Friday, August 13, 2010

The evolution of costly traits: Competing for women can be unhealthy for men

There are human traits that evolved in spite of being survival handicaps. These counterintuitive traits are often called costly traits, or Zahavian traits (in animal signaling contexts), in honor of the evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi (Zahavi & Zahavi, 1997). I have written a post about this type of traits, and also an academic article (Kock, 2009). The full references and links to these publications are at the end of this post.

The classic example of costly trait is the peacock’s train, which is used by males to signal health to females. (Figure below from: The male peacock’s train (often incorrectly called “tail”) is a costly trait because it impairs the ability of a male to flee predators. It decreases a male’s survival success, even though it has a positive net effect on the male’s reproductive success (i.e., the number of offspring it generates). It is used in sexual selection; the females find big and brightly colored trains with many eye spots "sexy".

So costly traits exist in many species, including the human species, but we have not identified them all yet. The implication for human diet and lifestyle choices is that our ancestors might have evolved some habits that are bad for human survival, and moved away from others that are good for survival. And I am not only talking about survival among modern humans; I am talking about survival among our human ancestors too.

The simple reason for the existence of costly traits in humans is that evolution tends to maximize reproductive success, not survival, and that applies to all species. (Inclusive fitness theory goes a step further, placing the gene at the center of the selection process, but this is a topic for another post.) If that were not the case, rodent species, as well as other species that specialize in fast reproduction within relatively short life spans, would never have evolved.

Here is an interesting piece of news about research done at the University of Michigan. (I have met the lead researcher, Dan Kruger, a couple of times at HBES conferences. My impression is that his research is solid.) The research illustrates the evolution of costly traits, from a different angle. The researchers argue, based on the results of their investigation, that competing for a woman’s attention is generally bad for a man’s health!

Very romantic ...


Kock, N. (2009). The evolution of costly traits through selection and the importance of oral speech in e-collaboration. Electronic Markets, 19(4), 221-232.

Zahavi, A. & Zahavi, A. (1997). The Handicap Principle: A missing piece of Darwin’s puzzle. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.