Well, you all know that is, you have felt it several times. However, it seems to ring something like a bell when people listen to it. Definitely, it rings a louder bell than if someone says…beauty is sexy. On facebook I had posted a picture that couldn’t be simpler. It was black and in white letters had the message: “Intelligence is Sexy”. This picture is one of the most liked and shared of the Lifestyle Science facebook page. Wasn’t the message obvious, anyway? At the same time people consciously understand that they may like their partners because of their intelligence, too, especially the women. Men, however, sometimes admire and maybe like in a sexual manner talented female artists that aren’t very beautiful, instead they have a great voice, for example.
Is the Concept of Natural Selection Enough in Explaining Nature?
In the previous paragraph I referred specifically to arts because they are a sign of intelligence which I will explain further in which way. Also, till the last few years evolutionary biology wasn’t able to understand clearly what was the evolutionary benefit of the existence of talents such as painting, creativity, writing, sense of humor, dancing etc. For more than a century after the publication of Charles Darwin’s, “On the Origin of Species” biologists defined the struggle for existence as the ultimate purpose of humans and any living being in general. They were explaining that, according to the theory of natural selection, the traits that will be favored through the generations and be passed over will be the ones that help the individual’s genes survive and have a reproductive advantage. For example, men needed to have strength in order to protect themselves and their families in the difficult environments of african savannah that we evolved. How could a good dancer have better chances of surviving, then? Evolution never “wastes” traits. Its deterministic nature strictly favours the existence of the skills that are appropriate to the respective environment.
Possibly, because of all this mystification of sexuality by most of the societies, the theory of sexual selection remained unexplored. Even though Darwin had referred to it with (it’s true) not enough explanations, non-biologists, including scientists from other fields defined evolution through natural selection only as the survival of the fittest. Till the 1990’s scientific literature was defining the human brain as a pragmatic problem solving organ that was able to make up Machiavellian tricks with the aim to deceive. Up to that point there wasn’t any connection made between sexual desire and sexual choice as drives to behaviors.
Modern evolutionary psychology has now evolved from this. Think about it. What is the evolutionary benefit of an organism that has great chances of surviving but low chances of a succesful replication? The genes in this example are very quickly extinguished. This means that sexual selection is much more favored because it favours the existence of the genes through longer time. Actually, all of us are successors of a long chain of millions of predecessors that managed to reproduce. Thus, as the literature many times mentions, everything that is defined as living is first and foremost not a machine for existence, it rather is a reproductive machine.
The Mating Mind
The most important findings about the connection of mental abilities with sexual selection were made by Dr. Geoffrey Miller in his great book, “The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature“. Miller describes that the partners are evolutionarily “wired” to choose each other according to their levels of fertility and fitness. Fitness in the evolutionary terms is the propensity of an organism to survive and reproduce successfully. Fertility is the natural human capability of producing offspring. In this case they will have very good chances of bearing healthy offspring with good chances of once again successfully reproducing. In order to advertise their fitness animals and humans of course evolved biological traits that summarize genetic information about their fitness and are called “fitness indicators”. For example, a long peacock tail advertises the health of the peacock because it manages to survive although it is slower and can be easier traced by predators (Handicap Principle). At the same time in order individuals to be able to spot which individuals carry genes with high fitness they had to have evolved traits open to fitness indicators. It seems that Hollywood isn’t only spending so much money in huge promotional campaigns, luxurious lifestyle to show that it has a lot (Conspicuous Consumption). Mostly this behavior is part of the whole show, it is what the customers like.
So the mind in the same way can be working as a great fitness indicator. Its complex and costly behaviors such as art and language might be advertising our fitness to potential mates. If sexual selection favored the minds that advertised high fitness, our creative intelligence could have evolved not because it gives us any survival advantage, instead because it is so difficult to be achieved and do not help more than moderately in our survival. It is not only humans that use complex behavior to advertise their fitness. Songbirds’ fitness indicators are repeated complicated melodious songs. Fruitflies do little dances in front of one another to reveal their genetic quality. To understand better, all these fitness indicators are what advertisements are to products. They are costly, excessive and luxurious. Dancing, language, humor, creative intelligence, all are evolutionary luxuries, none of them helped more than moderately to our survival. As fascist as it may sound, all these in the very end is another way to say “I am fit, my genes are good, mate with me”.
Because of the above fact, moral norms have emerged as moral instincts to combat the excess self-advertisement and sexual competition. We hate bragging and people who try to flaunt their fitness indicators. We value frugality because some people make displays of luxuries and waste limited resources other people need. We value collectivism because theoretically it promotes the overall well-being.
