role.

            In addressing reciprocity Miller makes an accurate observation: that it is considered selfish to constantly speak, and noble to constantly listen.  He says that if sharing information through language gives altruistic information to the listener than we would all engage in intense listening and be reticent to talk.  Yet the opposite is true, in most instances the person who talks for too long and doesn’t share the floor with his/her colleagues is considered selfish.  He says, “people compete to say things.  They strive to be heard” (350).  The point here is that humans want to show off their language fitness indicator, and their only means to do so is through speaking. Miller proposes that “language puts minds on public display, where sexual selection could see them clearly for the first time” (357), therefore sexual selection became more intense with the introduction of language.  Miller discusses a phenomenon that is specific to human beings referred to as verbal courtship where language is displayed “at every stage of courtship, and language is subject to mate choice” (351).  The process of getting to know someone is “the heart of human sexual selection” for hours of conversation usually proceed any physical contact, if there is any at all.  Evolutionarily men seem to have learned how to speak just like peacocks developed pretty tails.  It is not a coincidence that boys are not fluent in their speech until they hit puberty.  At this point it becomes necessary for dating.  Verbal fluency is obviously related to sexual selection, for men begin to use their verbal skills, as they become aware of their sexuality. 

            Miller examines Robert Burling’s theory that “complex human language evolved through male orators competing for social status by speaking eloquently” (354). High status males find a reproductive advantage in their status which Burling found evidence of in tribal societies. He identified a link between verbal skill, social status, and reproductive success.  Another language researcher Jean Louis Desalles supports Burling by saying that “listeners award higher social status to speakers who make relevant, interesting points in conversation” (355).  Miller concludes that mate choice and social status helped shape human language through evolution.

            Miller goes on to say that the content of our speech is more important than the structure.  He believes that the “form [of language] evolved in the service of the sexually selected content” (358).  He says that not much effort is required in the actual act of speaking, the effort is held in finding something interesting to say.  He says that in every day speech people make constant grammatical mistakes, yet they are overlooked.  The relevance, truthfulness, intelligence and interest level are all more important than how the sentences were constructed.  These important elements of language are what separate our mating process from other species.  Miller explains that humans who engage in a sexual relationship have a clear understanding of their partner’s past, present and future, whereas chimpanzees can only make rough inferences about personality from present experiences.

            Next Miller talks about the ability to articulate our conscious experience of the world.  He explains that articulation was favored by evolution due to the fact that our extended phenotype consisted of the stories that humans can share about the past. He says that the ability to not only describe what happened, but also a detailed discussion of the emotional effects of the incident comprise a part of our selves that we carry around with us. Our language is an equivalent form of ornamentation and extended phenotype as a spider’s web.  Articulation is also a fitness indicator for intelligence, for “articulate people can articulate anything that they consciously experience” (365).  He proposes that alongside our ability to articulate experiences, the way we experience the world has also evolved also. Basically, “pressures to report our conscious experiences may have influenced how we perceive and categorize things” (366).  Psychologist Jennifer Freyd points out that we tend to report continuous phenomena as discrete experiences, for the discrete explanation is easier to convey to a listener.  

            Gossip is possibly the most entertaining conversation two people can engage in.  Robin Dunbar an evolutionary psychologist suggests that humans find gossip particularly interesting because “gossip helped our ancestors keep track of a larger amount of social relationships than they could by direct observation (366).  Gossip is also used to display credibility about the speaker; “the gossiper must have high social status and high social intelligence” (367).  Furthermore the gossiper must always have new information to share proving that they have special access to secrets and/or a wider social circle.  This is how gossip functions as a fitness indicator of social status, and therefore was most likely sexually selected. 

