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  1. Culture as Mating Ritual
  2. Behavioral Economics 101
  3. Elsewhere
  4. Lost Performance Forms
  5. Moviegoing and Reading Journal: "Laurel Canyon"; "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius"; "Lost in Translation"
  6. Follow Up: Mapping the Cultureverse
  7. Follow Up: Preserving the Rainforest
  8. Tom Wolfe and Transparent Buildings
  9. Elsewhere
  10. Authorship Redux

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Saturday, October 18, 2003

Culture as Mating Ritual
Michael: Are you intellectually attracted to reductionist arguments? I must admit that I am. They may be right, they may be wrong, but they tend to be coherent and they often suggest ways they can be experimentally validated or rejected. Hence I was amused, if not necessarily fully convinced, when I read a recent example of a violently reductionist bent. It is Geoffrey Miller’s essay, “Sexual Selection for Cultural Displays.” It even inspired me to try to test it out. Mr. Miller’s topic is the evolution of culture. To prepare the ground for his own theories, he first demolishes the fuzzy notions advanced by anthropologists to explain why humans spend time and calories on music, art, storytelling, etc.: Anthropology textbooks…present many functions for art, music, myth, ritual and other cultural phenomena, such as ‘imposing order on the cosmos’, ‘coping with the unpredictability of life’, ‘appeasing ancestral spirits’ and ‘maintaining tribal identity’. To an evolutionary biologist, none of these even come close to qualifying as reasonable adaptive functions for costly, complex, evolved behavior. In a strictly Darwinian framework, behaviors only evolve when their fitness benefits exceed their fitness costs…The single thing we must demand of any theory concerning the evolution of human culture is: show me the fitness! Having dismissed the hapless anthropologists, Mr. Miller advances his own theory, which is that culture, in the broadest sense, is a set of mating rituals. Since culture doesn’t really pay in terms of “survival of the fittest,” Mr. Miller suggests that culture pays for the time and energy it costs to pursue it by improving the chances of culturally talented individuals to recruit healthy, intelligent and generally genetically superior mates. (Or perhaps I should say, the strategy of culture pays by attracting lots of sexual partners, which allows the culturally blessed to then be choosy about whom to reproduce with.) As Mr. Miller so succinctly puts it: When a young male rock star stands up in front of a crowd and produces some pieces of human ‘culture’ known as songs, he is not improving his survival prospects. Nor is he engaging in some bizarre maladaptive behavior that requires some new process of ‘cultural evolution’ to explain. Rather he is doing something that fulfils exactly the same function as a male nightingale singing or a male peacock showing off his tail. He is attracting sexual partners. (Mr. Miller’s theory seems to be a variant of the old line: “God invented rock’n’roll so ugly guys could score too.”) In what manner does culture indicate reproductive fitness? According to Mr. Miller, culture does this by creating a context and a set of rules for artistic displays that highlight differences between one potential reproductive partner and another in terms intelligence, creativity, skill, strength, and health. Having put forth this theory, Mr. Miller goes on to suggest what it would take to demonstrate the truth or falseness of his theory. If culture functions as an indicator of reproductive fitness, then (1) observable cultural activity should kick in after... posted by Friedrich at October 18, 2003 | perma-link | (23) comments

