How big are your feathers? The last dating app you’ll ever need.
Modern dating is brutal. How can we gauge our potential with so much conflicting advice on what the opposite sex wants? Do women want a caring or a creative man? Is it possible to be both or is it better to provide protection? This post gives the backdrop to the last dating app you’ll ever need, boiling down the complex riddle of your character into the one thing a peahen needs to know — how big are your feathers?
In just ten questions the quiz will evaluate your personality to establish how big your plumage would be if you were a peacock. It gauges traits such as how you feel about love and marriage, how competitive you are, your attitudes towards violence, socialising, creativity and eating and crunches the data into a single value. To understand this it is vital to know why peacocks evolved such a cumbersome yet beautiful mating strategy.
Peacocks with bigger feathers are more attractive to potential mates. This much is obvious, not only from observing peacocks but because the phenomenon is common throughout the animal world. Many animals have an apparently useless appendage — called an ornament — the only purpose of which is to attract mates. A flap of saggy skin around the throat, called a dewlap, is a major turn on for turkeys and some species of lizard, especially tree-dwelling anoles. Some people have argued that human breasts may have evolved for this purpose. But this commonplace fact flummoxed scientists for many years. It took some time to explain it in evolutionary terms.
Bigger feathers provide peacocks access to the comeliest peahens. There’s no mystery there. But if that’s so then why don’t all peacocks have big feathers? The whole point of evolution is that when a species stumbles over an advantageous trait, the members with the trait produce more offspring, and they also inherit the trait. The better the trait, the better its representation in future generations. If the big-feathered peacocks do best with the ladies, why aren’t peacock populations overrun with their big-feathered offspring?
Sexual reproduction is a game of roulette. Take Chinese basketball player Yao Ming. His feet barely leave the floor when he slam dunks and one look at his parents explains his colossal height. Both his mum and dad are more than six feet tall. But there was no guarantee they would produce such a tall son. Height is a strongly heritable characteristic. You can eat a hearty breakfast every day, but unless you got a good stash of the right genes, you just won’t grow that tall. But there was just as much chance that Yao Ming’s parents would not produce such a tall child. When humans reproduce, half of each parent’s genes are selected at random and spliced into a new, unique set of genes. Both of Yao Ming’s parents would have carried a suite of height-promoting genes but there was no guarantee that all of those genes would have coalesced in the embryo that would grow into the towering basketball star. Random selection produced the optimum blend of genes for height.
But genes are only as effective as the nutrients that nourish them. A person’s genome might limit their maximum height, but they will not reach that height if they don’t eat enough of the right food growing up. We need sugars and fats to fuel growth and proteins to provide the building blocks. If Yao Ming had a smaller appetite growing up, he might never have grown so tall. But appetite can also be affected by the genes we inherit. As can the ability to obtain food in times of scarcity.
Peacocks’ feathers are a gauge of the overall quality of its genes. This is known as the genic capture hypothesis and recent studies have provided strong proof in its support. A big plumage shows that the peacock was able to fight for a bigger share of food than its rivals. It shows that the peacock is wily enough to outwit predators even with its absurdly cumbersome feathers. And it advertises an attractive absence of bad genes. A few years ago Alyson J. Lumley and Matthew J. G. Gage led a group of scientists who reported the findings of a decade-long study. One set of beetles reproduced in the normal way — females selected the male with the strongest courtship rituals. In the other group sexual selection was quashed. Each female had just one male suitor to “choose” from. The two sets of beetles reproduced this way for 50 generations before the researchers switched tack. At that point they inbred the beetles, mating brothers with their sisters, until the populations died out. The sexually selective group endured 20 generations of inbreeding while the other group died out after just 10 generations. This is the evolutionary benefit of the sexual game of roulette. Blending half of each parent’s genes at random occasionally sacrifices good genes but it also flushes out the bad ones. The courtship rituals used by each species demonstrate the average quality of the suitor’s genes. If you have a crap mating dance, it means you have crap genes which are better purged from the gene pool.
