Blame human evolution for corporate jargon and thick academic prose

| July 14, 2020
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

For anyone who’s ever worked in a large organization, this kind of message will be depressingly familiar: “Do you have capacity to cascade the following information to your team? Please escalate inquiries through line management channels.”

In plain English, this (real-life example) simply means: “Pass this on. Any questions, just ask.”

So why not simply say so? And what on earth has this to do with genetics?

The late philosopher Denis Dutton provides a potential answer to both questions. In addition to writing The Art Instinct, a Darwinian analysis of aesthetics, Dutton also ran a Bad Writing Contest that lampooned “the most egregious examples of awkward, jargon-clogged academic prose” produced in any particular year. (Sadly, this competition — to borrow a phrase from one of its winners — now has an “absentation of actuality”. That is, it no longer exists.)

And it is Dutton’s explanation for why so many academics indulge in incomprehensibly obscure writing that is of relevance here: that is, that it’s a smokescreen, deliberately designed to hide trite or lightweight arguments within profound-sounding text. As Dutton says of one year’s 94-word single sentence winning entry, “To ask what [it] means is to miss the point. [It] beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.”

Or, more succinctly, it’s simply “showing off”.

Much the same could be said of the corporate communication speak with which we began that obscuring simple messages with unnecessary jargon is merely an attempt to make mundane messages sound more important. In effect, such language use is merely a display and it’s with the concept of ‘display’ that biology and genes come into play.

The classic example of biological display is, of course, the gorgeous tail of a peacock; something that, surprisingly, the father of evolutionary biology, Charles Darwin, found particularly unpleasant: “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail,” he noted shortly after the publication of the Origin of Species, “makes me sick!”

Actually, Darwin’s reaction here was far from surprising – after all, the peacock’s flashy appendage seemed impossible to explain through Darwin’s freshly formulated theory of natural selection. How on earth could such a cumbersome and impractical adornment surely a handicap in evading predators  have survived natural selection’s remorseless ‘struggle for existence’?

Darwin’s ingenious solution to this dilemma was his theory of sexual selection (1871); briefly, that elaborate traits such as the peacock’s tail (or its incredible spider equivalent) could arise, even at the expense of individual survival, if the traits ultimately increased an individual’s reproductive success.

Put simply, the peacock’s tail is a reproductive organ (albeit, a particularly large and protruding one) that functions merely to attract females. And as peahens prefer to mate with males that possess the most impressive tails, these males end up with more offspring — offspring that, moreover, tend to be similarly well-endowed and similarly willing to advertise the fact. The antlers of a stag are another example of such (equally large and protruding) reproductive organs; although here, these are sexually selected weapons as much as ornaments, used to fight off other males or to protect the territory and resources needed to attract females. (In humans, women’s breasts and men’s V-shaped torsos are thought to be sexually selected traits, designed more to attract mates than to aid survival.)

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A modern refinement to Darwin’s original theory is that sexually selected traits are also signals of ‘good genes’. (Though see Richard Plum’s recent Pulitzer-nominated The Evolution of Beauty for a critique of this idea). In the case of peacocks, for example, a glorious tail indicates that its owner has the wherewithal not only to escape enemies, but also the genetic fitness to overcome the environmental stresses (such as disease or parasites or shortage of food) that might otherwise  interfere with the tail’s development. If the ‘good genes’ theory is correct, then peahens select their preferred partners less on explicit aesthetic grounds and more on implicit genetic ones.

All well and good but what has this to do with the egregious examples of language use mentioned above?

According to evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, for example, many aspects of human language including story-telling and singing, or wordplay and humor are likely the result of sexual selection, with linguistic competence functioning as a signal of the cognitive abilities of the speaker. A large vocabulary, for example, indicates intelligence and education (plus the resources to pay for it), while quick-witted repartee similarly shows an active, fully-functioning brain, along with an engaging, entertaining personality. And such cunning linguistics, in Miller’s view, is ultimately aimed at one thing only: reproductive success.

Indeed, in his seminal The Mating Mind (2000), Miller argues that the human brain itself is primarily a product of sexual rather than natural selection: “an entertainment system” designed principally to stimulate and attract other brains; in other words, the idea that our incredible cognitive abilities have evolved, “like the peacock’s tail, for courtship and mating”.