Behavioral Economics 101
Dear Friedrich -- Econ fan that I am, I've recently found myself poking around the corner of the field known as behavioral economics. This is a group of economists who investigate the ways in which people don't behave like rational economic agents -- cool! Is behavioral econ a comprehensive challenge to classical theory, a helpful new addition to it, or a meaningless fad? I'd be the last person to know, of course, but I'm certainly finding it a provocative development to read about. Why? Because, enlightening as I've found it to learn the basics of econ, I've also found myself repeatedly slamming on the brakes and saying, "Hey, now wait just a minute -- people aren't like that!" In any case, behavioral econ is certainly a happenin' thing -- that at least I can vouch for. And the Nobel committee's recent decision to give an economics prize to Daniel Kahneman (who's actually a psychologist) has lent the approach a lot of credibility. What kinds of discoveries are the behavior-econ crowd making? Here are a few examples of Kahneman's findings: Most people are more strongly affected in their decision-making by vivid examples than by abstract information, no matter how much more accurate the abstract information is. For most people, the possibility of a loss greatly outweighs the chance of a win. "People really discriminate sharply between gaining and losing and they don't like losing," Kahneman has said. For most people, first impressions play a remarkably strong role in shaping subsequent judgments. If you get a kick out this kind of thing, you might also enjoy some of the following resources. Here's a quick, flip intro to the field by Mickey Butts for Salon. Here's a longer, more substantial overview by Louis Uchitelle for the NYTimes. Here's a Dan Ackman q&a with Kahneman for Forbes. Here's a long Roger Lowenstein article about the field for the NYTimes Magazine, with a special focus on Richard Thaler. Here's a group interview about baseball (talk about irrational); Richard Thaler is one of the participants. Here's a q&a with the young Berkeley hotshot Matthew Rabin, who has already won a MacArthur "genius" grant. Here's a q&a with the brilliant Gary Becker, who offers some criticisms. Kahneman, by the way, is currently working on a way of measuring well-being that he hopes to get economists to take seriously. One recent finding: "The huge importance of friends. People are really happier with friends than they are with their families or their spouse or their child." Let me know how you react. Best, Michael PS: Incidentally, my own dippy thoughts about art, pleasure, and the obsession economists have with efficiency can be read here and here. I'm still preening myself on my proposal to get rid of the notion of "utility" and replace it with what I think of as "life is worth living units." Daniel Kahneman should feel free to contact me at the email address at the top of this blog.... posted by Michael at October 18, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

Friday, October 17, 2003

Friedrich -- * In the WashPost, Laura Sessions Stepp compares old-fashioned romance-and-flirtation with today's grab-what-you-can ethos here. (Link thanks to Arts & Letters Daily, here.) * Alice Bachini thinks that when you speak a foreign language you're quite likely to become a different person, here. * Did more people die in the 20th century from 1) wars between countries or 2) the misbehavior and viciousness of their own rulers? George Hunka lays out the sad facts, here. * Alan Sullivan writes here about what made him turn the corner politically. "Without wealth, we artsy types would starve," he points out. * Steve Sailer interviews 3rd-world property-rights advocate Hernando de Soto here and here. * I enjoyed this Bryan Appleyard visit with the actress Kristin Scott Thomas, here. * Hey, I'm not the only film buff who's a fan of the work of the director Ronny Yu. Polly Frost (here) loves "Bride of Chucky" and "Jason vs. Freddy" too. * The director Fernando Meirelles talks about why he loves Bernardo Bertolucci's movie "Besieged," here. I love the movie too, but I also like the way Meirelles discusses it -- he's a real filmmaking connoisseur. * Have you read Margaret Visser's collection of short essays "Much Depends on Dinner" (buyable here)? I thought it was a gem. Visser discusses food and eating on many different levels -- food as history, as symbolism, as sex, as pleasure ... And she manages to do so without the fussiness and overextravagance food writers seem prone to. Here's a good long interview with her. * James Russell calls the new Tarantino "a pastiche that doesn’t really work" and sounds convincing doing so, here. * Clifford Krauss reports in The NYTimes that Canada's national health service appears to be coming up short, here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2003 | perma-link | (0) comments