            Miller goes on to address the importance of human vocabulary and the reasons behind its extensive nature.  The English language has about 60,000 words, yet 4,000 words account for 98% of the speech that the average adult uses.  Large vocabulary is an ornamental luxury, for with 850 English words, known as Basic English, one has a completely functional and pragmatic version of English.  Our large vocabularies are fitness indicators of intelligence and possibly evolved through sexual selection. It turns out that vocabulary size has about an 80% correlation with general intelligence. Studies done on identical twins reared apart correlate 75% of their vocabulary size (373). These results indicate that our parents give us the genes to be able to learn words, yet do not necessarily teach us our entire vocabulary.  This is clear support that large vocabularies were sexually selected. Also “couples in long term relationships tend to have vocabularies of similar size” (373) words are reliable indicators of intelligence and articulation ability.  The problem with the theory that language was sexually selected is that most sexually selected features are of larger ornamentation in males than in females. Human females have better verbal abilities, which is a contradiction to the sexual selection theory.  His proposed explanation for this inconsistency is that males tend to be “display producers” and females tend to be “display discriminators” (375). Meaning that men use their large vocabularies on a daily basis to impress women, and women are able to recognize and comprehend their exotic words.  He points out that “most tests of human verbal ability are tests of comprehension, not tests of language production” (375).  His -male display, female-choice theory predicts that women would do better on these types of tests. Coinciding with this explanation is the fact that men tend to write more books, ask more questions, dominate mixed sex discussions, etc.  The one contradiction to the male display theory is that men cannot articulate the “simplest thought or feeling” (382) to their sexual partner.  Miller’s proposes that once a male has effectively utilized verbal courtship and gotten a female partner he feels that this energy does not need to be expended anymore.  It is a cost that has no return payment.  Basically once a sexual relationship has been established the man is only willing to expend a certain amount of energy to maintain it, “ animals evolve to allocate their energies efficiently” (382).  If sexual relations are suspended the male has temporary motivation for verbal courtship, yet when reproductive success is not on the line, the effort stops.   

            Females tend to use verbal courtship even after a relationship has been established for they are securing the resources that they receive from males.  Females prove their fidelity to men through the continuous verbal courtship proving intelligence, creativity and fitness.  The females have to prove that they are the best option for the males to reproduce with.  The goal is to make monogamy seem like the best option through proving that the children reared are with absolute certainty the males.  By ridding the paternity insecurity through words females assure a constant source of resources for themselves and their children. Miller eloquently and concisely explains why maintaining verbal courtship is important: “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” (386).

Poetry is discussed next, not as “a zone of linguistic freedom where words can swirl in dazzling flocks above the gray cityscape of pragmatic communication” (379), but as a verbal handicap.  Miller says that elements like meter and rhythm make communicating an idea even harder.  These guidelines are constraints placed on the poet, therefore making poetry an impressive indicator of intelligence. Also “ a substantial proportion of poetry is love poetry, closely associated with courtship effort” (380) proving that it is an effective tool in impressing a possible mate.  

             Miller goes on to address many other selection pressures that shaped the evolution of language including “communication between relatives, social display to non-mates, coordination of group activities, and teaching things to children” (386).  Yet all of these pressures may have indirect mating advantages.  For instance one may find a potential lover through friend’s relatives or may become lovers with a friend.  In coordinating group activities we find that the individual who is able to “improve group success through verbal leadership is judged by potential mates” (387) and experiences the benefit of a wide range of mate selection.  Even teaching ones children is not purely altruistic.  The more effective a teacher the parent is, the better the likelihood is that the child will learn survival tactics and pass on the genes.  Also individuals who mates with good teachers will have offspring who are good teachers that will reassure the many generations survival.   





The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature-Geoffrey Miller


Chapter 10-Cyrano and Scheherazade


I)                 Forget Chomsky and Kanzi

a)      Language theorist Noam Chomsky and other language “nativists” fought hard against the theory/idea: all human mental abilities are products of learning.

i)        Steven Pinker – The Language Instinct: reviewed why they won

(1)   Language as a biological adaptation: complex, specialized skill that develops in the child spontaneously

(2)   Shows how it evolved, not why it evolved

ii)      Chomsky’s own research had limitations

(1)   Chomsky rejected the possibility that language evolved through normal Darwinian processes.

b)      Possibility that sexual functions have been overlooked

Selfish Language: Communication, Manipulation, or Display?

c)      Trouble with language: apparent altruism

d)      Speaking costs the speaker time and energy and brings information benefits to the listener

e)      Example of altruism:

i)        Animals could save their species lots of time and energy by evolving signals that reveal their intentions and motivations from combat to courtship

(1)   Reduce the deaths in combat and confusion in courtship

ii)      Ritualized threats such as a dog’s growling were supposed to convey accurate information about the dog’s level of aggression and willingness to fight over a resource.

(2) If a growling dog meets a non-growly dog, the non-growly dog will most likely back down – saving time and energy on a dogfight.

iii)    Communication evolved to make a species work more efficiently

f)       Rise of the selfish gene thinking in the 1970s shattered this idyllic view of animal signaling

g)      Richard Dawkins and John Kerbs – seminal 1978 paper

i)        Argued the animals should evolve to produce signals only when signaling gives them a net fitness benefit that helps their own genes replicate at the expense of other genes

ii)      Therefore, animals’ signals must have evolved to manipulate the behavior of another animal for the signaler’s own benefit.

h)      Modern Theory

i)        Suggests that animals usually evolve to ignore the signals from other animals that may be attempting to manipulate them. 

(1)   Exceptions:

(a)    Predators listen to signals from prey that reliably say “ You can’t catch me.”

