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Sexual Selection

and the Deweyian Aesthetics of Language

Drew Halley, Fall 2005




In the Book of Genesis, the descendants of Noah migrated to the land of Shinar following the great flood. Upon settling there, they began construction using bricks and mortar. "Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise, we shall be scattered all over the earth." (Gen 11, 4). Thus began the Tower of Babel. Most of the major sins discussed in Genesis were acts of self-determinism, or, in the eyes of God, defiance. Those things which we consider as distinguishing man from the natural world - free will, language, civilization - are regarded in the Christian creation story as human rebellion against the divine. Such a view provided much of the fuel for Nietzsche's anger in The Antichrist: he considered Christianity to fundamentally contain "the instinct of deadly hatred towards everything that stands erect, that towers grandly up, that possesses duration, that promises life a future..." The Tower of Babel can be thought to symbolize many things: the dawn of civilization (city-building), the architectural hubris of the skyscraper, the heart of atheism. Most importantly to our exploration, at the heart of the Tower was the unity of language. Communication was the core of what separated mankind from its bestial neighbors. We will discuss the nature of language, and its role as the aesthetic that drove neurological evolution towards the modern mind. "Of all affairs, communication is the most wonderful." Thus Dewey begins his own thoughts on the nature of language. I will begin mine with a translation; E-sag-ila, the chief Babylonian tower upon which the myth of Babel arose, means literally "the house that raises high its head".

The Origins of Language

An exploration of language is impossible without a consideration for the anatomical hardware required: the modern brain. The minds of today's humans present evolutionary biology/psychology with an interesting puzzle. Simply put, they don't seem to make sense. A large brain requires more energy to run, which demands more nutrients from an organism. Evolutionarily speaking, the modern human brain grew extremely large in an extremely short amount of time. This gave rise to complications during childbirth, among other survival complications. So what did the brain afford us at the time? Certainly not the survival benefits of civilization: agriculture was not invented for ninety thousands years after the brain had achieved its modern size. As evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller puts it, "99% of animal species thrive with brains much smaller than that of a chimpanzee's. Far from showing any general trend towards big-brained hyper-intelligence, evolution seems to abhor our sort of intelligence, and avoids it whenever possible."

So how did language, as a function of the modern brain, come about? Miller contends that sexual selection promoted the development of language as an aesthetic component of courtship. Language, in turn, required larger, more complex brains to become more complex itself. The more articulate, intelligent, and cohesive the language of an individual, the more sexually attractive they became to potential mates. This process could then enter into a positive-feedback loop, with the capacity to communicate at its very core. This is a modern theory for the evolution of the human brain, and at its center is the aesthetic of language.

Something Shared

Let us turn to Dewey. He quotes the beginning of language as that moment at which sounds are used "within a context of mutual assistance and direction." This is a major component also in what makes language an aesthetically pleasing affair. Language is not a function of a solitary individual; rather, it is interactive and necessarily social. Language is participation in a shared experience. "The heart of language is not 'expression' of something antecedent, much less the expression of antecedent thought. It is communication; the establishment of cooperation in an activity in which there are partners, and in which the activity of each is modified and regulated by partnership" Here Dewey outlines his thesis that language must be participatory and shared. How does this translate into aesthetic enjoyment? Dewey spends much time explaining that meaning is not subjective, as the modern worldview considers it, but is rather "objective as well as universal." Yet whether it is truly objective or not, the human psyche often regards meaning to be a quite subjective affair. This breeds feelings of isolation, loneliness, despair. Language here can act as existential therapy: communication requires interaction, the sharing of meaning between various participants (or should I say celebrants?). It can act as a reminder of the universality of meaning, and subsequently of our own interconnectedness.

Under the model of sexual selection, language developed exactly as Dewey here describes it. It evolved not as a subjective affair, but as a function of transaction between participants. The process of courtship is essentially and quite necessarily social, and if the origins of language were sexual, one can see the correlation. I do not wish to suggest that the participatory component of communication is entirely derivative of the interactive aspect of sexuality; yet I think it is important to note their similarities, especially if their evolutionary paths ran parallel. That element of language which is universal is important, since, as Dewey puts it, "shared experience is the greatest of human goods."

The Creative Factor

There is an inherent danger in a discourse on discourse to regard communication as a mechanical, utilitarian function and nothing more. Certainly the usefulness of language as a tool is important to consider, and is necessary to any complete picture of the topic. Yet Dewey focuses on an often forgotten element of communication: its role as an act of human creation. Essentially, in the act of communication one is required to cease perceiving egocentrically and instead adopt the perception of a fellow participant. Without this trade-off, communication cannot occur. "Something is literally made common in at least two different centers of behavior" Here, new properties emerge that were not merely components of the interaction; the whole is more than the sum of the parts. This makes language a creative process. While participants are actively involved in the communication, they are also creating the system of their own participation - that element which is interactive. "Meaning, fixed as essence in a term of discourse, may be imaginatively administered and manipulated, experimented with." This is another aspect of communication that is aesthetically pleasing, indeed enjoyable in itself. The idea of playing with language, rather than being subjected to its boundaries, is important in considering its value. Dewey's meaning is clarified from his earlier statement, "Communication is... also an immediate enhancement of life, enjoyed for its own sake."

