Is Sexual Selection Intelligent Guidance? Discuss

So far in human history, Aristotle’s ideas have been broadly influential for vastly longer than anyone else’s…

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Staunch Aristotelians will tell you that there was a strong philosophical break from the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition in the modern era starting with Descartes (who questioned whether any of the sense data we receive is reliable) and then continued through the scientific revolution, Kant, Darwin, and the development of the analytic tradition. Descartes and his descendants are the ones who started the idea that any sort of purpose has to be connected with conscious intelligence; any other natural processes are just the product of mindless, purposeless mechanisms of necessity. This is the “default” view in most debates about purpose in nature (especially since most of the participants tend to be scientifically trained), and inevitably leads to Paleyan design arguments and Intelligent Design. I personally don’t think it’s productive, and going back to an Aristotelian idea of purpose is more interesting (like what we see being discussed in this thread) and promising.


I don’t see why “guidance” makes any sense; I’d call that a linguistic contortion. And I’m not sure what qualifies as a mind. Do all animals have minds? What about plants? Because you could consider evolving features to attract pollinators to be a form of sexual selection. Sure, there are both decisions and preferences involved, but do those involve intelligent guidance by definition? Is every tropism a decision or preference? This is problematic language.

The other piece is that, arguably, much of even human sexual selection is unconscious: we know what we like the look and smell of, but there are reasonably convincing findings about things like pheromones and unconscious cues that are relevant in mate selection…

Agreed: flower colours and shapes are not the results of cognition in any meaningful sense.

Well, you’re describing panpsychism, which asserts exactly that and which describes one of my leanings. No one has ever said that a plant has a mind like a person (I’m ignoring extensive evidence against widespread human intelligence in the world right now), but it seems your rebuttal is to ignore or reject the notion that minds can exist on a continuum. In any case, I tried to be clear that I was talking about animals and that I had “most” sexual selection in mind.

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OH fun topic. The answer is, I think, unequivocally “no”. There are a number of evolutionary mechanisms at play, none of which involve forethought or intelligent guidance.

One is the idea that showy traits signal the condition of males, i.e. that a long showy tail, for example, is correlated with and indicative of various traits that improve fitness - strength, size, etc. The concept is called “honest signalling of condition”. So selection favors a big, showy, and also cumbersome tail as a proxy to signal to potential mates that an individual will be able to defend territory, acquire resources, etc. Females are selected to pick males with big tails, since those males tend to be better able to acquire resources, and therefore have more surviving offspring.

The other side of this is the “sexy son hypothesis”, the idea that showy traits in males and the preference for that trait by females are genetically correlated. This has been documented in various fish, where bright coloration in males is proportional to female preference for bright coloration. So selection operates on a positive feedback loop - more bright colors and a greater preference for bright colors. The end result is strong sexual selection, resulting in offspring that have desirable traits (hence the name of the idea), but it’s just about reproductive success as related to whatever alleles are present; nobody is consciously thinking about how to mate more successfully.

Sure, minds can exist on a continuum. But at some point along that continuum is a line, perhaps a fuzzy one, between a mind and no mind. Where do you put that point? Apparently, you put it between organisms and rocks. Of course some versions of panpsychism credit the rocks with minds too, so I can’t be sure.

Your answer isn’t clear. Do insects have minds? Do plants? Now it seems to me that intelligent guidance of sexual selection require that the organism is aware that there’s a purpose his or her preference beyond “I like purple”, and that no examples in nature rise beyond that level. Most don’t even attain that. I ask again: is every tropism a decision or preference?

It’s not supposed to be. I don’t care where the “point” is, fuzzy or not. I already equivocated by focusing on animals and I already said I’m inclined toward panpsychism. Sorry.

Not to me. “Aware” is not a requirement, hence my reference to “competence without comprehension.” YMMV.

If we use humans as an illustrative example, I’d say that sexual selection is one of our actions where our intelligence is most regularly thrown out the window.


Well, in humans, at least over the last 100,000 years, @nlents and @GutsickGibbon wouldn’t you agree that sexual selection probably wasn’t ever important? Is there any literature on this?

I suspect that any direction to sexual selection has not been stable or global, so it ended up being irrelevant.

