Darwin-L Message Log 8:37 (April 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

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<8:37>From James.Maclaurin@vuw.ac.nz  Wed Apr 13 23:08:36 1994

Date: Thu, 14 Apr 1994 16:13:04 +1200
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
From: James.Maclaurin@vuw.ac.nz (James Maclaurin)
Subject: Re: sexual selection

Concerning sexual selection, John Langdon writes...

>I have come to several conclusions, but I am not satisfied with
>them: For example: Male competition was important in proto-hominid society but
>has not been since the evolution of the big brain and altricial infants.

to which Bonnie Blackwell replies...

>but what about warfare as a method of selecting males in the middle ages.
>knights and squires had considerable pressure on them from injury and
>death, but achieved great status by successfully surviving intact.
>they gained status, wealth, and the "best" brides society could offer.
>i am not sure if this applies, but it occurred to me as I read your mail.

I agree with Blackwell that this is a case of Male competition (in some
sense of competition) but whether or not it counts as an important case of
sexual selection depends on several factors.

First, for sexual selection  to be important it has to be common. It has to
be something which affects many members of the population in question often
and for many generations. Knightly prowess in battle is something which
affects a relatively small portion of the population (assuming that knights
and their squires make up only a small percentage of the medieval
population). There are two ways in which this objection could be avoided.
It might be possible to show that an analogous phenomenon affected lucky or
successful foot soldiers. Alternatively one could try to establish that the
aristocracy constitutes a reproductively isolated population in which Male
competition was the basis of an important form of sexual selection.

Secondly, for sexual selection to operate it has to be selection for some
trait (eg. the size of a peacock's tail). So if knightly prowess is to be
an instance of sexual selection, there has to be some heritable
characteristic shared by all or most of the successful knights and squires.
My guess (I don't claim to have expert knowledge in this area) is that
there is unlikely to be a single such factor. Perhaps successful knights
and squires knew certain facts about the use of medieval weapons. Perhaps
they could afford the best armour. Maybe success in battle was largely a
matter of luck (which of course doesn't count as a trait at all). Of course
it could be that knightly prowess constitutes selection for more than one
trait, but given my first point this would have the effect of making
instances of selection for specific traits less common. In any case these
are the sort of questions that one would need to answer to determine
whether knightly prowess constitutes a form of sexual selection

James Maclaurin

Department of Philosophy
Victoria University of Wellington
P.O.Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand.
Telephone 04-472 1000 (ext. 8937),
email address:   jamesmac@matai.vuw.ac.nz
Mail from Mac by Eudora 1.3.1

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