Dance Fly (Empis tesselatta) females just wanna have fun. Wildlife Trusts photo.
"With the possible exception of eating, mating is the behavior that separates evolution's winners from its losers," writes a well-intentioned but underinformed Sharon Begley in an entomologically entertaining if flawed Valentine's Day piece in The Wall Street Journal (available to subscribers only). As we discussed in our previous post, it's predator and prey that design each other through the great winnowing process of evolution, far more profoundly than the parallel design process engendered by female preferences in designing the male. Begley's piece is nevertheless most engaging:
No surprise, then, that natural selection has shaped mating habits among the birds and the bees that make the human version look downright boring.
Take gift giving. Tiny creatures called dance flies don't have an ornate tail or much else to signal their sex appeal as, say, peacocks do. So the male shows off his fitness through his largess, bringing a female a big dead fly, for example, so that she can nibble on it while he mates with her.
But among some dance flies, cheating is rampant. Many a male brings his intended a worthless gift, such as a bit of silk he makes with special glands.
As long as females are dazzled by appearances, males that provide worthless gifts could invade a species that gives genuine gifts, says [Natasha R.] LeBas of the University of Western Australia, Nedlands.
Worthless gifts? Can you say projection? All we can say is, eye of the beholder. The biologist in question assumes the female dance fly wants a nuptial meal, when every gal knows that while candlelit dinners for two aren't bad, it's the thought that counts. Or is it the other way around? Whatever. A beautiful silken bundle he made himself? It's sorta like the handwritten lovenote one of Niel Cavuto's female experts on "Your World" last night suggested a woman really wants. We continue to believe that these evolutionary biologists, in claiming the female is looking for good genes for her offspring, are backtracking from the results of natural selection to a fancied conscious decision on the part of the female that just isn't there.
"The strategy of cheating with an inedible token works. Female mate preferences appear to be susceptible to males who cheat," says LeBas. Our sister, who originally referred us to the article, which she had read in her snail version of the Journal, helped clarify the issues in an imail conversation this afternoon:
We: I'm also thinking of the practice among some seagull males, I think, of dropping an egg-sized rock before his beloved as if to say "Let's start a family."
She: LOL. Yes. "Hey, Baby, wanna have an egg?"
We: Yes. That's why I'm not convinced that these silken dance-fly packages without food are necessarily "cheating." It may be more of a Cyrano sort of thing. Words -- and symbolic gestures in general -- are what turn a girl on. The candlelit dinner is fine, but mainly as a symbol, perhaps?
She: Sis, most relationships between the opposite sexes include some form of cheating. For a woman my age, a man who would shovel my driveway would be the sexiest man on earth. Yes, it's the gestures.
We: The look in the eye . . . the color of the bauer bird ornaments . . . the glistening of the silken wrapping.
She: The look of the snow shovel in someone else's hands.
The way to a woman's heart is through her fancy.