How to play the sexual selection game

From a lecture given by Podium Alphonso Lingis, the professor of philosophy at Pennsylvania State University to the Royal Society of Arts
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In humans as in other species, the urge to indulge in sexual display with concomitant activities is probably to some degree innate and is certainly influenced by internal and also environmental stimuli and inhibitors.

In humans as in other species, the urge to indulge in sexual display with concomitant activities is probably to some degree innate and is certainly influenced by internal and also environmental stimuli and inhibitors.

The establishment of feudalism in Europe freed the warrior caste from bondage to agricultural and craft labour, and their military and police obligations became episodic. Their existence became only the more public, a display of signals. To be effective, signals have to be reliable; to be reliable, they have to be costly.

Knights began to dress in refined fabrics, dyed and embroidered linens and silks, decorated with ruffles and lace, set off with furs. Unlike the stately and static raiment of the monarch, their apparel was designed to be displayed in movement - in parades, dances, and tournaments - even though both the bulk and the refinement of this apparel handicap movement. They contrasted the sleek clinging of stockings and leggings and bared chests with billowing shoulders, flared sleeves and flowing capes.

They grafted upon themselves the plumes of rare birds, the secret inner nacreous splendours of oysters, the springtime gleam of fox fur. At their crotches they sported brocaded and jewelled codpieces. They wore helmets of gleaming metal adorned with filmy plumes; their boots were embossed leather with buckles of silver.

The knights evolved a specific beauty which is ostentatious, spectacular and glamorous. It is not the beauty of ideal bodies celebrated in classical sculpture - the splendour of harmony, proportion, and inner timelessness. It is not the functional beauty of a workman's garb; of a Mongolian herdsman's long coat, boots, and fur hat; of an aviator's jacket and helmet. The apparel of the knight monstrously enlarges and distorts the proportions of body parts: the head, the arms, the genitals. Intense and showy colours and intricate embroidery and beadwork are displayed. The body is used as a frame for the display of the gossamer texture or heavy folds of fabrics.

To multiply one's own genes is the single evolutionary imperative. In natural selection, success means success in reproduction. Ordinary natural selection and sexual selection seem to pull in opposite directions. Ordinary natural selection tends to make individuals inconspicuous, conservative of energy, and streamlined for more effective action. Sexual selection frequently promotes brilliant raiment, extravagant adornments, noisy and conspicuous behaviour, all of which consume a great deal of energy and make individual males vulnerable. RA Fisher described this as a runaway process: the only advantage the ostentatious males have is the fact that females consider them attractive. Since such males pass on the show-off character to their offspring, those offspring will show off and will be attractive to females, too. Thus females lose by having offspring who waste resources on showing off.

But the same costly characteristics that attract mates also deter rivals of the same sex. Male rivals remain intimidated by the same exorbitant display that attracts females. They must see in the extravagance of the signal the high costs to the knight, and thus his superior vitality.

Armed, bold, ostentatiously exhibiting virile postures and vigour, warriors exhibiting a touchy susceptibility and sense of honour before other males - the male display counts as a display of genetic vigour that promises fit offspring. Females who become entranced by the most lavishly attired males, or those who display most dashingly or persistently, choose for vigour, perhaps unwittingly.

What remains puzzling is that the achievement of this imperative is not reinforced with pleasure. In the human or knight who unquestionably takes pleasure in mating with a large number of different females, there is no conscious pleasure at anticipating seeing sons and daughters who look like himself when he later drives through Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Kansas City, Boulder, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Is then aesthetic pleasure a pleasure that is systematically deceived about itself? Indeed, why does lust demand beauty?

Comments