Having been born in the tiny Welsh village of Llanbadoc 141 years after Alfred Russel Wallace, I have always had a sneaking sympathy with people eager to give Wallace joint billing with Darwin for “The Best Idea Anyone Ever Had.”
Having said which, I don’t think Evolution by Natural Selection was Darwin’s best or most valuable idea.
Earlier thinkers, from Lucretius to Patrick Matthew, had grasped that there was something inevitably true in the idea of Natural Selection. Had neither Darwin or Wallace existed, someone else would have come up with a similar theory; many practical people, whether pigeon fanciers or dog breeders, had already grasped the practical principles quite well.
But, for its time, sexual selection was a truly extraordinary, out-of-the-box idea. It still is. Once you understand sexual selection—along with costly signaling, Fisherian runaway, proxies, heuristics, satisficing and so forth—a whole host of behaviors which were previously baffling or seemingly irrational suddenly make perfect sense.
The body of ideas which fall out of sexual selection theory explain not only natural anomalies such as the peacock’s tail—they also explain the extraordinary popularity of many seemingly insane human behaviors and tastes. From the existence of Veblen Goods such as caviar to more mundane absurdities such as the typewriter.
(For almost a century during which few men knew how to type, the typewriter must have damaged business productivity to an astounding degree; it meant that every single business and government communication had to be written twice: once by the originator in longhand and then once again by the typist or typing pool. A series of simple amends could delay a letter or memo by a week. But the ownership and use of a typewriter was a necessary expense to signal that you were a serious business. Any provincial solicitor who persisted in writing letters by hand became a tailless peacock.)
But, take note, I have committed the same offense which everyone else does when writing about sexual selection. I have confined my examples of sexual selection to those occasions where it runs out of control and leads to costly inefficiencies. Typewriters, Ferraris, peacock’s tails. Elks will make an appearance any moment now, you expect. But this is unfair.
You may have noticed that there are very few famous Belgians. This is because when you are a famous Belgian (Magritte, Simenon, Brel) everyone assumes you are French.
In the same way, there are few commonly cited examples of successful sexual selection because, when sexual selection succeeds, people casually attribute the success to natural selection.
But the tension between sexual and natural selection—and the interplay between the two divergent forces—may be the really big story here. Many human innovations would not have got off the ground without the human status-signaling instinct. (For a good decade or so, cars were inferior to horses as a mode of transport—it was human neophilia and status-seeking car races, not the pursuit of “utility,” which gave birth to the Ford Motor Company.) So might it be the same in nature? That, in the words of Geoffrey Miller, sexual selection provides the “early stage funding” for nature’s best experiments? So the sexual fitness advantages of displaying ever more plumage on the sides of a bird (rather than, like the peacock, senselessly overinvesting in the rear spoiler) may have made it possible for birds to fly. The human brain’s capacity to handle a vast vocabulary probably arose more for the purposes of seduction than anything else. But most people will avoid giving credit to sexual selection where they possibly can. When it works, sexual selection is called natural selection.
Why is this? Why the reluctance to accept that life is not just a narrow pursuit of greater efficiency—that there is room for opulence and display as well. Yes, costly signaling can lead to economic inefficiency, but such inefficiencies are also necessary to establish valuable social qualities such as trustworthiness and commitment—and perhaps altruism. Politeness and good manners are, after all, simply costly signaling in face-to-face form.
Why are people happy with the idea that nature has an accounting function, but much less comfortable with the idea that nature necessarily has a marketing function as well? Should we despise flowers because they are less efficient than grasses?
If you are looking for underrated, under-promulgated ideas, a good place to start is always with those ideas which, for whatever reason, somehow discomfort people both on the political left and the political right.
Sexual selection is one such idea. Marxists hate the idea. Neo-liberals don’t like it. Yet, I would argue, when the concepts that underlie it—and the effects it has wrought on our evolved psychology—are better understood, it could be the basis for a new and better form of economics and politics. A society in which our signaling instincts were channeled towards positive-sum behavior could be far happier while consuming less.
But even Russel Wallace hated the idea of sexual selection. For some reason it sits in that important category of ideas which most people—and intellectuals especially—simply do not want to believe. Which is why it is my candidate today for the idea most in need of wider transmission.