The Human Peacock’s Ghastly Tail

by Liam Heneghan

“He was violent?”

She exhaled. “I don’t know. What’s ‘violent’ anymore? He was a teenage guy. Then, a guy in his twenties.”

—Richard Powers, The Echo Maker

Once upon a time, there was an editor of a short-lived academic journal called Evolutiona Pathologica who was fired in disgrace. In an interview published after his dismissal, the editor, a notoriously fastidious man, reported that papers in his journal often had a pronounced impact on the field primarily because they were unsound; unsound in their conception, imperfect in their analysis, defective in their conclusions drawn from meager data, and inflated in the claims they made about their practical implications. The papers were often wide of the mark, he conceded, and even occasionally bonkers. Yet, many papers were masterpieces precisely because refuting the claims strengthened the subdiscipline of evolutionary pathology. Or so he said. Kaveri River

Recently, while archiving the material from the defunct journal, I reread the manuscript the publication of which resulted in the editor’s dismissal. I also discovered an internal report on the dismissal that shed light on the case..

Before reproducing the offending paper – some of you, of course, will remember it well – I’ll remind you of some of other mildly controversial pieces that appeared in the journal. For instance, in a rather famous special issue on the pathological origins and implications of bipedality, Professor J. P. X deRossa-Ellman made the celebrated claim that upright walking evolved to reduce the overstimulation of reflexology points on the hands and to intensify the quality of the massage on the feet. “As hominins shifted from an arboreal habitat,” deRossa-Ellman opined, “pressure on the hands, especially on the zones associated with the small intestines inclined Australopithecines to a frightful gassiness. In contrast, the laudatory effects of passively massaging the feet by walking on the dewy grasses of the East African savannah produced a sense of well-being that disposed our primitive forbears to recreational coitus. Those more upright proto-humans joyously copulated thus leading to increased fitness.” To the embarrassment of the journal it was later discovered that deRossa-Ellman ran a specialized massage parlor on the near North side called “Strange Beginnings/Happy Endings”. He also did a brisk business selling “genuine savannah grass”. Apparently you could also smoke the stuff.

In another issue on evolutionary patterns in the peoples of Ireland a rather tartly written article appeared where Dr. Quentin Yeatly-Bawn claimed that the evolution of the mesmerizingly large cranium of Irish men was an adaptation designed to distract the colonizing usurpers of that island nation from what an Irish man was doing to them with his hands. A response which ran under the title: Q Yeatly-Bawn is out of His Tiny Mind pointed out that though Irish foxes, stoats, and otters have large heads, Irish men were moderate in this respect at least.

These small skirmishes provoked a mildly negative response in comparison to the more controversial piece, the one that triggered the editor’s removal, which I reproduce in full, although it reads in a fragmentary way. In the archived box of material associated with the journal I found several of the reviewers’ comments on the piece; I also provide excerpts of these. The paper was published anonymously, which may have been part of the problem.

Evolutiona Pathologica 5: 12-17 NOTES AND OPINIONS

Scary Bastards and Sexy Wreckers: A Short Note on the Sexual Selection of Environmental Destructiveness

Evolution is a reality-based game where the score is tabulated exclusively by the number of extra lives a player accumulates. Evolution occurs not because organisms desire to play but because successful players sire those who incline to continue the game using the same rules of their progenitor. Technically this is captured by the term “fitness” in evolutionary biology – a measure of a genotype’s reproductive success (rated by surviving progeny) as compared to the survivorship of those of competing genotypes.

In addition to those characteristics of organisms that increase their ability to survive and reproduce, many organisms sport features and behaviors that may appear detrimental to their survival. The peacock’s tail is emblematic here – tail feathers so extravagantly developed that they largely confine the bird to the ground, increasing predation risk. To explain such seemingly paradoxical characteristics, as well as to explain the advantages that some individuals have in relation to reproduction, Charles Darwin proposed his theory of sexual selection. The theory can be helpfully applied in explaining a range of phenomena including pronounced showy plumage, sexual dimorphism, insect and bird song and so forth.

The mechanisms driving sexual selection include competition within sexes (intrasexual selection) and mate choice between the sexes (intersexual selection). Competition for access to mates is generally more prevalent in males, whereas choice of mates more prevalent in females. This is because of the differential costs involved in reproductive success in the sexes. Sperm is cheap and copious; ova and investment in child-rearing are expensive. Therefore solving the evolutionary arithmetic problems of enhancing fitness produces strategies that are pronouncedly different in males and females. As Darwin concluded: “the greater size, strength, courage, pugnacity, and even energy of man, in comparison with the same qualities in woman, were acquired during primeval times, and augmented, chiefly through the contests of rival males…” Complicating these quite simple distinctions between male and female reproductive strategies is the observation that males may increase their fitness by investing in childrearing, and women can increase their fitness by extra-pair matings with males of high quality. Mating strategy will vary with sex, with age, and even with stage in menstrual cycle. The way in which individuals “play” the game of enhancing their fitness continues to surprise those who study mating behavior, by which I mean it should surprise all of us.

