Sexual Selection Through Mate Choice Does Not Explain the Evolution of Art and Music

With respect to the opposite form of selection, namely, of the more attractive men by the women, although in civilised nations women have free or almost free choice, which is not the case with barbarous races, yet their choice is largely influenced by the social position and wealth of the men – Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871.

In his book The Mating Mind, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues that many complex human behaviors originated via sexual selection through mutual mate choice. Miller claims that, “The human mind’s most impressive abilities are like the peacock’s tail: they are courtship tools, evolved to attract and entertain sexual partners,” and he makes clear that “our capacities for language, art, music, ideology, humor, and creative intelligence,” in particular are the abilities he has in mind.

As the book is about sexual selection, Miller gives appropriate credit to Darwin for the idea of female choice, though he paints Alfred Russel Wallace as—not simply wrong for being skeptical—but motivated by sexism, arguing that “If Darwin had found that male animals choose female mates selectively and that many females are highly ornamented to attract male attention, would Wallace and his contemporaries have been so skeptical about sexual choice? I think not.”

Perhaps Miller is aware of some information I am not (he doesn’t cite anything to directly support his imputation), but Wallace’s own stated remarks on women’s suffrage offer an interesting contrast. In an 1893 interview with the Daily Chronicle, Wallace was questioned, “I should like to ask your opinion, Dr. Wallace, upon the rapid change, amounting almost to a social revolution, which is taking place in the education and general development of women; what effect will it have upon human progress?” In response, Wallace said,

I reply without hesitation that the effect will be entirely beneficial to the race. Women at the present time, in all civilised countries, are showing a determination to secure their personal, social, and political freedom. The great part which they are destined to play in the future of humanity has begun to force itself upon their attention. They have within the last twenty years proceeded by leaps and bounds towards the attainment of that perfect freedom without which no human being can arrive at his or her highest development. When men and women are alike free to follow their best impulses, when both receive the best and most thorough education that the knowledge at the time will admit; when there are no false restrictions placed upon any human being because of the accident of sex, and when the standard of public opinion is set by the wisest and the best, and that standard is systematically inculcated upon the young, then we shall find that a system of human selection will come spontaneously into action which will bring about a reformed humanity.

Miller also gives this gratuitous jibe directed at Wallace,

Where Darwin was of the landed gentry and fell into an easy marriage to a rich cousin, the working-class Wallace struggled throughout his early adulthood to secure a position sufficiently reputable that he could attract a wife. One might think that Wallace would have been more sensitive to the importance of sexual competition and female choice in human affairs. One might have expected Wallace to use those insights into human sexuality to appreciate the importance of female choice in shaping animal ornamentation. Yet Wallace was utterly hostile to Darwin’s theory of sexual selection through mate choice.

There’s an irony here in Miller failing to recognize the significance of his own reference to Darwin’s inherited social status and marriage to his cousin in a paragraph where he chides someone else for supposedly missing something obvious. Call me crazy, but I am skeptical that female choice played much of a role in promoting cousin marriage among some high-status families in Victorian England.

At any rate, if we restrict our consideration of the question of mate choice (particularly female mate choice) to humans alone, we can find some very good reasons why Wallace may have been skeptical of the idea, particularly if we’re considering the evolution of art and music.

For one, Wallace conducted fieldwork in the Amazon and provided a great deal of ethnographic information on the societies he encountered there. Wallace described some important beliefs and practices associated with musical instruments among populations living near the Uaupés River, writing that,

One of their most singular superstitions is about the musical instruments they use at their festivals, which they call the Jurupari music. These consist of eight or sometimes twelve pipes, or trumpets, made of bamboos or palm-stems hollowed out, some with trumpet-shaped mouths of bark and with mouth-holes of clay and leaf. Each pair of instruments gives a distinct note, and they produce a rather agreeable concert, something resembling clarionets and bassoons. These instruments, however, are with them such a mystery that no woman must ever see them, on pain of death. They are always kept in sone igaripe, at a distance from the maloca [house], whence they are brought on particular occasions: when the sound of them is heard approaching, every woman retires into the woods, or into some adjoining shed, which they generally have near, and remains invisible till after the ceremony is over, when the instruments are taken away to their hiding-place, and the women come out of their concealment. Should any female be supposed to have seen them, either by accident or design, she is invariably executed, generally by poison, and a father will not hesitate to sacrifice his daughter, or a husband his wife, on such an occasion.

