Monthly Archives: December 2011

Sexual selection (part 1)

Sexual selection: It does all seem to get over analyzed, with the general confusing over how much the social/external influence directs our evolutionary makeup. Less than we realize I reckon. This post** outlines how some of this confusion has got us through to today´s uncertain times regarding mate selection. In anthropology, 20th century theory was dominated by forms of functionalist thinking which saw social behavior reflecting or sustaining social order or collectivity, with less weight (understanding) placed upon legitimate biological practicalities of evolution.

Two competing, yet comparative instincts humans have evolved through their increased complexity are the sexual instincts that drive copulation (finding a partner to mate with) and the way we create, expose and decorate our bodies to apparently achieve such results. Both factors (one, we could crudely call biological, the other social) are part of sexual selection and, whilst not mutually inclusive, are fundamental to understanding the modern commercial preoccupation for “the ideal body” (whatever that is…I just heard about this reading high-end lit. in the dentists waiting room last week).

For the male, I think it is unquestionable that evolution has favored toughness those with hard to hide expressions of physical condition. Size, energy, loudness etc have been selected ahead of feebleness. But for the female, physical signs have not been allowed such scope of outward diversity due to the demanding task of pregnancy and motherhood. It would make sense to think that a female with a large arse and thighs (vs. skinny one) would indicate too much processed food breeding potential and proficiency as carrying potential genes forward. But then again, not all females are like that, so there are other factors. One that has become popular with evolutionary psychologists is the idea of “developmental stability”. Not just the arse then. This relates to the ability to change outward expression of fertility and health by aiming for symmetry in appearance, even if the genes and environment select against this. This is related to these odd studies you read about whereby people look at faces of all sorts of individuals and pick the ones they are most/least attracted to based upon nose/cheek/eye/chin lines etc.

Bodily symmetry has of course been a major factor in aesthetical expression of the human form throughout our history. But whatever the size and shape, these factors are biologically important to mate selection. So the question may be asked for today´s male or female out to find a partner or a one night liaison:

  • “What are these developmental symmetries that can help me out here?!”
  • “Never mind your evolutionary ranting, I just want to know how to get laid, and whether or not it is the bodily characteristics me or her I should be concerned about!”

Well, if I knew the answer, I would be like Tucker Max pretends to be. There is no answer of course, other than the fact that sexual selection a mutual choice (mostly). And that mutual choice is based upon a hugely broad variation of indicators of what fitness entails. It can be be boiled down to the level of tradeoff one places upon a certain category versus the other, which again is vastly diverse. If sexual fitness was biologically determined to favour certain factors like breast size, hip width or height, then we would all be the same. We are not, which is an indicator that humans get what they can use strategic selection based upon whatever they can get  a combination of socially and biologically influenced understandings of fertility and health. Big, or perhaps solid and meaty arses have long been a feature of the developmental success of our species, and the trend today towards stripping away the flesh to reveal bony, flat rumps is in fact more of a reversal of the evolutionary path back to our tree-dwelling days (minus all the hair). As far as breasts go, size has usually been linked to nutritional wellbeing in terms of fat reserves being stored there, but also as an indicator of fertility. In this sense, we would expect large breasts in affluent societies but the huge variation in size is perhaps an indicator of too much pointless aerobic exercise of other more influential factors in male selection, like brains.

The human body has successfully evolved to survive. We don´t have to worry too much about selecting a mate who may not have the capacity to survive, with few exceptions. Sexual selection has become more complex as our brains have developed, and as our societies have expanded. No longer do we have to make do with the odd new mate appearing on the horizon, unless we live in the Arctic. No longer do we have to use violence. No longer do we have to grunt better than the other hairy dude living in the next cave. We have language, we have the cognitive skills and intuition to make wrong choices and get divorced make the selective process a lottery more nuanced, more interesting and broader than that of our ancestors. But we still focus on tits ´n arses, girls still check out the shoulders, arms and hips. What´s up then?. The more we are told that aesthetic composition is the key to successful mating, the less we seem to adhere to the factors that have played a pivotal role over the course of our life histories.

Humans get sexually aroused rather quickly, and this is our downfall usually precedes the time it takes for emotional connection, which, in most cases is the determinant factor in (long-term) mate selection. How many times do you hear, see or think “he´s in it for the body” or “that has to be to suit the image”?. Like it or not, we are rather plastic beneath our cloak of egalitarianism and humility. We wish society well, and believe personality is the key to harmonious relations and coherence in life, yet still we are genetically programmed to display our (perceived) sexual prowess and select mates who fill these desires. Be truthful now!. Science does not usually lie, it is as objective as we allow ourselves to believe it ahead of the subjectivity that allows our ideological meandering to think we are an advanced monogamous species.

So, what the hell has this to do with modern consumer society trying desperately how to change our genetic tendencies?. We are perhaps guided by moralities and try our best to adhere to principles of good faith, family bonds and unity. But we find our modern complexities in constant flux regarding social, psychological, biological and physical frailties and the need to place more or less weight on the factors (they say, we say, we feel etc) that initiate our selection choice for partners.

It is only the media and commercial interests that profit from telling us how we need to manipulate our bodies and buy shit we don´t need through diet and exercise in order to make ourselves more attractive. Save yourself time and think of “being healthy” not as some aspect of social conformity, but as a possibility we have to fulfill our evolutionary potential. Mates will come and go, hearts will be broken, that is just my human nature. The less we stress about it the better. If we think of selection like we think of an episode of Seinfeld, then we understand the blurred nature of reality and entertainment. Just how we “know” what we are attracted to and why is part of our epistemological evolution that is in constant flux, and in constant battle with the pressures we allow ourselves to be influenced by in modern society.

