Political Peacocks: Sexual selection, virtue signaling, and ideology

political peacocks here's the introduction in the late 90s I've been living in England for a few years I was deeply involved in the Darwin seminars at London School of Economics where I met some people working at policy think tanks such as demos the demos folks decided to do a special issue on evolutionary psychology for their Damas quarterly journal that published this essay there back in 1996 it's my attempt to apply sexual selection theory and virtue signaling theory to the political realm especially to understand protests and activism by young people here's the puzzle suddenly in the spring of 1985 in New York hundreds of Columbia University students took over the campus administration building and demanded that the universities sell off all of its stocks and companies to do business in South Africa as a psychology undergraduate at Columbia I was puzzled by the spontaneity order a near unanimity of the student demands for divestment why would mostly white mostly middle class North Americans miss classes risk jail and occupy a drab office building for two weeks in support of political freedom for poor blacks living in a country 6,000 miles away the campus conservative newspaper ran a cartoon depicting the protest as an annual springtime mating ritual with Dionysian revels punctuated by political sloganeering about this year's arbitrary cause at the time I thought the cartoon tasteless and patronizing now a wonder if it contained a grain of truth although the protests achieved their political aims only inefficiently and indirectly they did function very effectively to bring together young men and women who claim to share somewhere political ideologies everyone I knew was dating someone they met at the sit-in in many cases the ideological commitment was paper-thin than the protest ended just in time to study for semester exams yet the sexual relationships facilitated by the protest sometimes lasted for years this hypothesis that loud public advertisements of one's political ideology function of some sort of courtship display designed to attract sexual partners analogous to the Peacocks tail or the nightingale song seems dangerous it risks trivializing all of political discourse just as the conservative cartoon lampooned the Columbia anti-apartheid protests the best way to avoid this pitfall is not to ignore the sexual undertones to human political behavior but to analyze them seriously and respectfully using the strongest and most relevant Theory we have from evolutionary biology Darwin's theory of sexual selection through mate choice here's the history of that most people think of Darwinian evolution as a blind haphazard unguided process in which physical environments impose capricious selection pressures on species which must adapt or die this is true for natural selection itself but Darwin himself seems to have become rather bored with natural selection by the inanimate environment after he published the Origin of Species in 1859 he turned to much more interesting questions of how animal and human minds can shape evolution in his 1862 book on the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilized by insects that book he outlined how the perceptual and behavioral capacities of pollinators shaped the evolution of flower color and form in his massive two-volume work of 1868 the variation of animals and plants under domestication Darwin detailed how human needs and tastes have shaped evolution of useful and ornamental features in domesticates further works on animal emotions in 1872 and the behavior of climbing plants in 1875 continued the trend towards an evolutionary psychology most provocatively Darwin combined a free song of sex with the spookiness of mind and the Enigma of human evolution his two-volume masterpiece of 1871 The Descent of Man and selection in relation to sex Darwin observed that many animals especially females or rather picky about their sexual partners but why would it ever pay to reject a suitor being choosy requires time energy and intelligence costs that can impair survival the basic rationale for mate choice is the random mating a stupid mating it pays to be choosy because in a sexually reproducing species the genetic quality of your mate will determine half the genetic quality of her offspring ugly unhealthy mates usually lead to ugly unhealthy offspring by forming a joint genetic venture with an attractive high quality mate one's genes are much more likely to be passed on make choices simply the best genetic screening that female animals are capable of carrying out under field conditions with no equipment other than their senses and their brains often sexual selection through mate choice can lead to spectacular results the bowerbirds elaborate nest the rightful bird's riveting dance the nightingales haunting song and the peacocks iridescent tail for example such features a complex adaptations that evolved through mate choice to function both as advertisements of the male's health and as aesthetic displays that excite the female senses you can recognize these courtship displays by certain biological criteria they are expensive to produce and hard to maintain they have survival costs but reproductive benefits they're allowed bright rhythmic complex and creative to stimulate the senses they occur more often after reproductive maturity more often during the breeding season more often in males than in females and more often when potential mates are present than absent also they tend to evolve according to unpredictable fashion cycles the change the detailed structure and content of the displays while maintaining their complexity extremity and cost by these criteria most human behaviors that we call cultural ideological and political would count as courtship displays Victorian skeptics objected to Darwin's theory of sexual selection by pointing out that in contemporary European society women tend to display more physical ornamentation than men contrary to the men display more hypothesis this is true only if courtship displays artificially restricted to physical artifacts worn on the body whereas Victorian women ornamented themselves with mere jewelry and clothing men ornamented themselves with the books they wrote pictures they painted symphonies that compose country estates they bought honors a one and vast political and economic Empire as they built although Darwin presented overwhelming evidence for his ingenious sexual selection theory it fell into disrepute for over a century even Alfred Russel Wallace the co-discoverer of natural selection preferred to view male ornaments as outlets for a surplus of male energy rather than as adaptations of all through female choice even now we hear echoes of Wallace's fallacious surplus of energy argument in most psychological and anthropological theories about the quote self expressive functions of human art music language and culture the modern synthesis of Mendelian genetics and Darwinism in the 1930s continued to reject female choice assuming that sexual ornaments simply intimidate other males or keep animals from mating with the wrong species only in the 1980s was a confluence of support from mathematical models computer simulations and experiments and animal and human-made choice has Darwin sexual selection Theory been reestablished as a major part of evolutionary biology unfortunately almost everything written about the evolutionary origins of the human mind language culture ideology and politics has ignored the power of sexual selection through mate choice as a force that creates exactly these sorts of elaborate display behaviors so here's the hypothesis humans are ideological animals which show strong motivations and incredible capacities to learn create recombine and disseminate ideas despite the evidence that these idea processing systems are complex biological adaptations the must have evolved through Darwinian selection even the most ardent modern Darwinian z– such as Stephen Jay Gould Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett tend to treat culture as an evolutionary arena separate from biology one reason for this failure of