Saturday, August 02, 2008

My Day So Far (by Phila)

I woke early, just like my hypervigilant ancestors did back in the Pleistocene. I considered getting out of bed, but then I realized that I ought to read for a while. After all, being able to display a wider range of knowledge than the next fellow could very well enhance my reproductive fitness.

I spent a pleasant hour with Baron Corvo's The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, which he wrote in 1909 in order to advertise his health and virility to the wealthy dowagers of Venice. Afterwards, I decided to go downstairs and see how things stood on the Internet. While it may seem to you like a medium of communication, I see it as a battlefield. Yes, a battlefield! For it is there that I go to overawe my male rivals, and dazzle those members of the fair sex who strike me as adequate receptacles for my precious seed.

As usual, the conflict was ferocious. Supporters of Barack Obama sought to improve their chances of passing on their genes by defeating supporters of John McCain, who were hoping that associating themselves with a powerful, aggressive male would help them to attract mates. I waded boldly into the fray; with my help, the tide was soon turned, and McCain's supporters retreated as quickly as a frigate bird with an undersized chest pouch. A pleasant stirring in my groin told me I had done well.

My wife was tending to the garden, meanwhile...just as one would expect, given the typical division of labor among our ancestors. (I think she may have spent a little time on the Internet too, but if so, it was probably just to get tips on gardening, or knitting, or the menstrual cycle.) After making a mental note to knock her up, I turned my attention to the world of Science.

And that's how I learned that Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico has solved the riddle of music (and, in so doing, made himself that much more appealing to prospective sex partners).

Here's how the whole business works:
[W]hy do we find musicians and singers so attractive? Looking at things from a biological point of view, we would normally expect women to be attracted to men with qualities that indicate good genes that can be passed on to her children or those that show he can look after a family, like a wad of cash for instance. Music doesn't seem to serve any practical purpose.

Musical ability, along with other creative skills, are rather like a human version of the peacock's tail; something that has no survival value, but has evolved precisely because it is found attractive by the opposite sex.
The gist of it is, men became creative in order to attract women. Women, by contrast, have learned to dabble a bit in the arts "because the ones that could entertain their men could keep them around to help raise the kids."

You'd think that'd be the last word on the subject. But male rivalry is as endlessly productive in science as it is in every other civilized endeavor, and so Miller has already been elbowed aside by John Manning of the University of Central Lancashire, who claims that "men who make lots of good music make lots of sperm" (thanks to testosterone), and that women accordingly flock to them like flies to dogshit.

If you question the logic here, consider these statistics, which certainly didn't come out of nowhere:
If men can advertise their prowess through music then we'd expect a lot more men than women to be making it. Manning points out that in a sample of more than 7,000 jazz, rock and classical albums, there were ten times as many male as female musicians.

Classical orchestras also show a preponderance of male musicians, but when Manning and a colleague looked at the gender ratio of the audience it was a different story. Those sitting closest to the orchestra during performances were much more likely to be female than male, lending support to the idea that the music might be serving some mate advertising function.
If experience is any guide, I may be taken to task for presenting too crude a picture of Evolutionary Psychology. But I think I have a long, long way to go before I'm as crude as some of its professional advocates.