You’d be hard pressed to come up with a mate choice explanation for a practice such as this that makes any sense at all, I think.

This is a pattern I have discussed previously (many times), noting numerous male cults where many of the most elaborate musical instruments and works of art are made by men in private and kept secret entirely from the women and other uninitiated individuals.

Artwork from the New Guinea Ilahita Arapesh’s men house. Left: “Nggwal Bunafunei statue, showing a piglet drinking from the penis of a cult spirit while the mother pig looks on from above (1971)” and Right: “The door to inner sanctum of the Nggwal Bunafunei spirit house stands open, due to the temporary removal of the sacred pipes and drums (1971)”. From  The Cassowary’s Revenge  (1997) by Donald Tuzin.

Artwork from the New Guinea Ilahita Arapesh’s men house. Left: “Nggwal Bunafunei statue, showing a piglet drinking from the penis of a cult spirit while the mother pig looks on from above (1971)” and Right: “The door to inner sanctum of the Nggwal Bunafunei spirit house stands open, due to the temporary removal of the sacred pipes and drums (1971)”. From The Cassowary’s Revenge (1997) by Donald Tuzin.

Anthropologist Herbert Basedow writes that across a number of Australian Aboriginal societies,

When some of the most sacred ceremonies are performed, the oldest “relatives” of the presiding Knaninja [ceremony leader] often construct a coloured drawing upon the consecrated ground…Once constructed, this drawing, which is known as “Etominja” is zealously guarded by one of the old men. If, peradventure, an unauthorized person happens upon the sanctified place, he is killed and buried immediately beneath the spot occupied by the design; thereupon the ground is smoothed again and the Etominja re-constructed. Nobody in camp ever hears what became of the person, and should any relative track him in the direction of the area known to be tabooed, he is horror-stricken and runs away.

“If, peradventure, an unauthorized person happens upon the sanctified place, he is killed and buried immediately beneath the spot occupied by the design…” from  The Australian aboriginal  (1925) by Herbert Basedow.

“If, peradventure, an unauthorized person happens upon the sanctified place, he is killed and buried immediately beneath the spot occupied by the design…” from The Australian aboriginal (1925) by Herbert Basedow.

Basedow adds that across Australia, “One thing is always essential and that is that a native performs frequent, prolonged, and reverential ceremonies, remote from the women and children, and in the presence of his tjuringa [sacred objects].”

Hutton Webster’s Primitive Secret Societies (1908) provides an exhaustive ethnographic survey of similar practices from all over the world. Webster writes that, “Everywhere the belief is general among the women and uninitiated children that the elders, the directors of the puberty institution, are in possession of certain mysterious and magical objects, the revelation of which to the novices forms the central and most impressive feature of initiation.”

From  The Australian aboriginal  (1925) by Herbert Basedow.

From The Australian aboriginal (1925) by Herbert Basedow.

Miller, however, criticizes the idea that “art conveys cultural values and socializes the young,” writing that,

The view that art conveys cultural values and socializes the young seems plausible at first glance. It could be called the propaganda theory of art. The trouble with propaganda is that it is usually produced only by large institutions that can pay propagandists. In small prehistoric bands, who would have any incentive to spend the time and energy producing group propaganda? It would be an altruistic act in the technical biological sense: a behavior with high costs to the individual and diffuse benefits to the group. Such altruism is not usually favored by evolution.

