Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sexual Selection is Fun

I'm not a usual promoter of cute online toys, and I've grown increasingly distrustful of online networking sites like Facebook that, as Andy pointed out, seemed designed to infantilze otherwise productive members of society. But this one's different, because it's educational. It's also pretty funny.

Courtesy of Ralph Haygood, I bring you Evarium on Facebook.

Evarium is a sexual selection simulator, bringing to to view one of the more interesting, and misunderstood, of the mechanisms originally proposed by Darwin for explaining the incredible diversity of life we see all around us, and a pretty good demonstration of the fact that God need not have an inordinate fondness for pretty colored, drag-prone Quetzals, so long as somewhere there is a female Quetzal that finds those feathers just irresistible.

Though we think about adaptation as a product of post-Darwinian thought, the idea of adaptation long pre-dates Darwin, as evidenced by the writings of thinkers like Aristotle, William Paley, Darwin's own grandfather Erasmus Darwin , and Empedocles, my favorite and most forgotten (and most spectacularly wrong) evolutionary theorist.

All of these thinkers pointed out that, when you look at the world around us, organisms seem to be remarkably well suited to the tasks they do in life. But there are some obvious, and often beautiful, exceptions to this rule, such as the tail feathers of the peacock or the elaborate antlers of some deer, that seem so over the top that you have to wonder why peacocks aren't all eaten on the spot by hungry lions (or whatever). I can tell you from personal experience that they are not hard to catch, are terrible fliers, and are very, very tasty in a stew (thank you, Chinese field assistants for that culinary adventure).

The answer, while it may seem obvious to us now, was one of Darwin's great coups: Only in the very long-run is the survival of a trait a function of the survival of a species. As long as your pretty feathers on average net you more offspring (your sexy factor minus your eaten-by-lion factor) than the other birds in the single's bar (called a "lek" by biologists), your species is going to see a lot more long tails in the future.

What wasn't appreciated even by Darwin, who considered sexual selection to be an important, but still relatively minor contributor to organismal diversity, is just how much organismal change can be driven by sexual selection alone. Ralph's simulator makes this clear in a way that is easy to understand, fun to play with, and a lot more attractive on your profile page than that stupid aquarium. I encourage you all to take a look (and while you're at it, take a gander at the Random Questions section of the Evarium page).

I should also note that every time you add this, just a little more money from the free market goes to science, a field that just keeps losing in the oh-so-important battle in our government to make cooler ways of blowing people up.

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