(b)   Relatives listen to signals from other relatives that reliably say, “ Watch out for that predator!”

(c)    Animals competing for a resource listen to signals that reliably say, “ I could kill you.”

(d)   Animals looking for a good mate listen to signals that say, “ I have good genes.”

(e)    Signals are all fitness indicators

ii)      Handicap principle can make fitness indicators reliable

(1)   The signal’s cost is in the same currency – the currency of biological fitness – as the signal’s information

(2)   Work for fitness indicators that advertise good condition to potential mates

(3)   Work for signals of desperation that advertise poor condition to relatives

(a)    Desperation signals also work with the currency of fitness: the animal reliably show how much a desired resource would improve its fitness

i)        Hidden survival or reproductive benefit in the apparently altruistic act of speaking

i)        Three basic options

(1)   Kinship

(2)   Reciprocity

(3)   Sexual selection


Language through Kinship and Reciprocity?

j)        Information sharing effect could have made it rather easy for language to evolve through kin selection and reciprocal altruism

i)        Conflicts of interest

(1)   There is always the temptation to cheat by receiving more than one gives

ii)      Costs and benefits of language to see whether people’s behavior follows the predictions of kinship and reciprocity models

(1)   Speaker already knows the information being conveyed and learns nothing new by sharing it

(2)   The listener gains information by listening

(3)   In other words, better to receive than to give

(4)   Principal benefit of language must be to the listener

k)      People compete to say things – they strive to be heard

i)        When they appear to be listening , they are often mentally rehearsing their next contribution to the discourse rather than absorbing what was just said by others

l)        Kinship and reciprocity theories does not  accurately predict

i)        Why?

(1)   If the talking were costs and the listening were the benefit of language, then our speaking apparatus should have remained rudimentary and conservative

Verbal Courtship

m)    Every stage of courtship-language is displayed and is the subject of mate choice

n)      Verbal courtship intensifies, progressing through self-introduction, observations concerning immediate social surroundings, compliments and offers of minor favors

o)      People

i)        Trade more personal information

ii)      Mutual acquaintances

iii)    Shared interests

p)      No common language = breakdown of courtship

q)      At each stage either

i)        Person may break off courtship

ii)      Person attempt to escalate intimacy

r)       Verbal Courtship is the heart of human sexual selection

s)       Idea that language evolved for verbal courtship solves the altruism problem by identifying a sexual payoff for speaking well

t)       Language complexity  could have evolved through a combination of

i)        Runaway sexual selection

ii)      Mental biases in favor of well articulated thoughts

iii)    Fitness indicator effects

Language Displays and Social Status

u)      Language evolution theorists

i)        Robbins Burling

ii)      John Locke

iii)    Jean Louis Dessalles

v)      They have shown how language’s hidden status and sexual benefits could have driven its evolution

i)        Sexual attractiveness depends on social status which, in turn, depends on verbal ability

(1)   Displayed in large and small groups

w)    Verbal Courtship Theory

i)        Sexual choice favored verbal ability more directly through one-to-one conversation

x)      Sexual selection probably shaped human language in two ways

i)        Directly-mate choice

ii)      Indirectly-social status

A Million Words of Courtship

y)      Courtship Theory has been mocked as the “chat-up theory” of language evolution

z)      Verbal courtship continues for months after people first meet

aa)   The bedrock of human intimacy and love

Public Speech as Covert Courtship

bb)  Language puts minds on public display

i)        Sexual choice- see them clearly for the first time in evolutionary history

Form and Content

cc)   Formal structure of language evolved principally as a medium for conveying ideas and feelings

i)        Attract sexual partners by revealing our personalities and minds

ii)      Sexual selection shapes language’s content more than its form

dd)  In courtship

i)        The receiver is extremely judgmental towards the information and the signaler

ii)      Listening

(1)   We automatically evaluate whether what is being said makes sense

(a)    Whether its interesting

(b)   Whether we draw intriguing inferences

(c)    Parallel to what we believe and know

(2)   Form an impression of the speaker

(a)    Of the speaker’s intelligence

(i)     Creativity

(ii)   Knowledge



Life Stories

ee)   Verbal courtship allows individuals to tell their life stories quickly and verifiably

ff)     Language lets us learn about potential mates much more efficiently and interactively than any other species can

gg)   Life stories

i)        Important in verbal courtship

ii)      Language made each individual’s entire history a part of their “extended phenotype” in courtship

(1)   Our pasts become part of our sexual displays

Introspective, Articulate Ape Seeks Same

hh)  evolutionary pressures to report our conscious experiences may have even influenced how we perceive and categorize things

i)        Example

(1)   we may ten to perceive some naturally continuous phenomena in discrete ways

