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Fw: Favorite

November 14, 2008

As a minor but telling example of our self-chosen overabundance of mental capacity, consider vocabulary. Nonhuman primates have up to twenty distinct calls. The average human knows perhaps 60,000 words, learned at an average of ten to twenty a day up to age 18. Does survival require such a huge vocabulary? It’s a fact that 98% of our speech uses only about 4000 words. I. A. Richard and C. K. Ogden’s Basic English for international communication used only 850 words. Surely no more than a couple of thousand words at most would have sufficed in the Pleistocene. The excess vocabulary is explained by sexual selection theory as a fitness and general intelligence indicator. Miller points out that the correlation between body symmetry (a well-known fitness indicator) and intelligence is only about 20%. Vocabulary size, on the other hand, is more clearly correlated to intelligence, which is why it is still used both in scientific testing and more generally by people automatically to gauge how clever a person is. Such an indicator is especially telling in courtship contexts. Indeed, extravagant, poetic use of language is associated worldwide with love, being a kind of cognitive foreplay. But it is also, he points out, something that can “give a panoramic view of someone’s personality, plans, hopes, fears, and ideals.” Little wonder that it might have been a choice item in the inventory of mate-selection criteria. This choice for more sophisticated language use altered forever the nature of the choosing primate — us.

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