Genes which now make us unhealthy might once have been very helpful. For example a growing number of genes have been linked with obesity. Our tongues signal our brains to reward us whenever they detect beneficial nutrients in the food we eat. Some people have very sensitive brain circuitry, meaning that a small amount of nutrient, such as sugar, gives them a big pleasure hit as their reward. In other people this circuitry is quite dull, meaning that they have to eat more of that nutrient to get the same hit. Our genes can influence the sensitivity of the circuit, for example by directing brain cells to make more or fewer receptors, the proteins which detect signals from neighbouring brain cells. Nowadays, genes which dull the circuitry can lead to obesity, but thousands of years ago they would have driven our ancestors to seek food when it wasn’t readily available from every corner shop. Genes affect our appetites and a big plumage advertises the peacock’s ability to get enough food.
Love and Marriage
The whole point of those feathers is for the peacock to make babies with a peahen, making the quiz questions on love and marriage pretty self-explanatory. A big plumage shows that the peacock has a strong set of genes, which entitles him to a peahen with similarly good genetic stock. Consequently the offspring they produce will also have good genes, which will further their genetic legacy. Those peachicks will also be of strong genetic stock, and will hence produce a large number of healthy grandpeachicks, provided no fatal accidents befall them. In short the peacock with the biggest plumage is likely to preside over the largest number of descendants, thus winning the biological numbers game.
The quiz question about bricks gauges creativity, which can have an enormous influence over a person’s genetic legacy. A common device employed by creativity researchers is to ask participants how many different uses they can dream up for a brick. Individuals who can think of many different uses are said to be divergent thinkers, which many researchers believe is a core component of creativity. But how does this benefit our genetic legacy? Think of the great technocrats of the modern age, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, all of them ludicrously wealthy, all of them designed products meeting the gold standard for the definition of creativity: novel and useful. Of course not everyone who identifies as creative will enjoy such success but those who do have the financial security to attract top drawer mates.
It’s controversial but violence can positively influence an individual’s genetic legacy. Data have been collected from two hunter gatherer tribes, the Ecuadorian Waorani and the Yanomami, whose Amazonian home straddles the border between Venezuela and Brazil. The Controversial anthropologist Napolean Chagnon reported that the more rival tribesmen killed by Yanomami warriers, the more children they ended up siring. But Stephen Beckerman and Kathryn Long found the opposite in the Waorani people, in which more peaceable members produced the most progeny. Their hypothesis: you need to broker the odd peace deal. The Yanomami tribes go a decade or two between wars, so they can raise children in comparative peace, but ceasefires are rarely brokered between Waorani tribes, so potential fathers are constantly wiped out.
Our ability to seize power has obvious bearing on genetic legacy. Among wolves alphas eat first and get the best mates in return for protecting the pack. This corresponds with the quiz question gauging competitive zeal. The relationship between dominance, status and competitive spirit in human societies is vastly more complex but the same basic principles apply. Again, Gates and Zuckerberg are and Steve Jobs was super competitive. It puts inches on your feathers.
Humans are social creatures. We have evolved to feel empathy in order that we can cooperate to survive in conditions of scarce food. If I cannot eat the entire mammoth I’ve just killed before it goes off, I might as well share it with a fellow clansman, provided that he returns the favour next time I’m on my uppers. The stronger the community my sociable spirit enables me to forge, the better the insurance plan for my dynasty.
The reality is that our attractiveness to potential lovers cannot be reduced to a single value. Humans vary in their tastes as well as their motivations for dating. Also there’s no obligation for us to follow the biological imperatives that delivered us here. Growing numbers of people are choosing not to have children, making the issue of genetic stock irrelevant. On the other hand you have to have that spark. We’ve all at some point longed to feel attracted to someone who ticks all of our boxes except the all important chemistry box. Whether or not we want to make babies with someone, these evolutionary forces play a huge part in the dating game.