Intelligence, warmth, compassion, humility, humor and lifting kettlebells so on are all parts of physical attractiveness. These qualities are displayed in various ways and will forever be debated through trial and error. Body image through the media and social commentary is part of the objectification of self that is so pervasive in today´s society. But we are reflexive in our mind´s appearance and habituate a body every day in many ways, thus have a capacity to act in non-cognitive ways. Our bodies are in constant motion and move freely beyond the boundaries prescribed by the the subject-object dichotomy that causes so much self-doubt about body image. It is the space we occupy and interact with that determines our consciousness wellbeing, not a static time zone. Sexual selection has many forces at play, but still, take it as a compliment if someone tells you you´ve got a nice arse. I´m sure it´s well meant.

**based upon years of trial and error and the realization that George was smarter than Jerry and Elaine


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What price freedom for West Papua?


Today, December 1st 2011, one of the world´s forgotten tragedies has made the headlines at last. 50 years ago today, the independent nation of West Papua raised its new national flag the Morning Star and sang its new national anthem. Once a Dutch colony, freedom was granted, but short lived. Only months later Indonesia invaded the fledgling nation and began what has been 50 brutal years of killing and oppression. The world has been standing still ever since, with the US, Australia and Britain colluding with successive dictatorial regimes in Indonesia for control over the vast wealths held beneath the fertile soils.

Estimates of those killed range from 100 000 up to 400 000 out of a total population of some 3 million. The scale of the catastrophic conditions within West Papua has been so great due in part to the severe restrictions placed on foreign journalists and aid workers as well as the strategic military and economic collusion between Western global powers and Indonesia. Despite the overwhelming forces against the indigenous population however, the struggle continues to this day.

Why then has the world´s superpowers and nearest regional power Australia turned a blind eye on the pillage and murder of Papua?. The very companies involved in massive resource extraction including Freeport, Rio Tinto and BP are reliant on the Indonesian government maintaining control. When West Papua was threatened with annexation by Indonesia in the early 1960s, a US-led agreement allowed Indonesia to oversee a transitional period whereby a referendum would be held to determine the nation´s future. Meanwhile, Indonesia awarded the rights to mine the land to US company Freeport-McMoran under the guidance of Henry Kissinger, who would later join Freeport’s board. The multimillion-dollar Freeport contract was signed in 1967, albeit sealing the fate of West Papua two years before they were given a vote on whether to remain part of Indonesia.

The UN “Act of Free Choice” referendum required by international law gave every adult Papuan the right to vote to determine their own future. Given that the deal to exploit their resources was signed earlier, this was a vote Indonesia could not lose.The Act saw just 1,025 pre-selected people allowed to vote, out of a population close to 1 million under threat of violence. The US could not afford to see West Papua break free from Indonesia, as secret telegrams from the US Embassy reveal.

“The Act of Free Choice (AFC) in West Irian is unfolding like a Greek tragedy, the conclusion preordained. The main protagonist, the GOI, cannot and will not permit any resolution other than the continued inclusion of West Irian in Indonesia. Dissident activity is likely to increase but the Indonesian armed forces will be able to contain and, if necessary, suppress it”.

Freeport and Rio Tinto collude with the Indonesian military to protect their mining interests and the Australian Government is involved with joint military training exercises with the infamous Kopassus secret police who have been charged with human rights abuses in West Papua. In 2008, the Norwegian government blacklisted Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto because of the environmental damage caused by the company and liquidated its entire $1bn investment for what it claimed was “grossly unethical conduct”.

Mining interests have given international legitimacy to Indonesia’s oppressive colonial rule. It is indeed a sad state of affairs that the very power´s who are perceived to guard the rights of the minority (America, Britain, United Nations) have colluded over decades with an oppressive Indonesian regime who have suppressed the helpless Papuan population in order to maintain control of the enormous natural resources. Perhaps control over natural resources has historically been a battle of exploitation, but today, the fact that it is the US that is the worst perpetrator makes global industrial capital awash with the blood of innocent men, women and children the world over. If people think recent interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have anything to do with human rights and terrorism, think again.

The people of West Papua have been waiting 50 years to have the world respect their most basic of rights – freedom of speech and freedom to determine their own future. There may be hope however, having seen the events unfold in nearby East Timor. Indonesia seems to be heading towards allowing greater autonomy for certain regions, but progress has been slow. With such massive wealth beneath the ground, Papua is the biggest revenue provider for the Indonesian government and with foreign investment controlling much of the mining industry, the drive towards supporting the free will of the Papuans may not come from heads of states anytime soon. President Obama, visiting Indonesia last month, confirmed US support of Indonesian sovereignty over the territory, and even remarked that he was “sure” the Indonesian government had human rights as a high priority.

It can only be hoped that the 50th anniversary of the raising of the Morning Star brings deserved focus back upon West Papua and the calls for justice and freedom for such an oppressed population will not once again be washed away in the blood and silt of colonial oppressors and global economic interests. The diverse, complex and utterly beautiful Papuan region deserves the autonomy to start a new chapter in its tragically short history.

# Thanks to all my friends in the blogosphere for their insights and inspiration. A special mention to NAJ Taylor from the University of Queensland for his outstanding contribution to the complex issues involved in this case.

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Posted by on December 2, 2011 in Anthropology, Thinking


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