Art as an Evolved Fitness Indicator
According to the above, when we are talking about art, perhaps we are talking about the human tendency to make material objects into advertisements of our fitness. A great piece of art or performance proves the quality of his/her genes. Not everyone has the talent or worked as much as to reach that level. Attached to the proposition about the skills needed to have evolved to be able to spot great fitness is the explanation of aesthetics. In this sense, aesthetics, perhaps are human preferences that evolved to favor features of human-made objects that reliably indicate the artisan’s fitness. All the above don’t mean that for example painters such as Picasso or Modigliani created their art with the conscious aim to increase their lays but the success of many, such as these two, is undeniable…
If we think of leadership, high status primates do not depend only on physical dominance. Moreover, a leader is able to mediate conflicts, initiate reconciliations and punish transgressors, abilities connected to the social sector and to the mind. Research on primates has shown that even though some leaders may be beaten by a subordinate, they maintain their leadership because of the respect that had built in the tribe. As well, charity was proposed as a result of sexual selection. It is literally true that most charities are just an exploitation of fitness advertisements. Big companies provide charity work when if they really wanted to help the poor they could use a small amount of their high profits in order to pay trained experts to help them. Or many wealthy people choose famous charity companies in order to get publicity leaving the smaller and healthier ones facing the difficulties to not have the money to pay even for their own staff. That’s why the real good behavior is the one that you expect to remain unknown. Of course when people give to charity they aren’t straight “trying to get more sex”. They are just trying to be generous. And this is a showy characteristic similar to others of sexual selection.
In the evolution of language, Robbins Burling in 1986 proposed that complex human language evolved through male orators competing for social status by speaking eloquently, since high status would give them reproductive advantage. Also, the verbal courtship is in the heart of human sexual selection even though it’s not the most important stage. People may be physically attracted before they speak but even the most ardent suitors will offer at least a few minutes of verbal intercourse before escalating to the seek of physical intercourse. Similarly, public speech is a method of covert courtship. If a man gains reputation as a thinker whose ideas are heard and plays an important role in group decision-making, then he increases his attractiveness apart from his social status. If a woman has a reputation of a good story-teller or poet has her status and attractiveness increased as well. Public speaking allows people to advertise their abilities, their knowledge, their humour, their experience etc.
In this article I argued that the significance of sexual selection in the evolution of human nature doesn’t mean that humans are made to care only for this. If that had been the case humans wouldn’t have been able to create all these magnificent pieces of creativity. Instead mind is connected with natural selection. Geoffrey Miller proposed that all these intellectual and technical achievements aren’t side effects of brains that can learn everything, but of having minds full of courtship adaptations that can be retrained and redirected to invent new ideas even when we are not in love. All this complexity in human courtship adaptations has resulted from the mutual evolution of skills of the watcher-chooser and the displayer. The prey has to display competent enough traits and the chooser has to have the appropriate senses evolved to notice these traits and make the choice. So both need to develop their skills in order to stay competitive. This can be stated on the opposite, too. The fact that you have so big a mind with the ultimate purpose to reproduce, imposes that you need an “evolved” one in order to be succesful in mating. In my mind doesn’t exist any concept of one being only good at mating apart from exceptions. The development of other mental abilities and social skills are mandatory in case one wants to increase his/her mating chances.
Human Inaccuracy in Representations of the World
When we considered the evolution of language we saw that sexual selection rarely favours accurate representations of the world and only two examples for representation have been found: Language and art. Unfortunately, these two ways of referring to real objects do not guarantee that they do it reliably when ideologies are expressed that try to represent the truth. Sexual selection seems to work like the tabloids that project the news but never bothers to check their validity. These tabloids contain politics, religions, pseudoscience, urban myths and tribal myths. These ideological phenomena were named memes by Richard Dawkins and are virus-like ideas that evolved to cultural level by being memorable, easily transmitted and grabbing our attention. So it seems that natural selection favored beings that were able to intuitively understand their basic needs and act according to them but it didn’t produce efficient communicating systems that would make us able to share them. Rich communication systems were selected but it seems they are more entertaining than accurate.
This differentiates the belief that the brain evolved as a truth-seeking mechanism with the use of truth sharing language. The human brain has the tendency to avoid reasoning and analysis of facts. Instead it tends to pick the most pompous information (memes). If this wasn’t the case then science would be the easiest thing to study and everyone would be an expert at school. Instead pictures, literature, dances, luxurious happenings, blockbuster movies are much easier accepted by the human brain. That’s why the great teachers are aware that the best way to explain a theory or an axiom or a belief is to use an appropriate example through a story. Science separates the arenas of intellectual display (journals, classrooms, books) from other styles of courtship display (art, music, drama). Science is not concerned in making up witty phrases and colourful ideas but to invent new ideas and arguments in search for the most accurate explanation of reality that can be achieved. This is the reason why most important scientists never “reap the fruits” of their intellectual displays.
Science is not asexual or passionless. But neither is it a result of some crudely sublimated sex drive. Rather it is one of our most sophisticated arenas of human courtship, which is the most complex and conscious form of mating that has ever evolved in our planet. ~Geoffrey Miller