Lost Performance Forms
Friedrich -- At lunch with a couple of arts buddies, we found ourselves trying to come up with fairly-recent performance forms that you don't see (or see much) anymore. We came up with three that were very popular during our kid-hoods but that are all but invisible today: Ventriloquists -- they were once a standard feature on variety shows. Impersonators -- hard to remember, but people who did impressions of celebrities were once very popular: "Here's ... Jack Paar! [applause] And here's ... Dwight Eisenhower! [applause]" Remember buying LP's by impersonators? Who was that guy who did the whole Kennedy family, for instance? Comedy teams -- Martin and Lewis, Hope and Crosby, the Ritz Brothers, etc. Any others that occur to you? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 17, 2003 | perma-link | (14) comments

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Moviegoing and Reading Journal: "Laurel Canyon"; "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius"; "Lost in Translation"
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Friedrich -- Forgive the light blogging from my side of the continent. I've come down with a rotten cold; my head is full of nothing that shouldn't wind up in a Kleenex; and my energy is doing anything but rising to the occasion. Still, a few thoughts and reactions are semi-visible through the fog ... * Laurel Canyon -- File this movie under "shoulda been a comedy." Did you catch it? Well-acted, some talent and moodiness, but unstoppable self-seriousness too, and of an especially unamusing sort. (This was true as well of the writer-director Lisa Chodolenko's first movie, "High Art." She's one somber gal.) A goody-two-shoes young couple moves in with the boyfriend's mom, who's a pothead record producer with a pad in Laurel Canyon. Slowly (and I do mean slowly), the over-achieving youngsters start to come unraveled ... It's a puzzling watch: why is everything being treated with such Bergmanesque solemnity? Almost no one in the film seems to experience so much as a stray untroubled moment. The overemphasis on heavy emotional weather left me puzzled at times about how to read the film's action. Plot spoiler here: what the hell happened in the swimming pool anyway? There's splashing and smooching; there's a cut; there are shots of puffy, troubled-looking faces ... So you assume they've gone for it, they all had sex. Then, ten or fifteen minutes later, there's an indication they never did go through with the sex -- wha'? Typical of the movie: people getting upset about things they apparently didn't do. (I've known a couple such people and am glad I don't know them anymore.) Coming sexually and romantically unravelled in LA isn't bad subject matter for a movie. The Wife pointed out that if Alan Rudolph had directed the movie it'd at least have been absurd; if Paul Mazursky had directed it, it probably would have been funny. * The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius -- Have you read the Stoics? I think I like 'em, though I've only read Epictetus and now Marcus Aurelius. How to keep calm and serene (or at least how to maintain more rather than less balance) in the face of life's vicissitudes -- that's the subject of Stoicism, which isn't quite the "suck it up, kid" philosophy you expect it to be, although there is some of that too, god knows. (Lots of admonitions to remember that life is short and YOU'RE GONNA DIE.) But its basic vision -- the background convictions that the Stoic advice is set against -- is expansive and mystical. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are forever yanking you out of your self-centered view of things. Now you're seeing things from millions of miles away; now you've penetrated into the very nature of matter. So when you find your way back to your own point of view, life looks different; things seem set in a better perspective. And that's the point: to understand that none of this will matter, that life is... posted by Michael at October 16, 2003 | perma-link | (24) comments

