Theory of Mind 3 – Sexual Selection

ToM operates on a level just below consciousness. I’ve indicated earlier that it must have arisen first as a defense mechanism (I can tell from that dog’s snarl that I need to keep my distance!). As children we inherit a capacity to develop ToM which, like the capacity for learning language, is already primed in our brains (Burling, 2005 on Naom Chomsky’s challenge to behaviourism).

A child will know almost instinctively in what way (s)he can please his/her parent(s). The child can ‘read’ from signals in the parent’s demeanour, body language, verbal tones or actions whether (s)he is in or out of favour. In the early stages of development the child doesn’t need language to understand these signals. Teenagers, on the other hand ‘test’ their parent(s) or teacher(s) patience with a well-developed ToM in conjunction with language. They know almost instinctively which ‘buttons’ to push to get the reaction they want and they use language to achieve their goals (Burling, 2005).

A well-developed ToM, in conjunction with language helps us to survive and to win a competitive edge, both socially and sexually (see Theory of Mind 2- Language above). It provides evolutionary advantage if we can pass it on to the next generation. If we can predict our opponent’s or interlocutor’s feelings and intentions in a socially (or sexually) competitive situation we enter the relationship with an advantage. With this we can outshine our interlocutor (or potential partner), mounting a subtle social manoeuvre to try to ‘get one over on them’. This process works in reverse of course! Our interlocutor is doing exactly the same to us. We are a deeply manipulative species. How can this be?

The alpha male syndrome gives us the clue. According to Burling’s (2005) observations and those of his linguist colleagues we find that

The tendency for wealthy and high-ranking men to father more than the average number of children has been demonstrated repeatedly. Mormons of Utah, men with high church rank had markedly more children than average, almost entirely because they had more wives.

The Mormon fathers ape their evolutionary forebears in South America – the Yanomamo Indian headmen (Burling, 2005) as well as their more modern counterparts in politics, many of whom must benefit from their high rank by increased access to sexual partners. Gaining advantage socially, attempts to climb higher in the rank order through ToM, assisted by our use language, all of these represent our attempts to select sexually. Sexual selection is the defining mechanism for species development:

sexual selection […] arises from the observation that many animals evolve features whose function is not to help individuals survive, but help them to maximize their reproductive success (see here for reference).

From this you may think that we are impulse driven, that we (our egos as well as our selves) are elaborate interfaces between our biological drives and our social relationships but that our biological drives have the edge. I believe that many do not pay enough attention to these drives or impulses and the part they play in our development. People may be driven, but they may not be aware of the impulses that drive them. Here we have the probable basis of the anti-social behaviours that plague many of our societies as well, possibly as the life-style deseases such as obesity that are spreading in many societies. We can blame our egos and their obsessive, internal preoccupations, [and] psychosomatic complexes for misleading or misguiding us in our quest for social advantage.

Our biological drives are the substrate on which we build our relationships. They form the hidden language for which our egos provide the sub-titles. Sexual motivation may be one of the strongest of these impulses. Have our egos and inner selves developed in order to manage our sexual motivations? Are we here principally to send our genes into the next generation, trusting our egos to find the best way for us to accomplish this? We are certainly careful with whom we share our genes. Do we then enter social relationships to find what our chances are to optimise reproduction? It would seem so. Harsh words but I’m sure they would stand up to tests. Our theory of mind allows us to engage with our fellows in order to seek sexual advantage. Leading political leaders do it through flowery language or the language of aggression. Elephant seals do it by growing fat and fighting. Peacocks do it by growing bigger and more colourful tails. We all do it, while many of us remain unaware that we do.


About johnderonde

UK-based charity worker in Tanzania
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