Lately I have developed some fascination for evolutionary psychology. Funny thing is, I don’t even believe in evolution. Perhaps my fascination stems from the fact that I’ve never really studied the details of the subject and so am now finding it all new and interesting, or maybe it’s simply because of the sheer audacity with which they tell stories that supposedly happened millions of years ago. Often they tell about something that happened to some people,say, thirty seven thousand three Hundred years ago at the beginning of winter, they tell you what the people were thinking at the time(seriously), the decisions they took, where they migrated to, etc. all the while maintaining a very straight face. For me, stuff like that cracks me up more than some of the best comedies out there (but I guess that has something to do with being bookworm-ish, so don’t blame me if it doesn’t work for you).
I am currently reading Geoffrey Miller’s, “The Mating Mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature”. In it Dr. Miller, amongst many other things, tried to explain how the Fulani, a Negroid race, managed to evolve physical features that are in sharp contrast with that of the other Negroid races. Caucasian features he called them. He was referring to the Fulani’s long pointed noses, their relatively thin lips, sometimes straight hair, and their lighter skin.
But before I explain what Miller said, let me first put his book in perspective. The Mating Mind is a book about the theory of Sexual Selection. Miller used this theory to patch up some of the many loopholes left behind by the theory of Natural Selection. The theory of Natural Selection (sometimes described as ‘survival of the fittest’), was first proposed by the English scientist Charles Darwin and it is the theory upon which the entire narrative of evolution is built. According to the theory, life began with simple unicellular organisms (stay with me please, it gets simplerafter this) and in their battle to survive against predators, against the weather, they develop new skills, new features, and over time they essentially transmute into more complex beings. Man, according to that theory, was a part of that process – a culmination of sorts. Therefore every organ and every skill that we have today, are just positive side effects of the many years of fierce struggle for survival that man as a specie has undergone. The trouble with this assertion is the fact that there are many skills that we have today that cannot be explained by the Survivalist argument. Take painting for instance, how could it have helped man to survive? Or poetry, or music, or comedy, etc., these skills obviously evolved to meet other needs that are not survival related. It is these loopholes that Miller attempted to fillusing the theory of Sexual Selection.
Sexual Selection is mainly concerned with how organisms choose their mating (sex) partners. According to Miller, some of the traits we have today evolved as a result of sexual selection and not natural selection. He cites examples all over the book to support this. He states for instance, that the average male (human) sex organ is about 3 to 4 times the size of that of our evolutionary ancestors – the Apes (including gorillas). I have to confess here that I was absolutely astounded by this discovery because ordinarily, I would’ve thought that it would be the other way around. According to this Miller guy, the only thing that could make this possible is sexual selection i.e. the preference of women for men with longer, bigger, sex organs (I know this is all beginning to sound uncouth but I promise it’ll soon be over. Am not enjoying it either). So for thousands of years women generally allowed only men with…u know what…mate with them (obviously rape hadn’t been invented yet). Hence they had more opportunity to perpetuate their genes and so over thousands of years ensuing generations gradually evolved the right sizes of sex organs to make them desirable to their women folk. So that’s how Sexual Selection is supposed to work. And it is supposed to be an even stronger force in shaping the evolution of species than Natural Selection. Because according to Miller, when the two collide, sexual selection takes precedence. He gave the example of the peacock with its very colorful tail: the colorful tail is supposed to have evolved because of the peahens’ (female peacock) preference for peacocks with colorful tails. So even though a dull tail that blends with the environment is better for the ultimate survival of the peacock (from predator attacks), they went ahead to evolve colorful tails – at great danger to themselves –just so they could satisfy the sexual yearnings of their females (isn’t that romantic?).
So the same applies to the Fulani. Miller used the Gerewol festival to buttress his argument. The Gerewol, is a very ancient tradition of the Fulani.Today it is only practiced by a very tiny segment in very remote locations (thanks to Dan Fodio, Umar Tall, Modibbo Muhammad al-Khobariy, and all the other Modibbe, Mallum’en, Shehus, Sekous, etc. that stood their ground, stamped their feet, and did everything it took to ensure that only the good cultures survive). It’s actually a love festival that lasts several days. It involves a lot of dancing and flirting between men and women. The climax of the festival is a beauty pageant (oh yes! Fulanis invented that) with a slight twist. At the Gerewol, it’s the males that actually put on makeup and wear clothes that accentuate their beauty and line up to be appraised by girls. The winner, sort of like the prom king (yeah, yeah, we invented that too), can get any girl that he desires.Each of the girls then picks a guy they fancy. The selection criteria are always the same: long pointed nose, big eyes, tall slender frame, etc. The pairs then retire to a night of raunchy passion.
The pregnancies and the “love children” that result from the ‘one night stands’ do not carry any stigma in society. So only the guys with the desirable features get a mating partner and hence more opportunity to spread their genes. Repeat that over many generations and what you get is a whole ethnic group spread all over West Africa with the same features that used to turn-on some teenage girls many centuries ago.