At first glance, Miller’s claim that our brains (and our intelligence) are largely geared towards sexual display runs contrary to a far more intuitive notion: that possessing such brains/intelligence provides a purely functional advantage in the struggle for life (building tools, planning hunting, outwitting rival humans, and the like).

Related article:  Pew survey exposes Americans' complicated views on evolution and religion

Yet Miller’s argument makes sense of why the human brain, like the peacock’s overly elaborate tail, appears unnecessarily complex after all, a brain capable of appreciating art or music or math (or even dad jokes) seems somewhat excessive for the Pleistocene environment in which it evolved. Why would naked, bipedal apes like us possess brains that (to steal from the title of a recent text on human evolution) can understand the universe?

Sexual selection also helps explain otherwise puzzling aspects of modern human social behaviour. In a later book, Miller amusingly illustrates this by asking: “Why would the world’s most intelligent primate buy a Hummer H1 Alpha sport utility vehicle”? Darwinian sexual selection provides a good answer, he argues: “Humans evolved in small social groups in which image and status were all-important, not only for survival but for attracting mates, impressing friends and rearing children.”

In our ancestral environment, possessing a bearskin or a stone tool (or, more especially, the ability to obtain the former or craft the latter) would have afforded such all-important status; in the modern consumer world, a Hummer (or an equally expensive equivalent) does much the same job.

But even today, it’s not just material possessions that enhance image. As already suggested, humor or story-telling or singing abilities are also attractive to others. (And, of course, such attraction can be for both material assets and individual abilities: for instance, the sexual allure of Rolling Stones crooner Mick Jagger, whose youngest child was born well after he had become a great grandfather, is perhaps now due as much to his fame, fortune and followers as to his wonderful voice. And his rugged good looks, of course.)

And this is where we can return, at long last, to Denis Dutton. In The Art Instinct, Dutton suggests that artistic expression (much like humor or Hummer-buying) is a sexually selected human characteristic; in brief, that, in evolutionary terms, an artist’s explicit display of virtuosity is also an implicit signal of the quality of his or her genes. Given the ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ view of sexual selection, something as inessential as art a feature of all human societies is difficult to explain; unless, of course, it enhanced our ancestors’ individual reproductive success.

Dutton’s is an intriguing idea of the origins of art (one that’s at odds with the cultural explanations of prevailing art theory). But it also provides a satisfying answer to an otherwise puzzling aspect of art appreciation the strong negative reactions people have to discovering that a supposed Old Master, say,  is actually a cunningly executed fake. If both the original and the imitation are virtually indistinguishable, what real difference does it make?

According to Dutton’s Darwinian account, such fakery would make a great deal of difference if our focus is aimed not solely on aesthetic value but rather on the genetic worth of the artist. We cannot help but feel cheated by forgeries because, in our ancestral past, falling for a con artist rather than a real artist could have carried a reproductive cost (i.e., mating with an inferior partner).

The annoyance caused by corporate-speak, therefore, likely has the same origin the underlying feeling that it too is false, an attempt to disguise something of little worth as something of value. Unfortunately, given that we have an evolved susceptibility for showy language that which, in the past, would have been a good signal of a good brain (and the good genes that built it) simple plain English can sound, well, simply too plain. Whether we like it or not, we’re often impressed (or tricked) by others’ language use think politicians, preachers and marketeers.

To call it linguistic peacocking makes instant sense; behavior aimed at making an impression, winning friends and influencing people. At a deeper level, hidden from our conscious minds, it’s motivated by the same impulses (and indeed the same hormones) that cause the real peacock to strut its stuff, with the ultimate aim you guessed it simple reproductive success. And deeper still, of course, are the underlying genes that direct the behavior that’s given the world corporate-speak, country music and cosmetics plus all the other wonders of human art and science.

Darwin’s theory of sexual selection explains so many otherwise baffling aspects of human behavior including this overly elaborate essay on his ingenious idea.

Patrick Whittle has a PhD in philosophy and is a freelance writer with a particular interest in the social and political implications of modern biological science. Follow him on his website or on Twitter @WhittlePM

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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