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Arne Jernelöv is Professor of Environmental Biochemistry, an honorary scholar and former director of the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna, and a UN expert on environmental catastrophes. This piece, from Project Syndicate's Science and Society series, is his first on Webdiary.
by Arne Jernelöv
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.
As Darwin did not believe that pure aesthetics would guide female peacocks and lions in their choice of mating partners, he had to find a rational reason for females’ preference for males with hindering characteristics. The very fact, he reasoned, that these features make life harder signals to prospective partners that individuals who can do reasonably well with them have an especially good genetic set-up and are thus likely to produce strong offspring. They should therefore be preferred mates.
Evolutionary biologists have since taken the concept further. If someone can do difficult things, not only carrying peacock tail feathers or a long dark lion mane, but also things that require much practice without contributing to physical fitness and survival, and yet stay alive, that individual must have especially good genes. They are therefore sexually attractive.
Culture – at least the culture we are proud of and don’t sneer at – is highly elitist. We admire the best, and only the best, according to some cultural and time-dependent standard. It does not help much to sing pop songs or opera arias in the bathroom. You must be able to draw a listening and cheering crowd to qualify for the elite.
Likewise, the amateur painter does not increase her or his attractiveness much compared to a van Gogh or a Picasso. The same goes for writers. A vanity press autobiography does not bring you to the top. For that, you have to be a Nobel laureate or at least the author of a couple of well regarded books. The bottom line is that while many are called, few are chosen. Reaching the top requires not only talent and luck, but also a lot of practices – that is, time wasted from the point of view of survival.
Sport is in this respect also a form of culture, albeit one that is often sneered at by those engaged in pursuits like classical music or serious literature. Most sports certainly contribute to physical fitness – as do some other expressions of culture, such as ballet – but what we admire in a player who can do extraordinary things with a ball is a technique that is utterly useless outside the playing field and has taken thousands of hours of practice to bring to perfection.
Here, of course, it’s only the best that become local or national heroes. To be a devoted football or basketball player in the lowest series brings ridicule rather than fame. It must be hard and require enormous effort to acquire the unique skills that mark the superstar and earn societies’ respect and admiration.
Following this reasoning, what makes the poet, the painter, and the singer attractive is uselessness combined with the difficulty of their activity. The harder and more futile the activity, the better and more sexually attractive is the performer. Naturally, self-awareness of this underlying wish to be sexually attractive is not required. The mechanism works all the same. The poet, painter, and singer may think they do what they do for more high-minded reasons, but scientists know otherwise.
Hey, science is hard, too! But, in line with the logic of natural selection, to become sexually attractive, the scientist only has make sure that the results of his or her work are useless.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.