A highwayman - by Glen Campbell (source). Before the rise of the State, and its pacification of social relations, the top man was the one who dominated the local group through a mixture of violence, bombast, and charisma.
Before the State came into being, men were organized into small, loosely defined groups where authority was wielded through a mixture of violence, bombast, and charisma. The more you had of these qualities, the likelier you would become the leader, "the big man." But such leadership could easily slip out of your hands. Power was something that all men held, and it was only through the consensus of the moment that one man held more of it than the others.
Thus, in pre-State societies, power is not a permanent structure that transcends the lifetime of any one leader. Power is the leader. It is highly personal and ephemeral, and these qualities extend to the tools of power, like speech. When describing Amerindian tribes in Paraguay, Pierre Clastres (1989 pp. 151-153) says:
To speak is above all to possess the power to speak. [...] the question to ask is not: who is your chief? but rather: who among you is the one who speaks? The master of words is what many groups call their chief.
[...] Indian societies do not recognize the chief's right to speak because he is the chief: they require that the man destined to be chief prove his command over words. Speech is an imperative obligation for the chief. The tribe demands to hear him: a silent chief is no longer chief.
This situation changes with the rise of the State, in particular with its monopoly on the use of violence. Social relations become more pacified, more structured, and less changeable, thus creating a culture of deference to authority. Speech is still manipulative but subtly so, as Rosen (1987) describes in Ethiopia:
For people who grow up speaking Amharic and Tigrinya, the idea of being precise with language is a foreign one. Ethiopians, perhaps Amharas more than Tigreans, are always on guard with others, suspicious about the motives of almost everyone, and on the alert for verbal assaults of one sort or another. The Amhara does not assume good intentions—he expects people to harbor disruptive inclinations. He deals with authority cautiously, always seeking to perfect his verbal means for giving vent to his criticisms and frustrations, but without incurring the wrath of powerful superiors.
[...] One must live a long time in the midst of Ethiopians, speaking with them in Amharic (or Tigrinya), in order to begin to appreciate how much calculation is invested in each phrase, each answer to a question, each overt response to a situation. That he who desires to do harm may always be polite, or that he who wishes to deliver an insult may include it in a finely-wrought compliment, is part of a general understanding of human nature. When a person speaks, he wants to do so subtly, being able to make his point effectively, yet not so directly that he might find himself involved in an altercation or worse with some equally sensitive opponent.
Social relations are still incompletely pacified in Ethiopia. This is partly because of recurring conflicts between central and peripheral sources of authority, but also because many people chose until recent times to be outlaws, i.e., those outside the sphere of State-imposed law:
In Ethiopia, an exceptionally fierce warrior could not always restrict himself to serving the common cause, or to being subservient to a particular chieftain. His alternative was to rebel, flee from the constraints of society and become a shifta. The dictionary defines this term to mean "outlaw, bandit, brigand, rebel". It was applied to anyone who committed a crime and then fled to the wilderness, thereafter living by stealth and cunning, if not, as was more than likely, by killing and highway robbery. As often as not, the shifta was also admired for being guabäz: for his courage and manliness, and, perhaps, most of all, for his daring in flouting the norms of the society. (Rosen, 1987)
Incomplete pacification also appears in the persistence of disruptive forms of speech, "when language is made into a weapon to attack or disrupt others":
One form of this is an Ethiopian penchant for backbiting, known in Amharic as chiqechiq. This appears when personal interests are asserted in the midst of group undertakings, often leading to the downfall of the community plan or project, and the disruption of joint undertakings. Another form is the studied use of hyperbole in order to magnify a case, or to gain attention for one's cause, even if this requires wild exaggeration of the truth. (Rosen, 1987)
Emergence of a free marketplace of ideas
I have argued elsewhere that the State's monopoly on violence created a new cultural environment that favored the survival of meeker and more submissive individuals (Frost, 2010). This environment also improved the prospects for individuals who used speech less aggressively. Because other individuals no longer posed a threat to life and property, and because trust had become the rule and not the exception, people were now freer to use speech simply for communication. It became possible to exchange ideas in good faith and judge them on their own merits.
This development is analogous to the rise of the market economy. In a low-trust society, buyers and sellers can securely make their transactions only in small protected areas that are limited in space and time, i.e., shops and marketplaces. In a high-trust society, the market mechanism can spread beyond these isolated points of exchange to encompass the entire economy. Increased trust emancipated the marketplace of goods and services, and it had a similar effect on the marketplace of ideas.
Cultural or genetic evolution?
Selection acts on phenotypes, and only indirectly on genotypes. When speech began to be used in new ways, the old ways became a handicap for survival and reproduction. There was thus cultural selection for new speech patterns. But were these new patterns passed on only through learning? Or was there also selection for certain genetic predispositions?
There are predispositions that selection can act upon. Loudness of speech seems to have a heritable basis (Carmelli et al., 1988; Matthews et al., 1984). The same is true for deceitful behavior (Barker et al., 2009). Heritability is particularly high for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is characterized by certain speech differences:
Analysis of speech parameters during conversation, such as voice rhythm (rate and duration of pauses and vocalization, response latency), intensity, and frequency, has revealed marked differences in the timing and modulation of speech between children with ADHD and those with and without specific learning disabilities. They speak louder, fail to modulate their voice volume, speak for much longer at a stretch with many short pause durations during their talk, but take much longer to respond to the conversational partner. (Tannock, 2005)
This is not to say that ADHD became less prevalent with the pacification of social relations, but rather that this new cultural environment selected for certain heritable aspects of speech that are impaired by ADHD. Like many other genetic disorders, ADHD sheds light on the heritable variability that selection can act upon.
In sum, when the State imposed a monopoly on the use of violence, it set in motion a process of gene-culture co-evolution with many consequences. Among other things, this process may have favored not only learned ways of speaking but also unlearned ways as well.
Barker, E.D., H. Larson, E. Viding, B. Maughan, F. Rijsdijk, N. Fontaine, and R. Plomin. (2009). Common genetic but specific environmental influences for aggressive and deceitful behaviors in preadolescent males, Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 31, 299-308.http://www.drru-research.org/data/resources/55/Barker-E.-et-al.-2009.PDF
Carmelli, D., R. Rosenman, M. Chesney, R. Fabsitz, M. Lee, and N. Borhani. (1988). Genetic heritability and shared environmental influences of type A measures in the NHLBI Twin Study, American Journal of Epidemiology, 127 (5), 1041-1052.
Clastres, P. (1989). Society against the State, New York: Zone Books.
Frost, P. (2010). The Roman State and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 376-389. http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP08376389.pdf
Matthews, K.A., R.H. Rosenman, T.M. Dembroski, E.L. Harris, and J.M. MacDougall. (1984). Familial resemblance in components of the type A behavior pattern: a reanalysis of the California type A twin study, Psychosomatic Medicine, November, 46, 512-22.
Rosen, C. (1987). Core symbols of Ethiopian identity and their role in understanding the Beta Israel today, in M. Ashkenazi and A. Weingrod (eds.) Ethiopian Jews and Israel, pp. 55-62, New Brunswick (U.S.A.): Transaction Books.
Tannock, R. (2005). Language and mental health disorders: the case of HDHD, in W. Ostreng (ed.) Convergence. Interdisciplinary Communications 2004/2005, 45-53.http://www.cas.uio.no/Publications/Seminar/Convergence_Tannock.pdf