Selection in Relation to Sex

photo by author

If female birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments, and voices of their male partners, all the labour and anxiety exhibited by them in displaying their charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this it is impossible to admit. -Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

In a BBC special featuring
the mysterious mating dance
of birds of paradise,
tropical jewel-colored
birds that thrive
in the steaming jungles
of New Guinea and Australia,
David Attenborough narrates
the elaborate process
of sexual selection.

Here’s the black sicklebill
a sleek ebony bird, his yellow eye
piercing the camera
as he swings his wings
up over his head
in one smooth practiced motion.
He’s warming up, David explains,
before the camera draws back
and we can see the full spectacle
of this bird, his long jet tail
swooping away from his perch
on a broken tree branch
rising up from the trunk like a fountain.

Then, with a final flourish, where there was a bird
there is now a kite, a cobra’s floating hood.
He has pressed his wings together
above his head to form a tide, a fan,
a fish writhing and twisting in a stream
where there was a bird there is now
a fluttering ribbon of love.

He lowers his wings and is a bird again.

He repeats this ritual
on his chosen post
several times a day until
he attracts a mate. Not only that,
but he has practiced each element
of this intricate dance
day after day for years,
since before he even had
the right equipment.

Now he assembles and displays
all of his worldly knowledge
he demonstrates his glorious virility
he hopes to secure his legacy
he wants his dance to be danced
by each black sicklebill for generations.

Evolution dictates
that form precedes function
Darwin believed that
beauty itself
is appreciated,
the energy expended to rise with a flourish
to transform ourselves in the name of desire
to capture the eyes of our lover.
We must have beauty to survive.

Unlike those birds, you
do not have to wear a crown
of brightly colored feathers
or transform yourself into a fan or flower
for me to look your way.