Follow Up: Mapping the Cultureverse
Michael: Now that we’ve been blogging for over a year, a lot of headlines I read bring to mind previous postings we’ve cranked out. I thought I’d highlight a one of these from the October 16 New York Times. Headlined “Digging for Nuggets of Wisdom” it discusses the increasing use of text-mining to search through enormous piles of documents looking for connections that no human can (efficiently) find. According to the story by Lisa Guernsey, which you can read here: In most cases, text-mining software is built upon the foundations of data minining, which uses statistical analysis to pull information out of structured databases…But text mining…works on unstructured data…To make sense of what it is reading, the software uses algorithms to examine the context behind words. If someone is doing research on computer modeling, for example, it not only knows to discard documents about fashion models but can also extract important phrases, terms, names and locations. In a May 31 post I wrote on Family Trees (which you can read here) I proposed using another piece of pattern-matching software deriving from biology to create maps showing the relatedness of various strings of data, and suggested that we could turn such software loose to create pedigrees for many ideas floating around in the cultural portions of the Web: And although it would be more difficult to track the pedigree of works of fiction, I wondered if it would be possible to reduce stories, or at least their plots, to a standard alphabet of relationships between the characters. For example, Hamlet might be reduced to “father, son, step-father, mother, murder, revenge, madness, mistaken identity.” It would be interesting to see the family tree of Hamlet’s antecedents and its descendants. In fact, it would be interesting to equip “Google” with such a relatedness testing device and use it to create family trees for “memes” propogating themselves through cyberspace. Well, it looks like with the advent of software like text-mining, even more powerful tools are becoming available to extract and document such cultural patterns from the Internet or other large digital storehouses of data. I also wrote a post on Culture and Scale Free Networks (which you can read here) suggesting that the cultural community is organized as a sort of “scale-free network” of influential individuals, giving the cultural universe a combination of relative stability but a tendency to be vulnerable to sudden, massive shifts of taste as key “nodes” (people) drop out of the network. According to the New York Times article, text-mining software often comes with the ability to visually map the relationships spelled out within its universe of texts; it would seem that such a system might well be able to diagram the exact confines--names, job titles, organizations--of the cultural networks sustaining the prestige of say, given movements in art or literature. Text Mining Relational Chart from New York Times Article (It would be pretty wild to discover that, say, the true cultural linchpin in the Renaissance was actually, say, the... posted by Friedrich at October 16, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

Follow Up: Preserving the Rainforest
Michael: Another story that brings up echoes from previous 2blowhards postings is in the Wall Street Journal of October 16. Headlined, “Brazil’s President Sees New Growth in Rain Forest,” it's about how environmentalists are “dismayed” at the policies of the Brazilian government in the Amazon rainforest. What kind of new growth does Brazil’s president see? Well, it ain’t the plant or animal variety: When Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became Brazil’s first elected leftist president in January, environmentalists cheered. They regarded the co-founder of the Workers Party as progressive and “green” in his politics. “We believed in Lula,” says Jecinaldo Satere Mawe, an indigenous leader who has worked for years with environmentalists…Activitsts are mounting a last-ditch struggle to halt [natural gas pipelines being built through the rainforest by national oil company] Petrobras, in what is shaping up as one of the first of potentially many environmental battles for Mr. Da Silva’s administration. The president wants to pump billions of dollars into highways, railroads, airports, waterways and other projects that could change the face of the rain forest. On July 3 I noted, in a posting A Modest Proposal for the Brazilian Rainforest, that such long-established policies by the Brazilian government cast significant doubt on the world’s preferred environmental strategies of bribing Brazil to “just say no” to developing the Amazon: Looking back in history, it turns out that the Brazilian government has been financially encouraging settlement of the Amazon rainforest since the 1940s. The motive, in large part, has been geopolitical—to wit, that hardly any “real” Brazilians live in the Amazon rainforest, and Brazil doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to park army units along the borders. Successive Brazilian governments have been uneasily aware that they have been getting away with the claim to “own” a huge chunk of the Amazon rainforest without having hardly any of their citizens actually living there, or without having any real means to control the territory…And if the outside world wants to “bribe” Brazil to declare parts of the Amazon rainforest off limits to deforestation, well, that’s okay by the politicians—as long as the foreigners are stupid enough to think Brazil will actually abide by these covenants. My suggestion was to create private property rights for the Amazon which would give the locals an economic incentive to preserve, not destroy, the rainforest. You can read about it here. I still think it's a good idea, BTW. Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at October 16, 2003 | perma-link | (3) comments

