By Kayt Sukel (Guest Contributor)
In 1871, famed naturalist Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, the follow-up to his famous (and highly debated) book, On the Origin of Species. In The Descent of Man, Darwin extended his thoughts on evolutionary biology, gleaned from his observations and adventures, to the evolution of the human thought and behavior—and introduced a new theory of selection, related to natural selection, based on an animal’s sexual characteristics and features.
This so-called sexual selection, he argued, rises from female choice for mates—and male competition to receive that choice. Darwin argued that, since females only have limited reproductive opportunities, it pays for them to be choosy when selecting a mate. By waiting for a good catch, so to speak, females then have a shot at the hardiest possible offspring. Males, then, have to compete to stand out and command that potential mate’s attention in order to get the opportunity to make hay. Throughout the animal kingdom, Darwin described different species where males find ways to stand out—visually or behaviorally—in order to impress the girl and, thus, propagate his genes on down the line.
In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, he writes:
“When the sexes differ in colour or in other ornaments, the males with rare exceptions are the most highly decorated, either permanently or temporarily during the breeding-season. They sedulously display their various ornaments, exert their voices, and perform strange antics in the presence of the females. Even well-armed males, who, it might have been thought, would have altogether depended for success on the law of battle, are in most cases highly ornamented; and their ornaments have been acquired at the expense of some loss of power. In other cases ornaments have been acquired, at the cost of increased risk from birds and beasts of prey…What then are we to conclude from these facts and considerations? Does the male parade his charms with so much pomp and rivalry for no purpose?”
Why would a male pursue such risky business, to “sedulously display” such ornaments or perform such “strange antics”? The answer was simple: to prove his biological fitness—and, more importantly, stand out for a potential mate’s choice. Darwin believed such selective forces also worked upon us humans. In fact, in a letter to noted evolutionary biologist and colleague Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin likened the length of peacock’s tail to a man’s whiskers.
“A girl sees a handsome man & without observing whether his nose or whiskers are the tenth of an inch longer or shorter than in some other man, admires his appearance & says she will marry him,” he wrote. “So I suppose with the pea-hen; & the tail has been increased in length merely by on the whole presenting a more gorgeous appearance.”
And did he see those “strange antics” seen in birds also playing a role in human mating rituals? Darwin certainly thought so. His thoughts on sexual selection led him to argue that men often won women through heroic deeds—as well as economic prowess and wealth. And Justin Garcia, an evolutionary biologist at the Kinsey Institute, says that such ideas stand up today, even in the wake of pioneering genetic research into the evolution of mating behavior and reproduction. Modern days still offer us plenty of examples where standing out by taking risks helps to command female choice, ultimately facilitating the creation of hardy offspring that will not only survive but, hopefully, thrive in life.
“We often talk about risk-taking as if it is some kind of pathology. And it can be related to pathological behavior in people. But when you start to think about things in terms of evolutionary terms, you have to get away from the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in the short term and start thinking about what leads to better reproductive success in the next generation of offspring,” he says. “So on one hand, certainly, risky behavior has a negative impact for survival. People who engage in risks may die at younger ages. But in terms of evolution, there is a big reward for taking those risks. You can get a better partner—a more fit, higher quality partner—and have greater reproductive success. And there is certainly some suggestion in the anthropological literature that people who engage in risks have greater reproductive success. So there seems to be an evolutionary benefit.”
In fact, new research suggests that males have evolved unique biological mechanisms that actually change the chemicals in the brain in such a way to promote greater risk-taking when a man finds himself around an attractive female, to help him garner her attention as well as intimidate any potential rivals nearby. I can’t help think that Darwin would have been tickled to see such results.
So switch out the pretty feathers for a cool indie band t-shirt—and maybe a couple wicked snowboarding tricks for those heroic deeds of old—and you can see that Darwin’s whisker comparison still hits the mark. Today’s males, like their evolutionary ancestors, parade their charms with so much pomp and rivalry for one of the greatest purposes of all—greater reproductive success for future generations.
Kayt Sukel is a passionate traveler and science writer, she has no problem tackling interesting (and often taboo) subjects spanning love, sex, neuroscience, travel and politics. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Scientist, USA Today, Pacific Standard, the Washington Post, ISLANDS, Parenting, the Bark, American Baby, National Geographic Traveler, and the AARP Bulletin. Her new book The Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, & Chance is available now!
We are excited to have two (2) copies of The Art of Risk in this month’s Book Giveaways. Be sure to enter below by 11:00pm EST on June 3oth to qualify (your entry includes a subscription to W&M Monthly).
Please note that, at this time, we can only ship within the US.