Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sexual Selection

Over this last weekend I read Tor Norretranders' book The Generous Man: how helping others is the sexiest thing you can do. No, it wasn't because I was browsing the sex/self help section of the library. I found a reference to it after searching for more information about Zahavi and altruism online. (Another book about the evolutionary origins of altruism, The Altruism Equation, was not as engaging.) The main point Tor makes is that Darwin developed two ideas concerning the evolution of species: natural selection and sexual selection. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, but later published The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871. The second part of this second work contains 550 pages about sexual selection. (This is something I really should read.) Zahavi's work a hundred years after Darwin's publication of his ideas spurred a re-examination of the field, which has produced an ever-accelerating number of theories.

Tor makes the case that as humans, we owe what makes us truly unique among species to the process of sexual selection, which operates according to Zahavi's Handicap principle; natural selection alone could never account for humanity. The first part of the book seemed to confirm much of what I already knew. Part of the fun was recognizing the names of scientists that I had come across before and seeing them joined together in common cause to elucidate a single idea between the covers of one book. But the last few chapters contained some interesting predictions. Take this one for example: "Computers and robots will have to learn about hau, about generosity, and in the final analysis, about sex." (p293). Definitely thought provoking!

Tor is a Danish author of books about science and its role in society.  The Generous Man was published in 2002 and later translated into English in 2005 after enjoying success in Europe. He writes in an easy to read and engaging style. The book is basically an homage to Zahavi's Handicap principle as it applies to sexual selection and altruism. And that is what makes it GREAT! He applies the concept to ideas that even Zahavi might be reluctant to pair it with, but that is all part of the fun.

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