Sing, Prance, Ruffle, Bellow, Bristle and Ooze

Armand Marie Leroi

  • The Handicap Principle by Amotz Zahavi and Avishag Zahavi
    Oxford, 286 pp, £18.99, October 1997, ISBN 0 19 510035 2
  • The Social Animal by W.G. Runciman
    HarperCollins, 230 pp, £14.99, February 1998, ISBN 0 00 255862 9

For the past three years, the London School of Economics has been holding a seminar series, or rather a salon, snappily titled Darwin@LSE. These seminars are always invigorating, and never more so than one evening this February when W.G. Runciman urged the necessity of refounding sociology along Darwinian lines. Weary of such pronouncements though they might be, even the most sceptical sociologists could not have failed to realise that here was a serious challenge to theoretical orthodoxy. For the speaker was no renegade entomologist, but the author of A Treatise of Social Theory, arguably the most deeply considered and formidable exposition of historical sociology in recent times and one, moreover, that rests on a Darwinian view of society. But as Runciman, the most courtly of men, argued his case with wit, clarity and the utmost intellectual candour, I found myself engaged with a nagging question: who is his tailor?

For he was not dressed as were the other academics present, what with the faultless lines of his suit, the softness of the fabric (visible at 40 feet), the dove grey shirt, the soberly elegant tie, and all of it without stain or crease, suggesting another dozen of each in a walk-in closet at home. Quietly and unmistakably, that suit spoke of money and influence.

Why did Runciman wear it? Because he had evidently come to the LSE directly from his important day job in the City, and suits of understated perfection are the necessary uniform of such men.

Why, though, are such suits necessary at all? This question was answered in 1890 by Thorstein Veblen in his Theory of the Leisure class, where he had something to say about men’s dress as about virtually all human artefacts:

Much of the charm that invests the patent leather shoe, the stainless linen, the lustrous cylindrical hat, and the walking stick, which so greatly enhances the native dignity of a gentleman, comes of their pointedly suggesting that the wearer cannot when so attired bear a hand in any employment that is directly and immediately of any human use.

Beautiful clothes are the most obvious form of what Veblen called conspicuous waste. It is not my intention, however, to pillory Runciman’s taste in clothes, for, as Veblen shows at exhaustive length, conspicuous waste forms part of almost any aesthetic decision; it is almost, but not quite, the whole of beauty. A life without conspicuous waste is hardly imaginable, and certainly not one worth leading. The curious thing is that animals think so, too.

Take stotting. A troop of gazelles which has just detected the presence of a predator might be expected to slink quietly off into the undergrowth, or perhaps bound gracefully in the opposite direction. Not a bit of it Instead, the antelopes bark, thump the ground with their hooves and stot, i.e. jump up and down while displaying their white rumps and whirling black tails to their aggressor. Only when the predator begins its strike do the gazelles pick up and run. This is the sort of thing that Amotz and Avishag Zahavi, two biologists from Tel-Aviv University, call a ‘handicap’: a behaviour or structure which seemingly defies Darwinian rationality. A stotting gazelle wastes energy that might surely be better used in flight; it also draws attention to itself precisely when discretion would seem to be the better part of valour. Such handicaps are apparently ubiquitous when one creature attempts to convey information to another. The dawn chorus may enchant or irritate at 4 a.m. but, if it irritates you, spare a thought for the singers, who are exhausting themselves in the effort. As is the kudu, when it wields its enormous horns, or the lyrebird dragging its fantastic tail, or the Great Bustard, in its elaborate dance to entice a mate or deter a rival; everywhere, when animals signal they are seemingly wasteful of their time and energy and running the risk of death. That, say the Zahavis in The Handicap Principle, is the whole point. When animals (and plants and fungi) sing, prance, ruffle, bellow, bristle or ooze, they are advertising their own Darwinian fitness, enticing those who desire to mate, deterring those who seek to subjugate, and dissuading those who simply see them as food. When stotting, the insouciant gazelle signals to the predator that it has vigour to spare, and will almost certainly elude an attempted strike; far better that the canny predator should try another antelope stotting with less conviction, or not at all. It’s all pure Veblen. The elaborate signals displayed by so many creatures are conspicuous waste, the biological analogue of any luxury good: useless, even harmful, but an indispensable index to money in the bank.

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