In this note I propose that environmental destructiveness, the patterns of which have evaded the attention of evolutionary thinkers, is largely, but not exclusively, driven by intrasexual male contest competition for access to mating opportunities. When beard volume, voice timbre, penis size, and physical blows have insufficiently cowered the competition, then throwing a maladaptive spanner in the works of nature serves as an evolutionary escalation in the struggle for mating opportunities. Male contest competition leading to environmental despoliation may be strengthened by intersexual selection whereby women read environmental power as a signal for genetic quality. Thus environmental destruction escalated under the combined influence of competition between men, and mate selection by women. When male destructive behavior is fostered by the former process I label these men scary bastards. When fostered by the latter I label them sexy wreckers.

This hypothesis builds upon the following observations:

1. Men are more inclined to aggression and violence then women. This inclination is evolutionarily derived from contest competition for access to and monopolization of potential mates.

2. The ability to impose environmental destruction is correlated with other dominant male attributes and can similarly be interpreted as depriving rivals of mating opportunities. Unlike other expressions of male dominance the ability to inflict environmental violence may peak much later in life than other indicators. Environmental vandalism, like the accumulation of wealth, may be an old man’s game. As such it is as likely to be strongly influenced by female choice as well as by contest competition.

3. Women may not necessarily find environmental destructiveness attractive. As Darwin noted females may accept “not the male that is most attractive to her, but the one which is least distasteful.” Unlike some male attributes, like muscularity and “bad boy” indicators, which are valued in short-term partners, environmental destructiveness may however be valued in long-term relationships if it signifies power and status. Environmental despoilers tend to be married but are, presumably, frequently cuckolded.

4. Since destructiveness is more common than creativity in men, one can conjecture that in prehistoric times vandalism was a more successful strategy than artistic production.

5. Environmental destruction has increased in contemporary times when most other forms of male contest competition have been minimized. This suggests a remedy which I will discuss below.

Some Considerations

The Sexual Selection of Greater Male Direct Aggression

Men are more aggressive than women in the categories of physical aggression, verbal aggression, and hostility. Women, apparently, are just as angry [1]. When the assessment of aggression is extended to include so-called manipulative forms of aggression the differences between men and women become less apparent. That is, women are proficient at gossiping, spreading rumors and so forth, and this may be a more successful strategy for social exclusion when the cost of direct aggression is high [2]. Since many of the more pronounced physical differences between men and women including greater male mandibular strength, greater muscle mass etc. relate to the ability to both inflict and absorb aggressive blows, it seems reasonable to conclude that for men the cost of escalating violence paid some evolutionary dividends, but for women it did not.

The differences between male and female levels of direct aggression as well as the relatively greater female fear of aggression are read as evidence for the sexual selection of male aggression [3]. When this data on direct aggression is put alongside data on the greater male than female variance in reproductive success, the existence of several male display characteristics, both vocal and visual, the relatively greater mass and strength of men over women size the case for sexual selection as the explanatory process appears convincing [3].

Summary: Environmental destructiveness is a special category of aggression directed extra-somatically and depends not upon the ability to trade physical blows but rather upon the ability of males to extend contest to the broader environment. Men who can inflict the most reckless damage on their environment (a part of their inclusive phenotype) are scarier and thus intimidate less destructive men who then concede mating opportunities to these dominant males (= scary bastards).

The Problem of Older Men

Males of polygynous species (where males have multiple mates simultaneously) will typically avoid encounters with older males till they are sufficiently mature to physically compete. If humans can be regarded as having polygynous tendencies then young adulthood is a risky time for males – enough testosterone to dull the fear of violence, but insufficient physical strength to compete reliably with mature males [4]. Older males are also at risk in physical encounters as they enter a physical decline when they are in danger of being disposed by younger competitors. Since peak physical condition is predictive of success in contest competition, one might expect most pair bonding between men and women in the full bloom of young adulthood would be the norm. A discrepancy in age of mates in monogamous pair bonds is typical though. The reason for the discrepancy is that wealth and status in males denotes a capacity to provision mates and offspring with resources and should be a selection criterion applied by females to potential mates [5]. A fifteen year age difference is optimal [6].

Summary: Environmentally destructive tendencies provide a conspicuous metric of male wealth and power and therefore destructive men, (sexy wreckers), have clearly been driven by the sexual appetites of women.