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Tom Wolfe and Transparent Buildings
Friedrich -- That brilliant troublemaker Tom Wolfe has written a couple of op-ed pieces for the NYTimes about 2 Columbus Circle, here and here. Felix Salmon comments here, and David Sucher comments here. Though the general question is whether the crumbling, quasi-Moorish Edward Durrel Stone building is any good (Wolfe gives it an it's-so-wonderfully-goofy thumbs-up; I give it a thumbs-down), another question gets raised too, which is: Why do so many new buildings these days look all twinkly and refract-y, like avant-garde perfume bottles? It ain't just fashion, although that's certainly a big part of the explanation. There's also a rationale, a lot of which boils down to: solid-seeming buildings equal authority equals bad, while structures that dissolve into mist equal anti-authoritarianism equals good. I kid you not. My own take is that they're virtual buildings -- databases given a few kinky twists in order to make architectural statements. In other words, fashion, ideology and corporate convenience are triumphing at the expense of demonstrated human and user preference. Sigh. I've got a cold today and no appetite whatsoever for polemics over architecture, so will confine myself to pointing out a good article in Spiked Online by Ciaran Guilfoyle, here, which explains transparent-building fetishism; and an interview with Lynne Munson, here, during the course of which she explains why modern art museums look the way they do. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 15, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments

Friedrich -- * David Sucher visited Louis Kahn's Salk Institute and wasn't impressed (here). I visited the Salk myself about a decade ago and hereby second David's reaction. * Polly Frost saw "Mystic River" and found it anything but thrilling, here. * Aaron Haspel saw "Kill Bill," and, hoo-boy, was he ever not buying whatever it is Tarantino's selling, here. * Yahmdallah chooses the "second suckiest song ever composed and recorded," here. * Katie Hafner writes one of those it's-about-time-someone-noticed pieces about how common it is for electronic gadgets to be bought, used once, and then never used again, here. * Steve Sailer talks sense about the ladies' pro golf tour (here), as well as about why Cruz Bustamente did so badly in the California recall vote (here). * Tyler Cowen wonders why Persian carpet dealers always seem to be liquidating their stock, or at least having a sale, here. * Alex Tabarrok, Tyler's co-blogger at Marginal Revolution, has a short and enlightening op-ed here on why neither major party is the party for those who prefer smaller, more modest government. * Helmut Newton, S&M-fashion photographer par excellence, has lived a naughty life indeed, here. * Patrick Newley remembers the day he met Warren Beatty, here. * I notice that Denis Dutton is putting more of his writing up on his website (here). I'm currently enjoying and getting a lot out of this brilliant essay here about tribal art that he wrote for the Oxford Enclyclopedia of Aesthetics. * Fact of the day: a letter to the editor in the WSJournal points out something interesting about Cuba. Almost 2/3 of the Cuban population is now of African descent -- but "the top power elite around Castro is 97% white." Time to parachute in a few diversity consultants? Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 15, 2003 | perma-link | (4) comments