The answer to Miller’s question—who produces the propaganda?—is quite clear in the ethnographic data: the old men do. The men’s cult examples show how art and music can be used as tools of social control. However, I would agree with Miller that exhibiting skills in domains such as art and music can be effective signals—sometimes perhaps for choosing a mate—but more often I think they act as signals or focal points for coalition partners to coordinate, or allow one to gain status within social hierarchies.

For a semi-related case, among the Agta hunter-gatherers of the Philippines, better story tellers have greater reproductive success. However, this is not due to mate choice—for one, Agta first marriages are usually arranged with a bride price, and two, we have a more plausible mechanism—anthropologist Daniel Smith and his colleagues write that,

Of these stories, around 70% were classified as pertaining to ‘social behaviour’ (i.e. prescribing social norms or coordinating behavioural expectations), more than any other category. Therefore, storytelling in general may provide a mechanism to coordinate behaviour and expectations, transmit social information and promote cooperation in hunter-gatherer camps…It is possible that by performing an important social function skilled storytellers receive increased social support from others, which has been associated with increased fitness among numerous primate species, consistent with the fact that they are preferred social partners. Supporting this interpretation, we also demonstrate that skilled storytellers are more likely to be recipients of resource transfers in the experimental game.

Good story tellers increase cooperation but also reap individual benefits themselves. More coercively, but somewhat analogously, the art and music produced in the men’s cult confer status on the older men who monopolize access to them, and they often receive meat or other resources or support from the younger males throughout initiation. At the same time, the initiations provide a form of social regulation and operate essentially as both a school and a legal system in ways that may have some prosocial benefits. Initiates are often taught, “Obedience to the elders or the tribal chiefs, bravery in battle, liberality towards the community, independence of maternal control, steadfast attachment to the traditional customs and the established moral code,” and many other rules or skills. They often include a healthy mix of self-interested demands from the elders and instruction in genuinely practical skills or prosocial rules. Among the Kurnai of New Guinea, “boys are told to obey the old men, to live peaceably with their friends, and share all they have with them, to avoid interfering with the girls and married women, and to observe the food restrictions.”

Let us return now to Alfred Wallace and his description of Uaupés native practices. Wallace writes that,

They have many other prejudices with regard to women. They believe that if a woman, during her pregnancy, eats of any meat, any other animal partaking of it will suffer: if a domestic animal or tame bird, it will die; if a dog, it will be for the future incapable of hunting; and even a man will ever after be unable to shoot that particular kind of game. An Indian, who was one of my hunters, caught a fine cock of the rock, and gave it to his wife to feed, but the poor woman was obliged to live herself on cassava-bread and fruits, and abstain entirely from all animal food, peppers, and salt, which it was believed would cause the bird to die; notwithstanding all precautions, however, the bird did die, and the woman got a beating from her husband, because he thought she had not been sufficiently rigid in her abstinence from the prohibited articles.

Considering the ethnographic evidence he compiled, perhaps Wallace rejected an emphasis on female choice due to “the necessary weakness, comparatively, of female selection, owing to the very limited range of her choice.” Wallace wrote that in 1892 in the context of birds, but it is perhaps more accurately applied to human evolutionary history, and captures the spirit of his ethnographic findings. He referenced this in his 1893 interview discussing his reason for supporting women’s suffrage, saying that,

I believe that this improvement will be effected through the agency of female choice in marriage. As things are, women are constantly forced into marriage for a bare living or a comfortable home. They have practically no choice in the selection of their partners and the fathers of their children, and so long as this economic necessity for marriage presses upon the great bulk of women, men who are vicious, degraded, of feeble intellect and unsound bodies, will secure wives, and thus often perpetuate their infirmities and evil habits.

Now, remember how Miller said “If Darwin had found that male animals choose female mates selectively and that many females are highly ornamented to attract male attention, would Wallace and his contemporaries have been so skeptical about sexual choice? I think not.”?

