Natural Selection or Sexual Selection?

On Friday, we discussed the excerpt from Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex that focused on selection. One point that I kept thinking about after class, was how the relationship between sexual selection and natural selection, could function differently depending on the particular circumstances of the species in question. In class, we discussed Darwin’s writing alongside an excerpt from the opening of Pride and Prejudice. Even though Austen’s novel predates the concept of “sexual selection”, explained by Darwin, its significance can be clearly seen in the text.

            Darwin describes how there are some species where “neither sex is brightly colored or provided with special ornaments, and yet the members of both sexes or of one alone have probably been modified through sexual selection”. The snapshot of human courtship presented in Austen falls in line with this description. Neither Mr. Bingley, nor the Bennet girls have any dramatic physical “secondary sexual characteristics”, yet the Bennet girls behavior, and that of Mrs. Bennet has clearly been tailored for the express purpose of finding “a single man in possession of a good fortune”, who will be “considered as the rightful property or some or one of their daughters”.  For Mrs. Bennet, “the business of her life was to get her daughter’s married”. Through this description, Austen places Mrs. Bennet’s motivations in category that reflects sexual selection more than natural selection.

            The opinions expressed by Mr. Bennet in this section however, present a differing picture. Unlike his wife, Mr. Bennet values characters in his daughters that might present some value outside their ability to secure their marriage. Mrs. Bennet accuses Mr. Bennet of “always giving her (Lizzy) the preference”, something Mr. Bennet defends by saying that “they (his other daughters) have none of them so much to recommend them”. His other daughters “are all silly and ignorant like other girls”, a character trait that reflects a lack of value placed on traits that mean something outside of the pursuit of marriage. Mr. Bennet observes “Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters”. This quickness that would undoubtedly confer more advantage in a society ruled by natural selection, does not make up for the fact in Mrs. Bennet’s mind that “she (Lizzy) is not half so handsome as Jane”.

            Even while describing the powers of sexual selection in adaption, Darwin still makes it clear that “sexual selection acts in a less rigorous manner than natural selection”. This is because; “the latter (natural selection) produces its effects by the life or death at all ages of the more or less successful individuals”. In my mind, this distinction is what explains how sexual selection can function in the way that it does in Pride and Prejudice. The whole Bennet family, while not being as wealthy as the Bingleys, still enjoy a prosperity to a degree that they are in no real danger of perishing from a lack of resources. Under these circumstances, sexual selection can act with out “exposing them to any great danger”, because their physical survival is already guaranteed. Only in a society like this could traits like beauty, and good humor be valued over the “quickness”, that would generally be considered more adaptive. Yet, the “quickness” dismissed by Mrs. Bennet, is what eventually secures Lizzy a match beyond any achieved by her sisters. With this, natural selection ends up feeding into, and providing success in a society dominated by sexual selection. In my mind, this doesn’t contradict the idea that sexual selection can outweigh natural selection in some cases, but shows how interconnected the function of the two really are. 


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7 Responses to Natural Selection or Sexual Selection?

  1. I really enjoyed your post! I think it’s interesting that you use Mr. Bennet as an example, because I fee like he’s really experienced this effect of sexual vs. natural selection firsthand. I don’t remember the exact place in the book, but Elizabeth communicates to the audience some conversation she had with him regarding how he regrets choosing Mrs. Bennet as a wife because he was just so attracted to her and infatuated with her, but I’m wondering if we could read that as now he’s not only fallen out of love but perhaps also seen how ill-suited she is in a natural selection sort of sense? I’m referring to her constant fits and general inadequacy, even at her primary goal of marrying off her daughters (by being the main reason Jane gets denied, etc.)

  2. I found your post very interesting and I agree with a lot of it. Sexual selection seems to dominate the society of “Pride and Prejudice” because the idea of reproduction, presented by the idea of marriage, is dominant over natural selection, i.e. being able to survive and thrive as an individual. You point out that natural selection does win out though, because Lizzy doesn’t seem to buy into being sexually selective in the social accepted way. However, if I remember the plot correctly, “happily ever after” isn’t exactly Lizzy and Darcy’s story, except that they are together. Don’t they end up essentially supporting her more foolish sisters? I may be confusing my Austen plots, but if I’m correct, then Lizzy’s exceptional personality is quite a double-edged sword for her. Ideally, her difference would facilitate her living her own life and making choices that are best for her alone. But because she lives in this society where women are only meant to be sexually selective, she has to pick up the slack of her silly sisters because she is more capable.

  3. fearthefin says:

    Hi, I find it really interesting to reread this post — with its focus on natural versus sexual selection — after reading this week’s assignments from The Time Machine. Namely, how humans (as is already evident in today’s society) have virtually taken themselves out of the natural selection process, and how Wells’ portrait of the future ultimately denounces this as mankind’s self-imposed downfall.

    After much trial and error, the Time Traveller postulates that the Eloi of the Upper-world “might once have been the favored aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants.” In this symbiotic (though certainly not balanced) stasis, both species hurtled ever-faster toward solving every human problem with increasing intellect and technology. Until, finally, there were no more problems to solve; “life and property had reached relative safety” from illness, hunger, predator, or any other process of natural selection. From there, the Eloi sank pleasantly into relative “decay.” In short, in trying to cure its evils and utterly eradicate natural selection, humankind had “committed suicide.”

    So what emerges is almost a reversal of sorts — a new kind of natural selection. Sometime, after their food supply presumably ran out, the Morlocks began to prey upon the unthinking Eloi. “That old brother was coming back — changed!” The Morlocks, out of pure necessity, essentially induce the process of natural selection upon the Upper-world Eloi. It’s true survival of the fittest.

