Sexual Selection for Cultural Displays, Biology tutorial


Friedrich Nietzsche, male, of 27 years old, published his former book 'The birth of tragedy in January 1872, hardly a year after Charles Darwin published 'The descent of man and Selection in relation to sex.  Both the books observed human culture as a natural outcome of the human sexuality and animal instinct. However both were broadly read and discussed, their analysis on the origins of human culture were broadly forgotten. 

The hypothesis they were attacking, that culture is an autonomous sphere of human activity and faith above the biology of behavior and instinct, continues as the dominant frame-work for thinking regarding the evolution of culture.  That frame-work has provoked much writing regarding cultural transmission, memes and gene-culture co-evolution.  Though, it has signally failed to deliver a good theory regarding what evolutionary choice pressures really shaped the human capacity for producing and comprehending the solid instances of the culture.

Nietzsche (1872) differentiated two modes of culture: the Apollonian (that is, individual, rational, cognitive, technical, useful and hierarchical) and the Dionysian (emotional, collective, sexual, fertile, mystic and revolutionary). Most of the Darwinian theories have tried to describe the evolution of human culture via a strange combination of Apollonian technology, utility and hierarchy and Dionysian collectivity and ritual. Usually, this entails trying to determine survival merits for group cultural traditions.

Culture, instead of a system for transmitting helpful technical knowledge and group-benefiting traditions down via the generations, can be considered an arena for different courtship displays in which individuals try to attract and retain the sexual partners (Miller, 1993, 1997a, b). If a young male rock star stands up in front of a crowd and generates some pieces of human 'culture' termed as songs, he is not enhancing his survival viewpoints.  Nor is he engaging in certain bizarre maladaptive behavior which needs some new method of 'cultural evolution' to describe.  Instead, he is doing something which fulfils precisely the same function as a male nightingale singing or a male peacock showing off his tail. He is fascinating sexual partners. 

This cultural courtship model introduces that sexual selection via mate choice by both our male and female ancestors was a main evolutionary force in shaping human culture, that is, the genetically inherited capacities for behaviors like language, art and music (Miller, 1993, 1997; in press, a; in press, b).  Such behaviors, according to this model, function mostly as courtship displays to fascinate sexual partners and exhibit most of the same design features shared by other courtship displays in other species. In short, human culture is mostly a set of adaptations for courtship. This theory does not in reality come from Nietzsche, obviously, or from Freud.  Instead, it is a relatively simple application of the standard Darwinian sexual selection theory to a fairly puzzling set of behavioral phenomena in one instead pretentious species of primate.  

Why cultural anthropology won't tell evolutionists what we need to know about culture?

Describing the 'evolution of culture' is shorthand for describing the genetic evolution, via natural selection and sexual selection of the human mental adaptations which produce, modify, learn, and generate such behaviors that sustain 'cultural' phenomena  (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992).  At first look, it would seem apparent that this descriptive project must take seriously everything which anthropologists have learned regarding cultural phenomena. Shouldn't the evolutionary psychology of culture take cultural anthropology as its beginning point?  

Unluckily, cultural anthropology cannot tell evolutionists the most significant things we require to know, as its concerns have pulled in various directions. 

Evolutionists require thorough functional explanations of the mental adaptations underlying culture, their specialized features, their survival and reproductive advantages and costs, their phylogeny, their phenotypic variability among humans, their genetic heritability, their life-span growth, and their strategic flexibility in response to different demographic, ecological, social, and sexual contexts.  These are the fundamental types of data which biologists would routinely collect as a first step to finding why somewhat evolved in any other species. These are the types of data that evolutionary psychologists are beginning to collect for other human mental adaptations.  

However cultural anthropologists have not generally collected that sort of data on human culture.  Most of the cultural anthropology relies on the qualitative explanation of cultural patterns. Where anthropologists have collected quantitative data on culture, it has usually been at the level of aggregate group data, measuring things such as divisions of labor, rates of polygyny and durations of initiation rituals. This kind of group averages does not reveal who is producing or receiving specific exemplars of ideological, culture or material. 