Authorship Redux
Friedrich -- I'm looking through a wonderful little art book that's a recent fave of mine, Ronald Pisano's The Tile Club (buyable here and, at a discount, here), about the Aesthetic Movement in America. This was an art trend in the mid-to-late 1800s -- an era of art clubs and art schools; the Tile Club was one among many. But a classy one: among its members were Winslow Homer, William Merritt Chase, John H. Twachtman, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Stanford White. I love this Victorianism-encounters-Japan, arts-and-craftsy period in the American visual arts -- here's a posting I did about one of the era's giants, the largely forgotten John La Farge. As I flip around inside the book, my mind's awash in this and that: how much I love the era and its arts despite the fact that it's so banally easy to love, and despite the sneers of the edgy and academic crowd (what do they have against what's accessible, tasteful and relaxed?); how pleased I am that the arts of this era have shown such staying power despite being largely overlooked by the academic art crowd (take that, snobs!); how sadly rare it is in America for popular taste and the fine-arts world to find a rhythm together; how we ought to celebrate -- and god knows cherish and enjoy -- such moments as the Aesthetic movement, early jazz, '30s movies, etc. And, hey, why isn't more effort being made to see what's there to learn from these periods? My delighted mind's also enjoying reflections about what a multimedia, hypertext-y marvel a good art book is. One small package delivers photos, graphics, reproductions, book design; texts (often multiple texts); indexes, footnotes, tables of contents -- multiple media, all of them pointing back and forth at each other and also leading you out of the book and into further books as well as the world. How can people not be dazzled and amazed by all this browse-y fabulosity? It's the Web before there was the Web, it's a sensory extravaganza to match anything Hollywood produces with the most advanced technology ... And I realize that some little shred of my mind's still dwelling on my posting from a few days ago about authorship (here). Gloating, perhaps, but where's the harm? So I thought I'd indulge my rantin' self once again, and pause to run through this particular book's credits. And forgive me if I seem like a boring monomaniac, which I probably am. Anyway, in terms of the lavishness of its production, "The Tile Club" is quite a modest art book, so it should be a fair example of how these things work. Let's first remember that, as far as librarians and booksellers are concerned, this is "The Tile Club" by Ronald G. Pisano. And many cheers and hosannas for Ronald G. Pisano, who did a terrific job. But why not make a quick list of some of the other people whose good work went into the creation of this book... posted by Michael at October 15, 2003 | perma-link | (1) comments

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

True Art School Tales
A new installment in John Leavitt's ongoing True Art School Tales, his irregular, illustrated diary about life as an art-school student. John's currently studying at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology. His own website -- where he shows off his witty and elegant art, as well as his prowess as a designer and cartoonist -- is here. *** True Art School Tales My friend and fellow student J is always putting her paintings on display at cafes, restaurants, and assorted bars. She's a firecracker about it, as well as about pushing her work as an illustrator (her site is here).) It makes sense -- she's comfortable with the business end of art. *** Me, I have a terrible time getting myself to put my work on display. I'm pretty flighty and lazy, of course. But I also hate taking part in shows. I hate hanging them, I hate making invitation lists, I hate hanging around the parties. I especially hate watching people in the active process of ignoring and Not Buying. Who really wants to come to these parties and shows anyway? No one, apparently. It takes an ego of iron to sit alone in the reserved room, with everything carefully laid out and arranged, and have not a single invited soul appear. Also, getting your work out there takes a lot of effort. Promoting your work in person takes ambition and scrappiness. Going from bar to bar, from cafe to cafe, asking wary and often reluctant people if they need art or would like to hang your work. You're lucky if they remember you when you show up to put your stuff up. Me? I'm just a lazy dilettante. Sending out samples to art directors is hard work too but I don't have to get off my couch to do it. But an art show? All the little chores: printing out flyers, making up lists, creating a number of small pieces that'll be cheap enough so people can buy them on a whim ... I'm far too distractable to keep all these ducks in a row. *** No one at school tells you explicitly to put your work up at shows, though a few teachers are encouraging. It falls under the "probably won't do anything but can't hurt" category. To their credit, FIT pushes careerizing to a greater degree than many other schools do. You're told how to put together a portfolio, who to call, how to slip into the field via side roads -- for example, how to become an assistant to a successful artist. They offer a thousand little tricks and tips to get you started. Matting makes everything better, presentation is everything, fake tearsheets never hurt anyone. *** I wonder if this degree of career pressure was always part of the art world. J's mother tells me that you didn't have to be so entrepreneurial in the past. If you wanted to apply for work as an illustrator, you checked the New York Times job section and... posted by Michael at October 14, 2003 | perma-link | (2) comments

