Saturday, 20 January 2007

What has natural selection ever done for us?

Pictured left is the goddess Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva. In the Hindi pantheon she represents feminine attributes desirable by Hindi tradition. She is depicted in art as buxom, wide of hip, narrow of waist and bounteous of bosom. She's a porn starlet for the 12th century. In a 2003 lecture Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, the director of the Centre for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego, suggests that this form was found by amplifying the differences between male and female to create a kind of uber-femme, a body fit for a goddess. Everything down to the posture is throwing femininity in the viewer's face. When westerners arrived in India they saw the images in a different light. Seen through the lens of a lifetime's exposure to classical and renaissance art, the image looks unrealistic and cartoonish; it was declared primitive and unworthy of consideration. In this case, cultural conditioning had overcome the natural reaction that viewing this almost scientifically derived expression of ultimate womanhood would be expected to have caused.
As an analogue, when a woman is caught by surprise in a state of undress in the US, she covers her breasts and genitals with such unthinking rapidity that it could be taken to be a universal human trait. In Arab countries, however, the natural reaction would be to cover her face, and in Samoa the startled woman would rush to cover her navel. In every case culture is the dominant force in the nature of the reaction.
What biological natural selection has done for us is well documented by now; in the light of the frenetic speed of cultural evolution, maybe the real question is: What has it done for us recently?

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