Finding Function in “Wasteful” Human Activities

April 3, 2006 | By | Reply More

In 1997, Amotz and Avishag Zahavi published a remarkable book:  The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin’s Puzzle.  The theme of the book, substantiated by the authors by use of dozens of case studies of animals in the wild, is twofold:

  • In order to be effective, signals have to be reliable, and
  • In order to be reliable, signals have to be costly.

Signals have to be costly to keep cheaters from successfully using them.  Thus the name of this principle:  The “handicap principle.”  Quite often, what appears to be wasteful extravagance (the classic is the peacock’s tail) actually serves as a powerful and hard-to-fake signal.  To have survived dragging around a beautiful (but also heavy and expensive to maintain) tail demonstrates that an animal is has a lot going for it and that it would therefore make a good mate.

For those of us who recognize Darwin’s theories of natural selection and sexual selection to be elegant and powerful, the Handicap Principle dovetails beautifully.  Whereever human animals tend to use expensive displays, those displays might constitute fitness signals to enhance either mate selection or social status. 

Potential applications: 

  • Rampant conspicuous consumption by humans (clothes, cars, houses, “obsessive” lawn care, plastic surgery, jewelry).
  • Oxymoronic public proclamations (e.g., “A Virgin had a baby”).
  • Time and energy spent to excel as a musician, writer, athlete or poet.

In The Mating Mind (2001), Geoffrey Miller details the application of the handicap principle to numerous aesthetic human activivies, attributing the energies we spend doing such things to sexual selection:  we invest lots of energy and resources in numerous activities (many of them with no apparent payoff) (e.g., the arts and, yes, blogging) in order to make more impressive displays of ourselves to potential mates.

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Category: Evolution

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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