nerve is that it is so difficult to think of any form of natural selection that would favour such extreme costly and obsessive ideological behavior until the last 40,000 years of human evolution the pace of technological and social change was so slow that it's hard to believe there was much of a survival payoff to becoming such an ideological animal my hypothesis developed in a PhD dissertation several recent papers and a forthcoming book that's the mating line book is that the payoffs to ideological behavior were largely reproductive the heritable mental capacities that underpin human language culture music art and myth-making evolved through sexual selection operating on both men and women through mutual mate choice whatever technological benefits those capacities happen to have produced in recent centuries are unanticipated side effects of adaptations originally designed for courtship language of course is the key to ideological display where our songbirds can only toy with protein combinations of pitch rhythm and Tambor language gives humans the closest thing to telepathy in nature the ability to transmit complex ideas from one head to another through the tricks of syntax and semantics language opens a window into other minds expanding the arena of courtship display from the physical to the conceptual this has enormous implications for the way that sexual selection worked during the last few hundred thousand years of human evolution as human courtship relied more heavily on language made choice focused more on the ideas that language expresses the selection pressure is to shape the evolution of the human mind came increasingly not from the environment testing whether one's hunting skills were sufficient for survival but from other minds testing whether one's ideas were interesting enough to provoke some sexual attraction every ancestor of every human living today was successful in attracting someone to mate with them conversely the millions of hominids and early humans who were too dull and uninspiring to become our ancestors carried genes for brains or not as ideologically expressive as ours a wonderful effect of this runaway sexual selection was the brain size in our lineage has tripled over the last two million years giving us biologically unprecedented capacities for creative thought astonishing expressiveness and intricate culture a more problematic effect is that our ideological capacities were under selection to be novel interesting and entertaining two other idea infested minds not to accurately represent the external world or their own transient and tangential place in it this general argument applies to many domains of human behavior and culture but for the rest of this essay I'll focus on political ideology here are the predictions and implications of this view the vast majority of people in modern societies have almost no political power yet have strong political convictions that they broadcast insistently frequently and loudly when social conditions are right this behavior is puzzling to economists who see clear time and energy costs to ideological behavior but little political benefit to the individual my point is that individual benefits of expressing political ideology are usually not political at all but social and sexual as such political ideologies under strong social and sexual constraints to make little sense to political theorists and policy experts this simple idea may solve a number of old puzzles and political psychology why do hundreds of questionnaires show that men are more conservative more authoritarian more rights oriented and less empathy oriented than women why do people become more conservative as they move from young adulthood to middle-age why do more men than women run for political office why are most ideological revolutions initiated by young single men none of these phenomena makes sense if political ideology is a rational reflection of political self-interest in political economic and psychological terms everyone has equally strong self interests so everyone should produce equal amounts of ideological behavior if that behavior functions to advance political self-interest however we know from sexual selection theory that not everyone has equally strong reproductive interests males have much more to gain from each act of intercourse than females because by definition they invest less in each gamete young males should be especially risk seeking into reproductive behavior because they have the most to win and the least to lose from risky courtship behavior such as becoming a political reactionary or revolutionary these predictions are obvious to any sexual selection theorists less obvious are the ways in which political ideologies used to advertise different aspects of one's personality across the lifespan in unpublished studies I ran at Stanford University with Professor Felicia Prado we found that university students tend to treat each other's political orientation as proxies for personality traits conservatism is simply read off as indicating an ambitious self-interested personality who will excel at protecting and provisioning his or her mate liberalism is read as indicating a carrying empathic personality who will excel at child care and relationship building given the well-documented cross culturally universal sex differences in human mate choice criteria with men favouring younger fertile women and women favoring older higher status richer men the expression of more liberal ideologies by women and more conservative ideologies by men is not surprising men use political conservatism to unconsciously advertise their likely social and economic dominance women use political liberalism to advertise their nurturing abilities the shift from liberal youth to conservative middle age reflects a mating relevant increase in social dominance and earnings power not just a rational shift and one self-interest more subtly because mating is a social game in which the attractiveness of a behavior depends on how many other people are already producing that behavior political ideology evolves under the unstable dynamics of game theory not as a process of simple optimization given a set of self interests this game theory perspective explains why an entire student body that an American University can suddenly act as if they care deeply about the political fate of a country that they virtually ignored the year before the courtship arena simply shifted capriciously from one political issue to another but once a sufficient number of students decided that attitudes toward apartheid where the asset test for whether one's heart was in the right place it became impossible for anyone else to be apathetic about apartheid this is called frequency dependent selection in biology and it is a hallmark of sexual selection prophecies what can policy analysts do if most people treat political ideas as courtship displays that reveal the proponents personality traits rather than as rational suggestions for improving the world the pragmatic not to say cynical solution is to work with the evolved grain of the human mind by recognizing that people respond to policy ideas first as big brained idea invested hyper sexual primates not only secondly as concerned citizens in a modern polity this view will not surprise political pollsters spin-doctors and speech writers who make their daily living by exploiting our lost for ideology but it may surprise social scientists who take a more rationalistic view of human nature fortunately sexual selection was not the only force to shape our minds other forces of social selection such as kin selection reciprocal altruism and even group selection seemed to have favoured some instincts for political rationality and consensual legality Arianism without the sexual selection we would never have become such colorful ideological animals but without the other forms of social selection we would have little hope of bringing our sexually protein ideologies into any congruence with reality

  1. An interesting spin on sexual selection is male sexual competition, from which may arguably arise much of human behavior.

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