Dear Darwin: Birds born to boogie? Or at least moonwalk? |

Dear Darwin: Birds born to boogie? Or at least moonwalk?

Robert Valko
Vail, CO Colorado

Survival can be tough business. That said, Homo sapiens seem to spend exhaustive amounts of time and energy on activities not related to it.

What can we surmise about slackers like Beethoven, Mozart, Cezanne, Shakespeareand da Vinci? Putzing around with paintbrushes and pianos when they should have been out rustling cattle or watering the hogs?

And what about geniuses like Pee-Wee Herman and the guy that invented the Flowbee (the vacuum cleaner that cuts hair)? How can we explain their cutting-edge visions, which were obviously eons ahead of their time?

In most species, males are the more glamorous gender. Why? Because the females of most species are the “deciders,” much like George W. Bush. They choose the males that look the best or whom they figure to be the pick of the crop. This is why evolution gave male elk their towering racks, peacocks their portable rainbows, and designed female fireflies to mate with the male that emits the longest burst of light or the one that flashes her most often.

In short, the subtle differences exhibited by various males in the size and color of what evolutionary biologists call their “ornamentation” (regal antlers, brilliant tails, and light-flashes for example), lets the females know which ones are the hotties.

The competition really gets stiff among the bower birds of eastern Australia. Females of that species choose the males that build the largest and most ornate nests. The males use whatever artifacts they run across to decorate them: plastic knives, bottle tops, flowers, shards of glass and even a glass eyeball in one case.

It’s also common to find regurgitated “puree” from native berries in the nests. They do this to make Martha Stewart jealous and to make the scene really pop. But here’s the kicker: the female only copulates with the male she chooses. Then, once the deed is done, she flies off and raises her young on her own – far away from his flower-child love-pad.

She wasn’t looking for a home and a provider, just the male with the most decked-out pad – the most creative mate. And since we’re on the highly-normal topic of fashion-conscious birds that are artistically endowed, we shouldn’t leave out birds that moonwalk.

Just as Michael Jackson did not long ago, the red-capped manakin of South America throws down some really hot moves. He also moonwalks. Really. The pintsize thriller hops backward on branches so fast and in such a peculiar way, that he appears to be floating backwards. He is the Michael Jackson of the rain forest.

Darwin gave us two really big concepts: natural selection and sexual selection. Natural selection addresses the things creatures to do survive, while sexual selection looks at the activities they engage in to attract mates.

There is also an idea known as the “handicap principle,” which falls under the sexual selection umbrella. Essentially, it divides males into two camps: those with chutzpah and those without.

For example, the peacock with the most brilliant tail and the elk with the largest rack have to be good at acquiring the resources needed to keep their “ornaments” in tip-top shape. The ornaments are resource vacuums that require much nutritional sustenance. The animals also have to be healthy and disease-free; wanna-bees in poor health might find it difficult to scavenge for a meal with the flu and a 102 temperature.

Big racks and colorful tails are actually handicaps that hinder survival. Those that are able to survive and keep these cumbersome body parts in good-repair likely have better genes than those with smaller racks and less brilliant tails. For these reasons, their appendages are reliable indicators of robust mates with good genes.

The human version of the handicap stretches into the arts. If a male’s “survival fires” are all out, he has time to invest his energies in things not related to the job of carving out a living. This could mean that he is well-off financially.

But there are other issues at play. Creativity is highly-correlated with high-intelligence. If you’re a woman and all things are equal among two prospective mates, would you rather marry a salesman or a comedian? In short, handicaps are about making survival more difficult than it already is. Individuals that prosper with the added challenge might just be the ones with the best genes.

Because females are the “deciders,” males of all species are forced to compete for their attention – to stand out from the crowd. Humans have their own forms of latent plumage. This is what forged people like Mozart, Michelangelo, Matisse, Shakespeare, Stephen King, the Wright Brothers, David Lee Roth and Michael Jackson. They are the thrillers.

There’s no doubt that when Michael looked at the man in the mirror, he saw the man with the grandest plumage of all. He was the ultimate thriller.

To see video of the ornithological MJ wanna-birds, go to youtube and search “red capped manakin moonwalk.”


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