Kamala Harris and the evolution of the birds: worldwide lessons

How evolution over millions of years has created sovereign female birds and equally sovereign human females

By Terri Langston
November 12, 2020 3:12AM (UTC)
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Sen. Kamala Harris of California, recently named as former Vice President Joe Biden's running mate. (Getty/Alex Edelman)

This article originally appeared on The Globalist.

The United States has elected a woman – and a woman of color to boot – to the second highest office in the most powerful country in the world. 

What's the big deal? You wonder, in having Kamala Harris as Vice President-Elect? After all, other democracies have long put women into the top political post in their country. 

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A big deal

We women know it is a big deal because – for some reason – men have always, the world over, predominated in such positions of power. And in earlier times, other women – both in the U.S. and abroad – have failed to attain that power. 

Why is that so? Is there any biological, neurological and sociological reason that would explain that unequal development? 

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Let's take a truly intelligent look at this phenomenon by looking into it through the eyes of – stay with me – birds! 

Our guide in this journey is an ornithology professor at Yale. In his 2017 book, "The Evolution of Beauty, How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World" – part of my summer reading – he tells us that "being able to figure out what's going on when it's not obvious is perhaps the most fundamental advantage of intelligence." (p.69) 

Richard O. Prum, whose full title is William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology at Yale University and the head curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, employs this "fundamental advantage of intelligence" to cast light on the behavior of birds and of human beings. 

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Where the males are prettier than the female

You see, among the birds, the male is usually brighter in color and prettier than the female. Of course, that fact usually assumed some kind of male superiority. 

As it turns out, that's just another failure of thought. Having to rely on being colorfulness means you are essentially the beggar, not the one in the power position. 

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A feminist book, written by a feminist man

When I started reading this book, little did I know that the election of Kamala Harris, a woman of color, to the second-highest office in the United States was just months away. (It was long before Joe Biden announced his VP candidate).

And even more poignantly, I did not know that this is in some ways a feminist book, clearly written by a feminist man. 

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It is probably significant that Professor Prum grew up with a twin sister and dedicated his book to his wife, also an ornithologist. 

There are big ideas in this book, presented against a complicated scientific background. Its reader, however, is in the hands of someone who knows the science so thoroughly that he can explain it clearly. 

For now, it's best to start with a concrete example from the world of the birds which, lest you forget, are ex-dinosaurs. 

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The beautiful yardman

The Great Argus, which lives in the Far East, is "one of the most aesthetically extreme animals on the planet." (p. 54) Though living a largely bachelor existence, the male goes full throttle during courtship. The male Argus elaborately preps his court: 

Assiduously picking up all the leaves, roots, and sticks in the space he's chosen…he carries them to the periphery of his court. Like a modern yardman…, he employs his huge wing feathers as a leaf blower by beating them rhythmically, sending all the remaining debris flying from his court until it is completely clear…Once his court is ready for the business of mating, all he needs is a female visitor. (p. 56) 

The female arrives

A female arrives in response to his carefully orchestrated calls and the male begins his amazing courtship ritual: 

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…he rushes around her in wide circles with his wings hunched up at an angle that exposes their upper surfaces. Then, without warning, when he is just a foot or two away from the female, the male transforms himself instantly into an entirely different shape, revealing unimaginably intricate color patterns on his four-foot-long wing feathers…the male bows down to the female…In this extraordinary posture, the male tucks his head under one of his wings and peeks out at the female from behind the gap in his feathers…to gauge her reaction to his display. (pp.58-59) 

The even more amazing fact concerns the reaction of the female Argus. To this elegant, beautiful and precise display, the female's response is "completely underwhelming, or even undetectable." (p. 85) 

Take it from the birds: The female as the decider

Yes, unlike the humans watching this wonder, the female fulfills her role as the decider, the discerning, responsible and privileged holder of selection — aesthetic and sexual selection. 

In fact, the male's display is so colorful and elaborate precisely because most males are not selected in this courtship process. 

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The experienced, well-educated connoisseur

The female is "more like an experienced, well-educated connoisseur evaluating one of the many extraordinary works available to her scrutiny." 

Further, she is "rigid with highly focused attention as she casts her discerning eye over the displaying male…it's her cool-headed mating decisions over the course of millions of years that have provided the co-evolutionary engine that has culminated in the male Argus's display…" (pp.63-64). 

Proving Darwin right once again

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What is at play here is proof of a theory of mate choice that Darwin himself actually put forth but which he couldn't really champion in his times and which other scientists since then have not wanted to embrace. 

Proof has come through the work of Prum and his like. 

