Sep 11, 2020 in 

On Shyness and Sexual Selection

Why is it important to keep in mind that shyness is the product of sexual rather than natural selection? Read on to discover

Thomas Fenichel

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Shyness is a normal human condition. It is a problem only if it becomes so intense to the degree that life is no longer joyful, and interpersonal relationships cannot be maintained. Even in an ideal state, the human psyche requires constant efforts to sustain an energetic balance between different aspects of the personality. Just being sexually active and physically safe will satisfy most animals but it will not make most of us happy with life. Now, we may ask: how come nature allowed the inefficient human condition to evolve in the first place? In his book The Mating Mind, Geoffrey Miller explains that in contrast to the common belief, the human mind has developed in the process of sexual rather than natural selection.

In the theory of evolution as discovered by Darwin, two possible processes are driving mutational change. The most famous one is natural selection. This is when even a slight increase in survival rates will start an evolutionary process leading to the dominance of the mutation within that specie. We can easily explain this process with the help of statistics. From today’s perspective, seeing how the thinking mind has enabled us to conquer the world, it is tempting to conclude that the mind has evolved in the process of natural selection. This is, however, in my opinion, and in the opinion of some biologists, a mistake.

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Thomas Fenichel

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The reason is that when the human brain began to grow, it was initially a burden rather than a survival asset. The bigger brain forced the human baby to be born prematurely, not being able even to hold its head straight. Some animals can jump on their legs and run seconds after birth. Humans, in contrast, are born extremely vulnerable because of their huge head. Moreover, the massive head had made births complex, resulting in very high death rate of mothers during birth, until only a couple of hundred years ago. It is only after the brain became significantly bigger in an evolutionary process that took tens of thousands of years, that humans started to use their larger brain to think and to gain survival advantage. But since the sudden growth of the human brain initially decreased survival rates, we can safely say that the motivating force that drove this process was not natural selection.

Darwin spoke of another process in the theory of evolution, and that is sexual selection. This is when a particular mutation leads to higher rates of success in mating between the sexes. The most famous example of an organ that evolved in sexual selection is probably the peacock’s tail. Not only does this tail have no survival benefits, but it is actually a burden on the male peacock when he needs to hide or escape from predators. For this reason, it could not have evolved in the process of natural selection. The peacock’s tail grew bigger because, for some reason, female peacocks preferred males with bigger tails. This is an example in nature to how an organ grew bigger and bigger, without any survival benefits, until it has become such a burden that it could not increase any further.

Why did female peacocks prefer males with bigger tales? Since peacocks cannot speak, we cannot know the answer with certainty. Perhaps it was a simple matter of attraction to beauty, or more likely, it was a way to visualize the quality of the male’s genes so that they could pick the best ones. The thing is, that male peacocks are condemned to carry this heavy burden from which they do not benefit. The burden inflicted by the peacock’s tail is metaphorically equivalent to the shyness inflicted by the human mind.

But why did women prefer men with a bigger brain? Although, in contrast to peacocks, women can speak, I am again uncertain that a definite answer is possible. Perhaps, the mind is another way to test the quality of genes, or maybe this was the way for women to compensate for the superior physical strength of men, with the evolution of a mental realm in which they are just as powerful as men, if not more powerful. Whatever the reason may be, the mind has brought with it an abstract dimension of experience, where mating can take place for example with poems and stories instead of fighting and demonstration of physical strength. 

Now imagine that at some point in history, the male peacocks would have found some real use to their growing tail other than mating. For example, they would be able to run faster by waving the tail, or perhaps even use it as a wing to fly. Then it would have been tempting to believe that it was natural selection that had driven the growth of the tail in the first place. This is what has happened with the human mind. At some point, we have learned to gain survival benefits out of its thinking capacities through science and technology, and this has made us forget what a burden it is to begin with.

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