Yes, we seem to have quite different notions of what “intelligent guidance” means. If, as you imply, every tropism can be called intelligence, then I suppose much in evolution, far beyond sexual selection, can be considered intelligently guided. I just don’t see the use of that definition, as intelligence seems to have lost any meaning.

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I don’t know. Bird intelligence is quite fascinating, at least to an outsider like me. Perhaps those within the field, like yourself, have a different view. I’ve seen ravens, parrots, and other species display what I would call a much higher level of intelligence than many would give them credit for.

At that point, we might as well ask what differentiates our mental processes from the actions of plants. I would think the hummingbird is much closer to our side of the intelligence spectrum.

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IIRC, some theorists suggest that our massively overdeveloped intelligence arose thru sexual selection. The ability to do differential calculus otherwise provides little survival value.

That might just be wishful thinking on the part of the nerdy eggheads that tend to come up with such ideas, however.

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The opposite, I believe. It was my understanding that sexual selection is the leading hypothesis for the phenotypic differences that vary by biogeographical ancestry. The differences I mean are in facial features, body hair coverage, texture, and thickness, and so on. This does not include skin tone, of course, but sexual selection could have also been at play there in a reinforcing role. But I haven’t read about this stuff in a while so I could be out of date.


Yes but this is obviously a spandrel. Doing calculus wasn’t the adaptation. Calculation and pattern recognition were the adaptations, and then those skills merged with language and were then swept up in the gale force winds of cultural evolution (evolution at “warp speed”), we get all kinds of abilities that would never have otherwise flowed from the selective pressures in the ancestral environment of evolutionary adaptedness, as its called.

Edit: Apologies for the rambling run-on sentence


Yes, many corvids and some parrots seem to be very smart. But does that mean that they’re exercising “intelligent guidance” in sexual selection? Do hummingbirds choose red flowers because they think that red is a signal of good nectar? Or do they just like red?

I’d say that it’s intention. If you do something because you expect a particular result, that’s intelligent guidance. If you do it because you have an urge to do it, it’s not. Presumably plants don’t expect results. You might argue that hummingbirds do, but it would be difficult to show, and it seems unlikely on its face. Then again, hummingbirds do frequently investigate red objects, but upon discovering that they don’t dispense nectar, they go away. If you could show that a female bowerbird thinks to herself “That’s a great-looking bower, and his collection of blue objects is awesome; he clearly has superior qualities that my children will also have, so I’ll mate with him”, that would be intelligent guidance. Do you think that’s likely?

I don’t know if we can even begin to answer that question which is why I was skeptical of your claim that there is no intelligent guidance in sexual selection. Perhaps you are right, but how can we know?

I think it’s a bit presumptuous to think bower birds use English, but how can we know that they don’t have some sort of inner dialogue and make choices based on intended results? For that matter, how much of human mate selection is driven by instinct?

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This is an interesting question, because it relates to the human ability to manage complexity. While I agree there might not be much survival advantage individually, that trait may be very favorable to an individual in common purpose with a larger society.

For better or worse, humans are clearly the most successful of the large animals in terms of population. I doubt this is due to any of our capabilities on an individual basis. Our ability to coordinate enormous social activity, however, is completely distinctive and depends on intelligence.

From irrigation to strategy in diplomacy and warfare, the more adaptive and innovative, cunning and ruthless, far sighted and enlightened, societies have prevailed allowing the individuals within them to procreate. To the victor go the spoils. You are more likely descended from Greeks than Trojans, Romans than Carthaginians. So it is possible that the traits which allows us to differentiate and integrate, both in the mathematical and general sense of the words, played a key role in both natural and sexual selection. It is reasonable that such sexual selection would interplay with the larger survival requirements of the society as a whole.

I think it’s a bit disingenuous to think that’s what I was saying.

Hard to be sure, but do you think it’s likely? What about a similar question for insects? Is a female scorpionfly thinking about provisioning for her eggs when she accepts a bug wrapped in silk as a nuptial gift? What about when she accepts a bundle of silk with no bug?

Quite a bit, I suppose. Doesn’t that argue against your case, assuming you intend one?