Creation and Destruction

Suggestions that male creativity, quick wittedness, brain size, and intelligence result from female mating selectivity has been challenged on a number of grounds [7]. Evidence for the mild heritability of intelligence and a correlation between intelligence and sperm quality are presented as evidence for this [8]. The hypothesis that male braininess is sexually selected by female choice seems to be contradicted by the number of feeble minded men that appear to be successfully mated, and perhaps more glaringly by a lack of pronounced difference in male and female intelligence. From the perspective of defending the mating-mind hypothesis, women are frustratingly brainy.

Summary: In contrast to inconsistent evidence for the emergence of male creativity and humor as a result of female mate selection, the evidence, at first glance, is better that environmental destruction is sexually selected. Males are more directly environmentally destructive. Some of this may build upon traditional roles. For instance, hunting and managing lands to improve hunting opportunities imposed significant damage. I speculate that ethnographic evidence will support the view that men are more recreationally aggressive with the environment.

Conclusion and Remedy

Darwin noted that the difficulty in regard to sexual selection, “lies in understanding how it is that the males which conquer other males, or those which prove the most attractive to the females, leave a greater number of offspring to inherit their superiority than the beaten and less attractive males. Incontrovertibly, environmentally destructive tendencies like other male displays, for example, outsized penises, seem largely unnecessary, objectively unlovely, undeniably destructive, but for all of that, fearsome to other men and preferred by the ladies. That is, both are subject to both intra and intersexual selection.

In prehistoric times opportunities for environmental destructiveness beyond that necessary to meet basic needs was limited. In contemporary times environmental destruction can be conducted on planetary scales. This is clearly the result of a runaway selection and is exacerbated by legal curbs on male-male aggressive competition, other than in the athletic arena. Since environmental destruction is both expensive and risky, it both increases the quality of the fitness signal and exacerbates the risks that none of us will be around to enjoy the other pleasures that being a sexually reproducing species bring. The remedy is simple: we need to invite men to resolve their contest competition in lower risk situations (e.g. fight clubs) rather than at a global scale in war and destruction, and furthermore, request that women forgo the dubious pleasure of mating with men who are not committed to environmental sustainability.

1. Buss, A.H.; Perry, M., The aggression questionnaire. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 1992, 63, 452-459.

2. Archer, J.; Coyne, S.M., An integrated review of indirect, relational, and social aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Review 2005, 9, 212-230.

3. Archer, J., Does sexual selection explain human sex differences in aggression? Behav. Brain Sci. 2009, 32, 249-+.

4. Loeber, R.; Hay, D., Key issues in the development of aggression and violence from childhood to early adulthood. Annual Review of Psychology 1997, 48, 371-410.

5. Nettle, D.; Pollet, T.V., Natural selection on male wealth in humans. Am. Nat. 2008, 172, 658-666.

6. Helle, S.; Lummaa, V.; Jokela, J., Marrying women 15 years younger maximized men's evolutionary fitness in historical sami. Biol. Lett. 2008, 4, 75-77.

7. Miller, G.F., The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. . Anchor: 2001; p 528.

8. Arden, R.; Gottfredson, L.S.; Miller, G.; Pierce, A., Intelligence and semen quality are positively correlated. Intelligence 2009, 37, 277-282.

The reviewers’ comments on the paper, with the exception of one laudatory set of remarks, were negative. “This author knows next to nothing about the field of sexual selection or environmental psychology. In addition to displaying a poor command of the literature, the writing is second rate, the development of the argument third rate, and the conclusions trivial.” “This contribution is made moot by the widely acknowledged demolition of the field by Professor Joan Roughgarden.” “Good luck with the review board getting approval to test any of these trite conjectures.” The one positive reviewer wrote: “A breakthrough…testable hypothesis…real solutions….” and so on.

Presumably it was this reviewer’s comment that the editor relied upon in making his final decision to publish the paper.

Within a week the journal received negative comments from a couple of dozen scientists who complained that the published note had no merit. The journal recorded that the editor had stepped down after an internal enquiry concluded that he had ignored the advice of most reviewers of the manuscript.

In addition to the material I have already reproduced, a report by the journal’s board on the dismissal case came to light in my investigations.

The inquiry revealed that Scary Bastards and Sexy Wreckers had, in fact, been written by editor himself. The laudatory review may also have been penned by his hand. When asked for comment, the editor stated that though the “all-male board” may question the ethics of his conduct, nonetheless his wife had simply loved the article. And that, he concluded, “is the name of the game.” In turn the board chose not to reveal the identity of the writer.

The editor, the board and all their progeny lived happily ever after.

-The End-

The following review was very useful in preparing this tale: “Beauty and the beast: mechanisms of sexual selection in human” by David A Puts from Evolution and Human Behavior (2010) Volume: 31, Issue: 3, Publisher: Elsevier Inc., Pages: 157-175

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Photo of Kaveri River by Randall Honold.