As Darwin had intimated and scientists like Prum have now proved, aesthetic selection is critical to the progress of evolution and the choice lies with the female. 

Goethe and Darwin

Prum goes on to show more about male behavior and female response in other species of birds, never over-simplifying but helping us see in nature what Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called "das ewig Weibliche," or the "eternal feminine" that leads us onwards: 

Darwin observed that in many of the most highly ornamented species the evolutionary force of sexual selection acted predominantly through female mate choice…it is female sexual autonomy that is responsible for the evolution of natural beauty. (p.27) 

One must not fail to point out another part of Prum's account, namely, "the dynamic evolutionary history of penis morphology" (p. 244) and how female mate choice has contributed to the evolution of the human penis. 

It is interesting to note that the anatomical part so important to males' identity and actions has evolved through choices made by the female of the species. If that story doesn't cause you to read this book, nothing will. 

The dark side of bird sex

The story of bird sex is not an entirely pretty picture. Some avian species, particularly ducks, commit rape, even gang rape, such that females and evolution have had to work together to discourage such behavior and to stand on the side of female choice: 

"…sexual violence is a selfish male evolutionary strategy that is at odds with the evolutionary interests of its female victims and possibly with the evolutionary interests of the entire species." (p.159)
Indeed. 

The story of Lysistrata

Prum recounts Aristophanes's story "Lysistrata" in this context. This play of 411 BCE has it that women in the enemy states of Athens and Sparta withheld sex in order to restore peace to Greece. Prum muses: 

"So, in answer to the question 'Under what conditions will males give up their weapons?' "Lysistrata" teaches us that the most efficient way to fight back against male violence is to hit men where they are most vulnerable — below the belt." (p.292) 

How to lower male aggression?

Prum concludes that desirable social behaviors like lower male aggression, cooperative social temperament and social intelligence are the result of females making their choice of mates through aesthetic sexual selection. (p. 292) 

Given that, one is led to conclude in general that the more female choice – that "cool-headed approach" — the more acceptable behavior among males. 

Women's task: Keeping cool

Any woman who has attempted to occupy any place of influence knows that this process can be a rocky road. Keeping a cool head does not guarantee that there won't be hot heads among one's male counterparts. 

Hillary Clinton, for instance, ultimately kept a cool head and graciously conceded the election of 2016 to that ultimate hothead Donald Trump, who now refuses to concede the election of 2020, even to another man! 

The defenders of patriarchy have it wrong

Timely for our current human conundrums, Prum explains that all those people who defend patriarchy "mischaracterize feminism as an ideology of power." That misses the point entirely: "feminism is not an ideology of power or control over others; rather, it is an ideology of freedom of choice." (p. 555) 

In recent times we have witnessed, even in the supposedly advanced democracies, the age-old treatment of women as an underclass, as a threat, as a criminal, as a "monster." 

Women and global crisis management

Women throughout the world bear the larger brunt of an international crisis like the pandemic.
And whether they are "important" people or ordinary people, they endure inappropriate treatment. 

U.S. vilifiers of women

In the United States, we have seen Hilary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren and many others, all unquestionably intelligent and competent, unjustly belittled and vilified. 

We witnessed sickening schadenfreude by powerful men about the death of one of the country's great women and great jurists, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It goes on and on. 

Kamala Harris and a smile as evolutionary choice

Even so, like the sovereign female Argus and like the black women in the novels of William Faulkner, they endure. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence tried to verbally run over Kamala Harris in their debate, and President Trump called her a "monster" afterwards, but she won the debate. 

And she won in part with a method that was culturally derived, one may even say a product of evolution. As Michele L. Norris wrote in The Washington Post, "…she smiled as she held her ground – and of course they called it a smirk…But it was more than that. Harris gave Pence 'The Look.'" 

Strong black women

Speaking of strong black women: 

Black women have elevated the 'Mama don't take no mess' expression to a form of high art – a narrowing of the eye, a lift of the eyebrow, a tilt of the head. Sometimes there is a sideways arch of the neck, a molasses-slow movement of the jaw that says, without speaking, 'You've got exactly 10 seconds to pick up your feet and run for the hills.' 

Women's sovereignty matters

The teachings of this fascinating book on the evolution of birds have parallels in human behavior. The sovereign female Argus dispassionately makes her evaluation of the most suitable mate for the sake of her children's future, just as a sovereign American female politician skillfully employs a smile and "the Look" for the good of the United States. 

This is what most women want: Fairness for their children and others' children, as for themselves. They want to be loving but also sovereign. They want to make their choices. They will insist on that.


Terri Langston

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2020 Election Charles Darwin Evolution Feminism Human Behavior Joe Biden Kamala Harris The Globalist