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Brangelina Fever Gets Its Own Darwinian Just-So Story

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Darwinists love just-so stories. Why are cheetahs fast? Because natural selection preferred the slightly faster cheetah ancestors, thanks to the fast cats being able to catch more prey and impress the lady cats. Why are turtles slow? Well, maybe being fast was a waste of energy, so turtle evolution at some point wandered down an evolutionary alley committed to a defensive strategy that, et cetera, et cetera.

Why are chimps clever? Because being clever gave their ancestors a survival advantage over their stupider cousins. Got a dimwitted species? No problem for Darwinism. Those animals didn’t need cleverness in their ecological niche. Bigger brains would just have been a waste of calories.

The Maestro of Magic — Natural Selection — and His Sexy Assistant

Any attribute that makes a creature faster, smarter, stronger, stealthier, sturdier, more efficient — there’s a Darwinian just-so story waiting in the wings involving an animal hero, usually some poor duffer getting squeezed out in the competition for food or safety or conjugal warmth, and often as not, some damsel in either heat or distress who needs a hero almost as much as Bonnie Tyler does.

What about all those zany things on the nature shows so impractical that natural selection would never vote them on to the next round of mother nature’s great big unmerciful game of Jeopardy? Well then, Darwinism has just the little beauty you’re looking for. That’s right, folks, sexual selection — natural selection’s winsome, whimsical, and wondrous assistant. Sexual selection is where, say, peahens prefer the peacocks with the bigger tail feathers, never mind how impractical those tails might become for running and flying. Presto! Peacocks have evolved whimsically enormous peacock tails.

Together, natural and sexual selection can whip up a just-so story for any biological marvel you want to throw at them.

The Monkey Business Behind Brangelina Fever

But wait. There’s more. Enter movie star couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Angela Chen of The Verge tackles the vexing question of why so many of us give a rip about the Hollywood soap opera that is Brangelina. A big part of her answer, of course: evolution. You see, “our brains adapted long ago to be deeply interested in the beautiful and famous among us, says Daniel Kruger, a psychologist at the University of Michigan.”

Chen then summarizes a Duke University study where they showed four monkeys a series of pictures of other monkeys they knew:

Each time they looked at a picture, they received a certain amount of cherry juice. They got more juice for looking at pictures of lower-status monkeys and less juice for pictures of the alpha monkeys. The monkeys loved the juice, and yet were willing to sacrifice it for a glimpse at the alphas. They were transfixed by their power.

Why? “In prehistoric times, our ancestors lived in societies of around 200 people and it was important to know what everyone was up to,” Chen explains. “You had to know who you could trust, who was strong, and who could teach you how to be like them. All this could help you get ahead.”

We keep tabs on the rich and famous, Chen continues, “because they might reveal the secrets to success. On some level, our brains really do believe that stars are just like us and that lessons from millionaires can improve our own sad lives.”

Evolutionary psychologist Frank McAndrew seconds all this. “People who didn’t care what people were up to just didn’t do very well. We’re the descendants of the ones who gossiped, so we’re programmed to pay attention to people who are socially important.”

What about that brilliant mathematician or inventor or artist too busy discovering, inventing, or creating things to bother with gossip or the latest Brangelina dustup? He’s descended from, what — the dummies at the edge of the camp playing Dungeons & Dragons?

Darwinism is Like a Party Balloon — Highly Flexible, and Mostly Empty

The Wall Street Journal story on the monkey experiment quotes Paul Glimcher, associate professor of neural science and psychology at New York University:

“All primates living in complex societies have evolved this drive to study what’s around them,” Dr. Glimcher explained. “People are willing to pay money to look at pictures of high-ranking human primates. When you fork out $3” for a celebrity gossip magazine, “you’re doing exactly what the monkeys are doing.”

Ain’t evolution grand! Probably explains our love of bananas, too. What about the banana haters in our midst, you say? They, of course, are descended from a now extinct subspecies of banana-hating monkeys.

I kid, I kid. The point is that Darwinian just-so stories are so flexible they’re able to explain almost any zoological phenomenon and its opposite.

The other problem: Except in some cases of microevolutionary adaptation, these Darwinian just-so stories explain things hardly any better than a Rudyard Kipling tale about how the leopard got his spots or the camel his hump. All of the truly creative action in these Darwinian stories — that is, the long train of genetic mutations necessary to gradually build the oh-so-helpful pair of wings or the way-cool set of gills or claws or fingers — generally takes place off stage, out of the spotlight and far away from the paparazzi.

That’s bad show business, and bad science.

Photo credit: Chrisa Hickey [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.