Webdiary - Independent, Ethical, Accountable and Transparent
header_02 home about login header_06
sidebar-top content-top

Sexy Culture

Arne  JernelovArne 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.  


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

The Uselessness of Art

Storytelling is so universal among human beings that it clearly makes for survival - that is, narrative lies in the first of Darwin's categories, and only secondarily among the second.

Music and the visuals - sound & colour - act directly on the limbic system. Their effects are instant [feelgood or not] on an instinctive level; their total "meaning" is controlled by their contexts.

And then there's humour - comedy also makes for survival, even when you could've died laughing.

The uselessness of art is not a self-evident truth.

Art is magic, a mimicking of the creation of the world and children by the creation of something else. That's where its aura of sacredness comes from. That sacredness is co-opted & corrupted into the hierarchy of value of forms. Opera is more "artistic" and "worthy" than a rock song, etc. etc. etc. because opera's audience and supporters are now the owning class.

Let me put my objection to Arne Jernelov's argument this way: if the uselessness of an act or skill functioned as successful sexual display among human beings, then every nerd with collection of batteries, wires & swap-meet gizmos would be a chick-magnet.


Having read this item I can only suggest that the good professor might like to come out of his office now and again and actually mingle with human beings rather than peacocks and lions.

Survival of the fittest is not relevant today in many countries due to advances in science and medical science in particular but still firmly the rule in others. In Western countries it is celebrity rather than a particular skill that attracts potential partners more than anything else.

Of course money seems to be the strongest aphrodisiac so survival there too takes no particular skill of excellence. 

Excelling at any particular activity is incidental to this issue, breeding. Essentially it's about having a high profile and there are many examples of people who are famous mainly for just being famous as they don't have any particular skill of excellence.

Stuff of the soul, not the privates

Ross: Hi. Haven't seen you around much lately.  Hope the black dog has stayed away.

Yes, the good professor. He should stay away from peacocks. They are such bad luck I'm told. True about the celebrities. But keeping the captured prey seems to be a bit of a problem. Money, an aphrodisiac you say? Yet the poor breed so well and the rich are down to 1.7 I believe. Some inconsistencies there I would say.

But poetry, art, ballet, music all that stuff. Take that away and what is left in life. Oh that he should be so clinical about it all. Stuff of the soul I say, not the privates.

Survival of the meekest

This is all very interesting, but why does Jernelov focus only on cultural elites as examples of ‘uselessness combined with difficulty’?

Doesn’t this also describe the elites of business, politics and the military?

And by the way. ‘Survival of the fittest’ was actually coined, not by Darwin, but by the ultra-right wing philosopher Herbert Spencer, who had a thing about ordering people into hierarchies of value, and putting those most like himself at the top.

Darwin did acknowledge Spencer’s use of the term, but preferred to use ‘natural selection’, which implied that ‘fittest’ meant ‘best suited to the environment’, not ‘strongest, quickest and richest’.

Much to the annoyance of the strong in every generation, the weak keep on surviving as well, and in far greater number. What evolution is telling us today is that Spencer’s idea of ‘fitness’ could very well do us all in. A little bit of meekness goes a long way. 

It's a theory but that's all

Well, it is a theory and he has every right to hold to it but I am not sure he makes a case for much.

Is it really the 'best' which becomes culture? Not necessarily at the time as so many writers, painters and even singers have found to their grief. 

Success and talent are not synonomous. Those who work hard can and do fail and those who do not work hard can  and do succeed. There are no givens. Beyond sheer ability there is also 'taste' and luck. I remember watching a programme on opera singers once where they said there are countless people who have absolutely amazing voices, as good as the best and sometimes better, but what makes one of them famous and another a failure, as defined by the society and the culture, are other, more intangible qualities, combined with a dose of luck, fate, kismet or whatever you want to call it.

The world's greatest soprano, for instance, at any given time, may not be the one with the greatest voice and I am sure the same goes for any other form of artistic expression.

Some expressions of art and culture do endure through time, but many do not. Culture is as much the 'taste' of the day, as it is anything which could be defined as 'best.'

Probably what makes a 'best' anything, is the amount of 'love' which is put into the expression, along with high levels of skill. That is why the very 'best' of things tend not to be mass-produced, or off the production line. I use the word 'love' in the sense of caring deeply, concentrating absolutely, working passionately and being driven, not by what others might think or how much acclamation one may get, but by desiring only to work the very best one can to produce the very best that is  personally possible.

The greatest art echoes and reflects the deepest Soul nature of human beings. The greatest cultures tend to have a high respect for great art in all forms.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
© 2005-2011, Webdiary Pty Ltd
Disclaimer: This site is home to many debates, and the views expressed on this site are not necessarily those of the site editors.
Contributors submit comments on their own responsibility: if you believe that a comment is incorrect or offensive in any way,
please submit a comment to that effect and we will make corrections or deletions as necessary.
Margo Kingston Photo © Elaine Campaner

Recent Comments

David Roffey: {whimper} in Not with a bang ... 12 weeks 5 days ago
Jenny Hume: So long mate in Not with a bang ... 12 weeks 6 days ago
Fiona Reynolds: Reds (under beds?) in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 1 day ago
Justin Obodie: Why not, with a bang? in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 1 day ago
Fiona Reynolds: Dear Albatross in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 1 day ago
Michael Talbot-Wilson: Good luck in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 1 day ago
Fiona Reynolds: Goodnight and good luck in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 2 days ago
Margo Kingston: bye, babe in Not with a bang ... 13 weeks 6 days ago