Sexual selection theory:

When the courtship model is right, the best tools for comprehending human culture can be found in sexual selection theory, as first build up by Darwin (1859, 1871) and revived in the last twenty years (Andersson, 1994; Cronin, 1991; Miller, in press, a; Miller & Todd, in press).  Darwin identified that evolution is basically reproductive competition, not just Spencer's 'survival of the fittest'.  Natural selection for survival capability is certainly significant; however sexual selection for attracting mates is frequently more significant. Darwin understood that in most sexually-reproducing species, there would be strong incentives for selecting one's sexual mate carefully, due to one's offspring would inherit their features, good or bad, all along with one's own features. Bad mate preferences would find themselves in poor-quality offspring and would finally die out. Equally, poor courtship shows that attracted few mates would as well die out over generations. Therefore, a procedure of sexual selection will tend to occur in most of the sexually-reproducing animals, whereby individuals display their charisma, health, fertility, status, genetic quality and other reproductively significant traits, and individuals choose their mates based on such displays. As Darwin (1871) noted, female animals are often choosier regarding their mates than males and males frequently display more intensely than females.  Though, sexual selection doesn't essentially produce or depend on sex differences; it could uniformly apply to hermaphrodites.

Sexual selection for indicators of phenotypic and genotypic quality

Therefore, how does mate choice shape courtship display?  Biologists like Alfred Russell Wallace, George Williams and William Hamilton have long discussion that mate choice must frequently favor cues which point out a prospect's phenotypic quality, comprising health, parasite resistance, fertility, parenting capabilities and genotypic quality or heritable fitness (Cronin, 1991; Andersson, 1994). Though, this idea that mate selection favors 'indicators' instead of arbitrary, aesthetic traits was not broadly considered till the year 1975, when Amotz Zahavi stirred intense controversy along his 'Handicap Principle' (Zahavi and Zahavi, 1997).  Zahavi introduced that the only manner to reliably explain one's quality throughout courtship is to display a high-cost signal like a heavy peacock's tail, an exhausting bird-song concert, or an expensive sports car. Only such costly 'handicap' signals are evolutionarily stable indicators of their producer's quality, as cheap signals are too simple for low-quality imitators to fake (Zahavi and Zahavi, 1997).  

Sexual selection for other characteristics of courtship shows Courtship displays can disclose quality in a nearly limitless number of ways, as all they require do is to have high marginal fitness costs in all domains other than courtship. Therefore, the indicator function very much under-determines the details of courtship displays and other sexual selection methods can become significant. 

For instance, the peacock's tail requires being heavy, large and expensive to grow to function as an indicator, however its indicator function does not find out its precise colors, patterns and movements.         

R. A. Fisher (1930) introduced a 'runaway' model of sexual selection which could favor courtship characteristics which are not indicators. In the runaway method, a heritable mate preference (example: a preference for a longer-than-average peacock tail) becomes genetically associated by the heritable feature it favors (example: a longer-than-average tail), as offspring tend to inherit both the preference and the feature as a package. The outcome is an evolutionary positive-feedback loop which drives both the preference and the feature to an extreme. As the runaway method is very sensitive to initial conditions, its evolutionary outcome is hard to forecast. Given two identical species living in same eco-niches, runaway may lead them to evolve much dissimilar courtship displays (Miller & Todd, 1995; Todd & Miller, 1997).

The cultural courtship model:

In my cultural courtship model, 'culture' subsumes a diversity of specific human behaviors like telling stories, dancing, making music, wearing clothes, decorating artifacts, expressing certainty in certain ideas and so on. The human capacity for culture, then, is not a single adaptation, however a set of interrelated adaptations that might have evolved beneath various selection pressures to fulfill different biological (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). Our unique human capacities for language, music, art and ideology might be dissimilar mental modules which evolved at different times, develop according to dissimilar life histories, operate according to various psychological principles and contribute in different manners to biological fitness. In this instead modular view of mental evolution, culture doesn't come for free as a side-effect of having a large brain, general-purpose learning and imitation capabilities or general intelligence (Pinker, 1997).

Though, there might be a common theme running via these cultural capacities. They are self-expressive. They cost time and energy. Most of them encompass no clear survival advantages.  They are exclusive to our species. They show strong individual differences, having some people much better at them than others. They need intelligence, creativity and health. They play on the perceptual and cognitive preferences of the spectators. These all the hallmarks of adaptations which have been shaped as courtship ornaments by Darwin's method of sexual selection via mate choice.

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