The Drive For Extravagance

There used to be a debate among biologists as to whether sexual selection of males on the basis of apparently useless and even dangerous ornamentation had some rational basis or resulted from some runaway feedback process. In the latter case, it was said, there is no mechanism for stopping. Evolution is simply “whatever works, works”; whatever leads to better reproduction, we see a lot more of, even if it has a downside. The other theory was that baroque ornamentation is chromosomally linked with genes for vigour, so that picking the male pheasant with the longest tail is in fact a sound female strategy for getting a healthy mate. For example, the red belly of the stickleback male is – because producing the pigment is very costly in terms of resources — an honest signal of freedom from parasitic infection.

A variant of this theory is the “Zahavi Handicap”, the idea that an animal is demonstrating his fitness through his very ability to schlep the cumbersome ornamentation around and bear the consequences. As purveyors of genetic products, males have a strong incentive to perpetrate false advertising, so it is better to set them challenges that cannot be faked. Male animals thus develop sexually attractive traits that may at first sight seem useless or downright harmful, but they serve to demonstrate that they are superior specimens, as an inferior one could not waste so much energy and still survive.

Grooming may be directly related to the genes for health; shiny, springy fur means not only that the animal is well-fed and fit, but also that it has the energy and morale to groom itself. On the other hand, diminishing marginal returns should set in at some point; after that, the time spent grooming might more profitably be spent doing something else. Then, however, the animal would be informing potential sexual partners that he did not have the resources to do both things at once, which would not be a good idea. Extravagant grooming is thus probably another Zahavi Handicap, signalling that this animal is, for example, such a superior hunter that he can catch his dinner in less time than his peers, and so can afford to spend half his time primping.

The rich human being signals superiority in a not entirely dissimilar manner; the more time and effort he spends in grooming, the greater must be his resources for him to get away with it. In some cultures you have analogies for the tail of the Argus Pheasant, such as the mandarin’s or the hidalgo’s long fingernails, which signify that he has someone else to do the dirty work for him. The aristocrat is saying that he is such a superior animal that he can even wear clothes so impractical that he needs someone to dress him every day – which he can in fact afford, so there! Women in some parts of Africa wear extremely elaborate hairdos to show they don’t have to carry anything on their own heads. This is why there will always be the equivalent of starched collars, always some canon of apparel that requires an enormous amount of apparently pointless work to satisfy. The human status system requires markers for who has the time and dedication, alternatively who can afford the staff of servants, to perform these tasks.

One might object that in our species the women do even more grooming than the men, but the question there is whether they are doing it to attract the men – for, pace the demotic understanding of men as being wired to sow their seed widely, in any system where the males invest in nest-building and child-rearing they have a lot to lose from partnering the wrong female – or to assert social status vis-à-vis other women.

Posted on May 5, 2011 at 11:23 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Fine Feathers

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