  4. h0p3d1am0nd says:

    Hello. I too found your post interesting. I think one of the most striking things you said was that Pride and Prejudice “shows how interconnected the function of the two [natural selection and sexual selection] really are.” I wonder, however, what it would look like if one took a moment to focus more fully on the eligible bachelors in the story strictly in terms of how they would measure up at the beginning of the novel to Darwin’s natural and sexual selections

    Mr. Bingley relies on his decent looks and nice personality and his huge wealth to attract females. There is nothing truly out of the ordinary in him, except for the fact that he has a good deal of money. That is his main attraction for the females in the story. He is a practical sort that will not only survive but survive to reproduce–natural and sexual selection will favor him.

    Mr. Darcy is handsome and wealthy, which like a peacock with a beautiful tail, draws potential mates to him. However, he is rude and prideful. This repels just about all the ladies in the story at some point. So because of his wealth, he himself will survive because he has money to keep afloat. What you said about the Bennets and the Bingleys also applies to him, in that he can “still enjoy a prosperity to a degree that [he] [is] in no real danger of perishing from a lack of resources.” However, his reproduction is a different story because no one can stand him, especially not long enough to marry him.

    Mr. Collins is a clergy man and an heir to the Bennet estate, which makes him attractive to mates and secures his own life. However, he is not especially attractive in personality or in looks. In the end, he ends up with a woman who is also a little below par, much like Darwin explains the slower, less vital males and females matching up in the animal kingdom. Their offspring will not be as promising as others’ and may have lower rates of successful sexual selection (and ultimately, the bloodline may die out–natural selection).

    Lastly is Mr. Wickham. He is handsome and charming and seems to be stable. He has plenty of potential mates. However, he is actually not a very good person and takes great advantage of those around him. He will be successful in both natural selection and sexual selection because he will have the choice of many mates; and he and his children will survive because of his cleverness.

    All this to say, I thought it’d be interesting to expand on your post a little more. I agree completely about the fact that sexual and natural selection overlap and intersect at times. Also, as a disclaimer, I know that Pride and Prejudice ends in a way that is very different from the one I said it should above, according to each male’s potential natural and sexual selections; but if the novel were actually about a bunch of peacocks instead of a bunch of human beings, it might have actually ended in a way more similar to the one I described.

  5. “Under these circumstances, sexual selection can act with out ‘exposing them to any great danger’, because their physical survival is already guaranteed.”
    Of course, natural pressures don’t select for the mere survival of the individual; they select for survival to the point of reproduction. If an individual dies without offspring, it’s as if he never existed at all insofar as natural selection’s concerned. The consequences of being weeded out by sexual selection are just as dire as those of being caught and eaten.
    Still, the more fanciful results of sexual selection—the peacock’s feathers and the silly affectations of the gentry—are indeed luxuries. Once survival has been seen to, the business of reproduction can be taken more seriously. The competition essentially relocates. When life and limb are on the line, survivors are the only ones left to reproduce with, and competition is confined to the sphere of survival. But here, everyone lives: the most ornate peacocks are allowed to reproduce, as are the best suited human suitors. The peacocks grow more ornate still, and the humans become… I don’t know… the Eloi.

  6. anglesbear says:

    Your post was really insightful; I really enjoyed reading about the connections you drew between natural selection and sexual selection. The dialogue concerning the roles of both natural and sexual selection in Pride and Prejudice naturally led me to thoughts of The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. The main character in this novel, Lily Bart, is a beautifully charming woman who is desperately obsessed with her looks, which can be seen as having to do with sexual selection. Her means of survival in this case are solely based on her aesthetics and she is able to socialize and somewhat work her way up the social ladder through her cunning looks. The men simply view Lily as something to stare at while she, in return, is focused on their bank accounts.

    Lily’s quest in this novel is built around her finding a mate, but not just any mate, a wealthy and attractive mate, both wealth and attraction can here be seen as representing sexual selection. Lily is serious about not settling for anything else, especially since she dies as a single woman and not having reproduced. She does not seem to be concerned with survival, although she is often low on funds, as much as she is with finding a mate. Sexual selection is able to supersede natural selection, even in desperate times when the sense of survival is demanding.

    Although as humans, we still use techniques to attract the other gender, such as dancing and decorating as other species do, we have progressed towards a world in which money can blur, manipulate, and confuse both natural and sexual selection so much to a point in which sexual selection can be put to the forefront rather than natural selection. Money can provide a peacock with a tail peacock nose job or a peacock can go buy peacock tail extensions, etc.

    Lily wants a wealthy man because he will be able to relieve her debt and financially take care of her, but she is also simply not attracted enough to men who are not a member of the upper class. Even though Lily often is low on funds and is clearly struggling to survive, she puts up a front as if she is okay and continues to pursue her quest at finding the ideal mate. So!! Your post basically led me to this question: to what extent is money able to manipulate or control both natural selection and sexual selection?

  7. writinginmy says:

    I appreciate you teasing out more deeply the Darwinian strains in Pride and Prejudice. I can’t help but want to instinctively conflate both natural and sexual selection, though. I understand sexual selection alone but, as you say, natural and sexual selection are really quite interconnected. I suppose in modern society, the way we define ‘survival’ is a bit different than its scientific standard definition. I suppose my question is how far Lizzy’s ability to be independent and live on her own will go in securing her children in a separate world where Darcy didn’t exist. Above that, I wonder if we are considering ‘survival’ in all of this, and what it means.

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