(2)   because it is easier to give verbal labels to discrete categories than to points on fuzzy continua

Gossip: Social Information, Entertainment, or Indicator?

ii)      Evolutionary psychologist-Robin Dunabr

i)        Gossip helped our ancestors to keep track of larger number of social relationships

(1)   Rather then direct observation

(a)    Direct interaction

jj)      More to gossip

i)        Gossiper usually knows some news that the listener does not know

(1)   Gossiper may have privileged access to secrets

(2)   Gossiper must have high social social status  and high social intelligence

(a)    If he or she knows the information


kk)  Human vocabulary sizes seem to have rocketed out of control

i)        Average adult human English-speaker knows 60,000 words

ii)      Vocabulary size     

(1)   Sexual selection may have shaped language evolution

ll)      Evidence

i)        Vocabulary size is at least 60% genetically heritable

ii)      80% correlation with general intelligence

mm)                      Vocabulary = intelligence indicator

nn)  Words appear to have evolved for symbolic reference

i)        Or as indicators

oo)  Human vocabulary size have evolved through the same sexual selection process that favored enormous song repertoires in some bird species

pp)  Humans use large vocabularies in courtship

i)        Courtship and choice are mutual

ii)      Unusual words work as reliable displays only if their meanings are understood

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

qq)  Women show higher verbal ability

rr)     Men show higher spatial and mathematical ability

ss)    Females = superiority on language comprehension

i)        Sexual Selection

(1)   Would make women better display-discriminator


tt)      Men- public verbal displays

i)        Sexual Selection

(1)   Would make men better display-producers

uu)  How can we interpret the female superiority on language comprehension tests, given the male motivation to produce public speaking verbal displays

i)        Sexual Competition

(1)   Men can’t be quiet because that would give other men a chance to show off verbally

Poetic Handicaps

vv)  Poetry

i)        Zone of linguistic freedom

ii)      Also a system of handicaps

(1)   Meter, rhythm, rhyme make communication harder

(2)   Additional constraints on the speakers

ww)                       Good Prose

i)        Enhances the speaker’s status

xx)   Good Poetry

i)        Indicator of verbal intelligence

ii)      Most cultures

(1)   Poetry is love poetry- related to courtship effort

iii)    offers emotionally  moving insights into the human condition

(1)   The natural world

(2)   Transience of life

iv)    aspects may make courtship display more effective

So Why Can’t My Boyfriend Communicate?

yy)   argued that verbal courtship is costly and difficult

i)        allocate energies efficiently

zz)   His motivational system has evolved to deploy his courtship effort where it makes a difference to his reproductive success

i)        Focusing it where it improves his rate of sexual intercourse

aaa)                       Stingy with courtship effort

bbb)                      Women

i)        Desire to enjoy high levels of verbal courtship effort

(1)   High levels of verbal courtship effort are so costly

(a)    Men have evolved to produce them only they are necessary for initiating or reviving sexual relationships

The Scheherazade Strategy

ccc)                       Women

i)        Could keep a useful male around longer

(1)   Enjoy comfortable lives

(2)   Children will prosper

(3)   Male sexual commitment

(4)   Paternal investment

ii)      Women’s drive to continue with verbal courtship long after men have committed

(1)   Verbal assurance

ddd)                      Talking keeps relationships interesting

i)        Women use the Scheherazade strategy

(1)   Long after partners grow overfamailiar with each other’s bodies-the Scheherazade strategy

(a)    Trying to keep conversations interesting throughout a relationship

(i)     Keeps them from getting bored with each other’s company

(2)   Allow Females to keep useful men around

(3)   Help men overcome their sexual novelty-seeking

Language Outside Courtship

eee)                       Human Language

i)        Not just for courtship

ii)      Shaped by other selection pressures

(1)   Communication between relatives

(2)   Social display to non-mates

(3)   Coordination of group activities

(4)   Teaching things to children

Fact and Fantasy

fff)  Scheherazade problem:

i)        There could be “fantasy” equilibria where people impress mates by making up stories about fictional worlds

(1)   “fact” equilibria where people impress mates by displaying real knowledge of the real world

ii)      As long as both displays are good fitness indicators

(1)   Sexual selection should not favor fact over fantasy

iii)    Trouble with purely fantasy equilibrium

(1)   Individuals would literally not know what they are talking about

(2)   The only way a signal can activate a concept in another individual’s head

(a)    Signal must be grounded-directly or indirectly-in some real-world meaning

Scheherazade Versus Science

ggg)                       Language must be grounded reality

hhh)                      Language evolved as much to display our fitness as to communicate useful information