Sexy Culture

Why is there culture? What motivates people to write poems, paint, or sing? Most people engaged in these activities would respond with answers like, “because I like to” or, “because it fulfills me,” if not, “I feel obliged not to waste my talent.” They tend to believe that culture reflects the existence of a soul type, or that it's an expression of humans’ intelligence and creativity.

Natural science – as so often – has a more mundane answer, one that has to do with natural selection. In his seminal work on evolution, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, Charles Darwin used the much-cited expression “survival of the fittest.” Most people find it easy to understand that being especially strong or fast, or able to withstand hunger, heat, or cold, can increase the chances of survival. Intelligence also falls into that category. But to squeeze cultural excellence into the group of characteristics defining “the fittest” is not so easy and requires some leap of faith.

In his later work, Darwin introduced another selection criteria that may be just as important, but which has received much less attention: mating preference, or sexual selection. His reason for doing so was to explain male peacocks’ obviously hindering tail feathers and male lions’ apparently useless manes. These characteristics would reduce rather than enhance the bearer’s chances of survival, but obviously they prevailed in generation after generation. Thus, Darwin argued, they must increase the probability of more offspring by making the males more attractive to female mates.

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