Nature of design, design of nature, part 1

Taking the peacock’s* tail as a paradigm of natural design, we might ask ourselves how such a peculiar physionomy came into being; biologists have long debated on its origin, however, districating cause from effect in what appears to be circular logic is not so easy.
Evidence about peahens identifying males with better tails as better mating partners is controversial**; it is clear, however, that peacocks put up a lot of effort to display their tails in the attempt to attract females. What does not appear to make sense, at first sight, is that a peacock’s tail is an expensive and dangerous device: it wastes much of the bird’s energy and exposes it to predators.  The Fisher theory suggests, that a larger, more impressive tail in a male increases a female’s chances of leaving long-tailed offspring behind, which in turn will continue having impressive tails, while the least impressive tailed-males, having  not been able to perpetrate their short tailed genes, will disappear. The real dilemma is: have females started evolving a preference for long tails, because a long tail is a symptom of fitness (lack of diseases, being able to get a lot of food to grow it, and to escape predators); or is it that males, have through mutation started tapping into females’ sense of what is a fit male, therefore “cheating” through a tail that amplifies the information one can get about their status?
That is to say, we get a puzzle that is already there, but we do not know who started it.

Edo period painter Itô Jakuchû was most famous for his love of birds

Taking a big leap, we shift our attention to an item whose history is quite interesting: the chair. If the peacock’s tail was the paradigm for natural design, this object will be for the human (cultural) counterpart. Dating back to the dawn of civilization, it first was as an item of power (e.g. thrones), and it wasn’t until the Renaissance that the connection with royalty faded; once the transition had started, soon everybody and his dog had a chair. Thus it quickly became a familiar sight in any house (for the sake of brevity, we will speak of western ones only).
The chairs most people had, up until the end of the 19th century, were simple, functional pieces of carved wood; chairs for the upper classes on the other hand, not only were (obviously) inlaid with precious materials, but they had to accomodate for crinolines and farthingales, which in turn were necessary for any woman to be accepted in high society. Chair design, in other words, had evolved past mere functionality and extra effort was spent to create luxury chairs.
Perhaps a chair does not have offspring, but it might be said that the concept of a chair, made in a certain manner, hops from mind to mind. Thus, once Europe turned its head away from nobility and into the implications of mass production, a new concept of chair emerged.

The Thonet chair, "No. 14" or "Bistro chair"

The Thonet chair, "No. 14" or "Bistro chair"

The Thonet chair No.14 may be extremely familiar to us now with over 50 million pieces produced (“Bistro chair”), but in those very years it took the scene by storm. Art critic and architect Gottfried Semper denounced it as doing violence to the material (the wood was steam-bent), and such a comment certainly made sense in the “peacock tail” state of mind: the chair was simple, inexpensive and sturdy, thus it did not say anything about its owner, if it was a king or a peasant.
What was the real value of expensive chairs? The inherent beauty in a peacock’s tail and in a baroque Louis XIV chair we could call the phenotipic effect (a great show of ornament), but what really mattered were the genes behind the tail (for the peacock), and the extensive workmanship (for the chair). In this optic, beauty is just the result of something else. The real message, behind ornamental chairs and ornamental tails, is that the owner controls the necessary resources to create them, and isn’t afraid of showing off. Birds do it for mating, humans do it for power, but the difference here, I believe, is very thin.

However, after the industrial revolution nobility no longer held its sway on nations, and the real resources were in the hands of others: palaces and expensive ornaments were done for. This is why the No.14 triumphed, earning Thonet a medal at the World Fair in Paris, 1867 and helping him establish a successful enterprise.

* Pheasants and lyre birds also are good examples. Lyre birds in particular have indipendently evolved a tail with a similar function, along with their now famous vocal capabilities.

It may be suggested that the peacock, an animal that has been long bred in captivity and only recently reintroduced in the wild, has been addictionally selected for longer tails by men, seeking beautiful garden specimen. The current absence of variation in the lenght of tails might have made it necessary for females to develop new methods when mating, all other factors being equal. If females had always ignored the tails, we would need to find a new explanation on why such tails and arose in the first place (some suggest it is in order to scare potential predators; this, however, does not accomodate the males’ courting behaviour). While this is speculation and would need to be verified, it would be an interesting analogy between genetic  passing fashions and cultural ones.

Sources, and further reading:

The Red Queen by Matt Ridley
The sense of Order by E.M. Gombrich


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