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.