Monday, June 15, 2009

It's almost like being in love

When a man loves a woman,
can't keep his mind on somethin' else.
Language. Everyone agrees that language is a defining -- maybe the defining -- attribute of our species. No one knows how language evolved, or exactly when. In The Descent of Man, Darwin made the bold suggestion that language could have started with love songs, reinforced by sexual selection. Maybe brain and sweet talk grew together.
Love me tender, love me sweet,
never let me go.
Could it be true? Did we learn to speak on the boulevard of broken dreams? Was it that old devil moon that caused our chimplike tongues to shrink in size and retreat to the back of the mouth, our larynx to flex and bend? Neanderthals, presumably, could only grunt. Did they grunt their desire? Did the more alluring grunts win sexual favor?
Does she love me
with all her heart?
Should I worry
when we're apart?
It's a lover's question...
Mice have sex. Mice make babies. We read recently about researchers in Germany who modified a mouse gene -- Foxp2, I think it was -- to make it more like the human version of the gene, a gene considered essential to the human capacity for speech. The modified pups had a different call than normal mouse pups. A substitution of only two amino acids in the relevant protein made the difference. We haven't heard yet if the modified mice score more often with the opposite sex.
Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you.
Embrace me, my irreplaceable you.
Darwin was much interested in sexual selection -- males competing for mates, females choosing the males they like best -- as a driving engine of evolution. Lots of creatures pitch vocal woo. Could a slightly more attractive song confer as much selective advantage as, say, brighter feathers or longer antlers?
Who's sorry now?
Who's heart is aching
for breaking each vow?
No one knows, of course, whether sexual selection, much less love songs, had anything to do with the origin of speech, but is the idea really so far fetched? How many base substitutions in the DNA are required to go from a grunt rolled seductively at the back of the throat to "But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliette is the sun."
They asked me how I knew
my true love was true...
Something here inside
cannot be denied...
Pitching woo. Woo, oh, woo, woo, woo. Sweet nothings. Woo, I woo you. Bill and coo. Woo, woo, I, oh, oh, oh, woo. Woo, oh woo! Oh God, OH GOD!
You've got to give a little, take a little,
and let your poor heart break a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.