If Big is Bad, Is Small Good?
Friedrich -- Those horrendous, octopus-like multinationals, that funny big money, those soulless corporations with the hearts of accountants -- the horror of it all. What do they have to do with art, with writing, with culture? Where to turn, if you're a person who cares? A valid set of concerns, worries and anxieties that not even a Blowhard would try to pooh-pooh. What I am going to pooh-pooh, though, is the sentimental flipside that many of us fall for, which is the assumption that if big is bad, small must be good; if soulless is bad, souful must be good; if corporate is bad, storefront must be good. I'm taking a shot, in other words, at this picture: if you're horror-struck by what's become of bigtime publishing (whether books or magazines), go to the little guy instead. There you'll find welcoming arms. If the money is vanishingly small, well, at least you'll be treated like the talented person you are, and your work will stand a decent chance of displaying its intrinsic worth. And you'll be dealing with real, decent human beings -- people who care. Well, as it turns out, maybe. One of the more common sad discoveries writers of books and magazine pieces often make is that not only do many of the small presses and magazines barely pay money at all, they behave unprofessionally. They ignore you; they're rude; they don't know what it means to return a phone call. Despite their rhetoric and grooviness, despite their loudly-announced devotion to art/lit/ideas, in many cases they screw you over as effectively as the mega-corporate places do. All the while treating you badly, failing to promote your work, sending along tiny checks that bounce, and carrying on as though they're the ones who are suffering for art. Many exceptions allowed for, of course. I was set to remembering all this -- a few tussles of my own with small magazines, as well as tales book authors told me of wrangles with small book publishers -- by this article here in the New York Press about shenanigans at Soft Skull Press. Link thanks to Turbokitty. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at October 14, 2003 | perma-link | (9) comments

Monday, October 13, 2003

Sexual Selection and Fashion Redux
Michael: Okay, I’ll admit it—occasionally I blow a posting. I think I’ve got a nice little idea all ready to roll out, but when I pop it up there on the blog, and look at it I think, wait a minute, you got way too cute with that, who could possibly tell what you were getting at, you bozo? Well, I want a do over and I’m going to take one. My recent posting on fashion derived from a very interesting essay by Geoffrey F. Miller called “Sexual Selection for Cultural Displays.” This is one chapter in a book called “The Evolution of Culture,” which, as you might expect, is written from an evo-bio perspective. One of the major problems in trying to link evolution and culture is that most cultural activities don’t enhance survival. In fact, by chewing up a lot of time and calories that people could be spending hunting or gathering, it would appear to actively reduce their survivability. So the development of culture seems unlikely to have been pushed forward by the processes of natural selection—the so-called survival of the fittest mechanism. However, as Darwin noted, natural selection isn’t the only evolutionary mechanism. There’s also sexual selection, which operates when individuals seeking to reproduce decide with whom to pair up. They don’t want to invest their time and genes with a partner who will produce sickly or otherwise inadequate offspring, or who won’t be a good parent or partner. In fact, to the extent they can pull it off, they want to go for the very best. (The widespread social role of “Most Popular Guy/Girl in High School” isn’t an accidental cultural construct.) Of course, people don’t have their reproductive fitness quotient tattooed on their foreheads; such fitness must be inferred from somatic (face and figure) cues or must be demonstrated by behavior. In other words, sexual selection involves signaling. The tricky part with signaling is that it is easier, evolutionarily speaking, to cook up a fake signal of reproductive fitness than it is to actually deliver the goods. I think you’ll understand the pressure to “cheat” when you consider that reproductive fitness isn’t an absolute quality, but a relative one. Reproductive fitness is graded on a curve, and only a certain percentage of the population will get an “A” no matter how well everyone does on the final. So the natural tendency among individuals evaluating such signals is to look for ones that are hard to fake. In 1975 Amotz Zahavi realized that traits that actually inflicted a penalty or a handicap to the signaler fit this bill perfectly. He used this handicap theory to explain why peacocks grew such enormous tails, despite the fact that this reduced their odds of survival: the fact that the peacocks are still around and functioning despite their grotesque tails signals to peahens that these guys were extremely reproductively fit. Such a signal can’t be faked; if you’ve got such a tail then it will handicap your individual survival... posted by Friedrich at October 13, 2003 | perma-link | (32) comments