Well, let me draw your attention to this quote from Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man: “Man is more powerful in body and mind than woman, and in the savage state he keeps her in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal; therefore it is not surprising that he should have gained the power of selection.” And even where Darwin argues that female choice plays a role in ‘savage’ societies, he primarily cites examples of resistance to coercive marriage practices in small-scale societies, such as girls refusing arranged marriage (in some cases being beaten in the process), hiding in the woods to avoid being captured, and seeking out some alternative protector to avoid someone worse. So, both Darwin and Wallace actually agree that female choice has been quite constrained across human societies, though with Darwin also arguing it has been less constrained “than might have been expected.”

Now, while this post has focused largely on the art and music produced within the men’s cults (both because it is a topic of interest to me and because it provides such a compelling counter to the mate choice explanation, in my view), there are of course numerous roles that art and music can play across societies, and they really can’t be boiled down to one particular instinct, practice, or selection pressure. This table from the Natural History of Song project indicates many of the different contexts where music tends to be made across societies:

tabl1.PNG
Table from  ‘A natural history of song’  by Mehr  et al . Music is produced in many diverse contexts across societies, pointing to multiple pathways where one can gain status or fitness benefits from making it. Music may be particularly effective or important for courting in some societies, but this is only one of dozens of contexts where music occurs around the world.

Table from ‘A natural history of song’ by Mehr et al. Music is produced in many diverse contexts across societies, pointing to multiple pathways where one can gain status or fitness benefits from making it. Music may be particularly effective or important for courting in some societies, but this is only one of dozens of contexts where music occurs around the world.

Anthropologist Stacy B. Schaefer writes that “In Huichol society the women are the weavers, and according to social standards, becoming a weaver is considered the destiny of all “good women.”” Domestic crafts such as basketry, textiles and pottery are often domains where women produce artistic designs across societies, and the designs sometimes reflect larger social beliefs or practices, and can be infused with religious meaning. Schaefer herself spent five years in an apprenticeship under a Huichol shamaness learning weaving practices, and describes the religious significance of some the designs Huichol women make,

There are various ways in which women express through their designs the messages they receive from the gods. After ingesting peyote women look forward to receiving beautiful designs, and many consume peyote as a kind of vision quest to reach closer to the gods, to communicate with them and see them in their brilliant splendor. Peyote induced designs are believed by Huichols to have been sent from the gods and are sacred.

Huichol peyote design. From the volume  Art in small-scale societies  (1993)

Huichol peyote design. From the volume Art in small-scale societies (1993)

Anthropologist Donald H. Rubenstein describes the function of ceremonial textiles called machiy in the Yap Outer Islands of Micronesia, writing that,

Traditionally they were woven for chiefs, and were exchanged within the sawei system of chiefly tribute and wealth among the islands of the Yapese “Empire”. The Western Caroline Islanders consider them “sacred” (ye tab) owing to their association with chieftainship, and by implication, their association with the guardian spirits of chiefly power and social well-being of the island. Women of certain house estates were obliged to weave one textile annually for donation to the chief. The weaver would present the finished work to her village chief, who would lay the textile upon the “spirit-shelf” (fangel yalus) of his house as an offering for the ancestral spirits of the house estate. After four days, during which prayers would be made over the textiles, the village chief would then present it to the island chief, the paramount authority on the island, who would similarly honor it with a second four-day observance on the spirit-shelf of his own house. The textile would then be carefully folded, wrapped, and stored in the chief’s house.

"Brocaded end of  machiy  by Josephina Waisemal," from  Art in small-scale societies  (1993)

"Brocaded end of machiy by Josephina Waisemal," from Art in small-scale societies (1993)

In describing the textile designs, Rubenstein discusses how, “the woven designs conform to a particular symmetry based on center-marking and successive halving, and how this symmetry is replicated in other art and architectural forms, and is represented also in the groundplan of the village.”

As we can see, art and music are often produced in a social context that goes far beyond individual attempts at mating. Art and music production may potentially act as signals for individuals who are particularly competent or productive, but this need not—and frequently does not—take place in the context of choosing mates.