Communal sexual displays are colourful, dramatic and spectacular. These displays occur in a lek or arena and in the true leks of birds, for example in the sage grouse, each lek contains a mating centre and up to 400 male birds congregate in the lek visited by a comparable number of females for short periods to be mated. The male displays are extraordinary: the male inflates his chest sac, struts with its head held high. The white feathers and thin plumes at the side of neck are erected and the combs over the eyes are expanded. As its wings are expanded and moved forwards and backwards, making a swishing sound, the bird emits an arresting call. All of this to display and attract females for mating!
These displays are communal and hence large numbers of males are involved simultaneously and supposedly the females are able to identify the fittest males and to submit to them. The male traits on display are the signals that the females use to assess male quality. Peacocks also form leks to display their tails. These traits to be useful for females must somehow be a true sign of health and fitness. There are a number of biological issues that require solutions such as the lek paradox but these are not the subject of this post.
It is always instructive to think whether social behaviours in the animal world have any parallels in the human world. This is the value of ethology to psychiatry, the willingness to explore and investigate what we know about animal behavior in order to garner better understanding of human behavior.
The closest we have to communal display in the human is probably the extraordinary and colourful annual Charm Dance ritual of the Woodaabe, (Woodaabe Geerewol) a nomadic people on the fringes of the Sahara Desert. This is a weeklong ceremony dominated by three dances: the Ruume a daytime dance of welcome and nighttime dance of seduction; the Yaake, a competitive dance; and the Geerewol, in which young men are judged for their beauty and elegance. The valued traits are height and the whites of the eyes. It is clear that elaborately staged communal displays are rare in modern human society. But it is possible that fragments of these elaborate displays continue in an attenuated form and in unregulated informal settings. These fragments may be reduced in scale and complexity but yet retain the same primary purpose of signaling sexual fitness.
Not long ago in Hawaii I witnessed on a windy day when it rained hard and all day how only the courageous and adventurous, mainly men, surfed the waves, ceaselessly. Wading and paddling against the tide and then riding the crest of the wave back in, chivalrous and handsome against the feeble light, skilfully borrowing the waves’ energy and speed before keeling over, limp and spent. This was repeated without break all day. Crowds gathered to marvel, to capture the moment in photo or simply to enjoy the sight of mastery and courage. Two boys dazzled with their youth and confidence towards the end of the day. Slim and urgently fragile, they surfed and skied, sheer for speed and indifferent to the severally ardent observers, they remained focused, industrious in their drive to rule the crest of the wave for as long as possible. What was the purpose of their daring, their persistence, their doggedness?
At the end of the day, at the very stand where the crowds came to admire the dexterity of the surfers, a young attractive blond, slim and sure of herself and her beauty, posed next to a spotlight so that it shone on her blond locks, her carefully made up face, her irresistibly long and false eyelashes. She was a princess, a rare and sexually intense beauty, everything about her shone a lustre that is unforgettable, that asked forcefully to be noticed and worshipped. Her mother took the photos, once and the daughter checked to see the effect, twice and the daughter checked once again. One more for luck, can I be even more beautiful, shine even brighter, be more golden, more a rare gem, an orchid even, that draws all the light to itself, that is fragrant and tender, that expects to conquer the world simply with its colour and a smile.
These displays, fragments of the communal lek displays can be seen if sought out. On beaches, on high streets, at athletics meetings, football stadia, principally at nightclubs, preening and showing off the traits and phenotypes that might be judged as signals of fitness, the sexually desirable characteristics one might search for in potential mates as evidence of health and ultimately of fecundity.
In Euripides’ Medea, Medea says
O Zeus! Why have you given us signs to tell
True gold from counterfeit; but when we need to know
Bad men from good, the flesh bears no revealing mark?
Evidently the fidelity of the traits on display as true signals of fitness is questionable.