Once language is thrown into the realm of creativity, its evolutionary development in the context of sexual selection becomes even clearer. Those elements of human culture that advanced along with language - art, music, drama, comedy - are creative ones. Again, these are not essentials in the violent world of natural selection; they are, however, in the seductive world of sexual selection. These peculiarities of human evolution were not developed for their survival value, but rather for their charm in the process of courtship. Given enough time to flourish on the evolutionary timeline, language grew in complexity along with the human brain as a sexual aesthetic. And, as Dewey put it, "A directly enjoyed thing adds to itself meaning."

A Natural Bridge

Important to an examination of any particular facet of Dewey's thought is a good working knowledge of his broader philosophical themes. These can offer even deeper insight into a specific idea when it is thrown into the greater context of Dewey's work. Here we should consider language in terms of Dewey's antidualism. "There is a natural bridge that joins the gap between existence and essence; namely communication, language, discourse. Failure to acknowledge the presence and operation of natural interaction in the form of communication creates the gulf between existence and essence, and that gulf is fastidious and gratuitous." This dualism keeps us from experiencing the world as a unity between essence (forms) and our own experience. The effects of this division are extreme; as we discussed before, language, by bridging this gap, is able to show that meaning is not subjective, but instead interactively universal. A good way to understand this dualism is as a symptom of what William James called "ontological wonder-sickness," or the desire to make sense of a seemingly irrational world. Dualism, most especially that critical dualism between form and existence, is at the heart of the sickness. Yet language, as a creative act, as a shared experience, and as antidualistic, works here as philosophical therapy. It relieves the stress of that seemingly irrational world by unifying it, by showing that the division never existed in the first place.

In what ways does this therapy show itself? Philosophy itself, for one. "Empirically, all reflection sets out from the problematic and confused." The goal of philosophy is always to make rational those things which are conceived as disorderly, confusing. The heart of desire is discontent; here, the tool employed to fix the world is philosophy. "Thinking is no different in kind from the use of natural materials and energies...to refine, re-order, and shape other natural materials." We can further say that any philosophy must be grounded in experience if it is to complete this work of therapy. Here we strike the heart of Dewey's pragmatism: if philosophy does not have its roots in empiricism, it fails to communicate; that is to say, it fails to bridge the gap between essence and experience, and becomes incommunicable. In losing their grounding to this world, language and philosophy are stripped of their meaning. Hence they cease to be creative, they cease to be shared - they cease to be "the greatest of human goods" . Yet philosophy in its true form is charged with meaning, and by that fact it is aesthetic in itself. "Few would philosophize if philosophic discourse did not have its own inhering fascination." Philosophy does the same work that religion does in James' The Varieties of Religious Experience - that act of ontological therapy.

How can we understand this antidualistic aspect of language within the theme of sexual selection? The roots of language lie in its role as a tool in courtship; as we discussed earlier, this is important in the sense that it is both a thing shared as well as a creative act. The interactive essence of language is directly related to its origins as a process of sexual attraction and mate choice. Creativity was at the core of all those elements of evolution that led to the development of the cerebral cortex and the modern mind. Yet language surpassed its original function as a sexual aesthetic and took on a new form. Dewey puts it well: "If we had not talked with others and they with us, we should never talk to and with ourselves." Language, originally in the form of dialogue for sexual selection, gave birth to the great soliloquy of self-reflection. This, in turn, gave rise to philosophy and the dualisms that create James' wonder-sickness. Language itself (along with philosophy) holds the tool to overcoming a conceived world of dualisms; it cures the psychological despair that arose when man turned language on himself.

Back to Genesis

God's response in Genesis to the construction of Babel was perhaps his most violent act in the Bible. "Then the Lord said: 'If now, while they are one people, all speaking the same language, they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do. Let us then go down and there confuse their language, so that one will not understand what another says.'" (Gen 11, 6-7) The act of great defiance - the unity of language - is so important because it is the primary distinction of man, the most prominent essence of self-determination. The apple in the story of Eden is perhaps a misleading object; the story might be clarified had the serpent offered Eve the cerebral cortex, the theory of relativity, or (in relevance to our exploration) an anthology of Shakespeare.

` The aesthetic of language must be understood in its evolutionary role as perhaps the most important component of sexual selection. As a necessarily interactive and participatory affair, communication served as the attractive fuel in the evolution of the modern brain. As an act of creation, language became more articulate, more complex, and essentially more seductive within the arena of mate choice. Finally, language became more than the sum of its parts: it gave rise to self-communication, and subsequently the wonder-sickness of recognizing the dualisms of the empirical world. Yet language held the key to this problem as well; as the bridge between essence and existence, it crumbled the dualism created by the evolving mind. Language uplifted mankind, creating him into E-sag-ila: "the house that raises high its head." And what gifts can this honor offer us? In Dewey's words: "When the instrumental and final functions of communication live together in experience, there exists an intelligence which is the method and reward of the common life, and a society worthy to command affection, admiration, and loyalty."


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