The proof of sexual selection: male plumage in birds of paradise.

Female display in an elaborate Busby Berkeley production number.

Bananas and silk pajamas in 42nd Street (1933), another musical featuring Berkeley’s trademark spectacle.

Carmen Miranda’s fertility numbers: The Gang’s All Here (1943).

Marilyn Monroe demanding diamonds from would-be mates in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

A recent promotional shot from The Young and the Restless: demonstrating daytime television's interest in a whole range of evolutionary issues, including fidelity, paternity, and jealousy.

Keeping the species alive: a promotional still from AMC’s hit zombie soap, The Walking Dead.

Not without my daughter . . . and not without killing you: Liam Neeson’s brand of paternal care in Taken (2008).

More than just sex, instinct, and desire: Madame Bovary again.

A scene from Citizen Kane (1941), a film that cannot be reduced to male resource acquisition.

Re-defining pornography: Barbara Creed’s Media Matrix (2003).


But why should we believe Creed? After all, as she freely admits, these themes had all been present in literature for ages, as their appearance in pre-Darwinian texts like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) suggests. Using an imprecise and often speculative method to prove an historical point leaves Creed open to doubt—and it makes her reader wonder, as we did, whether the patterns that she discerns couldn’t have as easily been attributed to other equally diffuse cultural factors (including the burgeoning consumerism of world culture, or the post-romanticism and emerging modernism of the West, or the psychic traumas of World Wars and Cold Wars across the globe) that coincided with the development of the cinema and that cannot be usefully described as “Darwinian.” Indeed, not even Creed’s close reading of multiple movie texts can help here, for the total quantity of films that she submits to this method could never amount to more than a tiny sample of the overall output of the cinema in the periods about which she generalizes.

But what is most likely to raise skepticism in the reader is Creed’s inability to navigate and interrogate fundamental nature-culture distinctions and to relay Darwinian theory in an accurate way. For example, Creed never creates a clear distinction between two points, both of which she seems amenable to (but which must be distinguished to make sense):

  1. the idea that cinema was influenced at a purely cultural level by Darwin and
  2. the idea that a cultural product like cinema is an extended example of natural mechanisms, such as sexual selection, identified by Darwin.

This problem is especially acute in her comments on musicals, where Creed is clearly trying to support both points but cannot do so with any clarity. Such a deficiency is a product of the fact that Creed has not created clear distinctions between these points—and, it seems, because she does not understand sexual selection, a Darwinian idea on which her book depends.

Darwin proposed his theory of sexual selection to account for the observation that males and females in many animal species differ in traits that seem unrelated to differences in either environmental conditions or the basic mechanics of reproduction. In particular, males often perform elaborate dances, sing exhausting songs, or display conspicuous ornamentation in apparent attempts to attract mates.[2][open endnotes in new window] Sexual selection theory posits that such male traits evolve because they confer an advantage in competition for access to females, such that “baroque” males get more matings and leave more offspring than their plainer counterparts. If females actively choose males with the most exaggerated displays, then we have a case of sexual selection based on female choice. Darwin framed sexual selection as a process similar to, but separate from, natural selection, but it is usually subsumed under natural selection in more recent evolutionary thought, since it is simply a mechanism whereby traits come to dominate a population because they enhance reproductive fitness via their effects on mating success. It is thus a mechanism that depends on variation among individuals within a population or species, operates across generations, and causes changes in trait frequencies over time.

Creed offers a reasonable argument that the Hollywood musical was “designed to explore the mating rituals of the human species” in that the intricately patterned musical numbers of the genre do indeed resemble the courtship displays of many animal species and serve to punctuate and reinforce narratives about mate choice (75). Creed fails, however, to distinguish between the evolutionary mechanism of sexual selection (i.e., differential reproductive success based on traits that enhance mating success) and the process of mate choice—presumably because, in common parlance, mate choice involves selection of a mate. This conflation weakens her argument and leads her to use misleading phrases like “ritual of sexual selection” when she means “mating ritual” (e.g., 86, 93). It is true that Darwin highlighted the prevalence of such rituals and the potential for sexual selection theory to explain the development of these rituals in humans as well as in other animals. However, just as Creed’s indiscriminate use of the term “Darwinian” undercuts its power to inform her discussion of genre transformations, her imprecise application of the term “sexual selection” calls into question whether she really needs to invoke Darwin to point out that many films portray courtship and mate choice.

Creed could have done more to examine the relationship between sexual selection and Hollywood musicals, or any kind of film, by tracing how the predictions generated by the theory play out in romantic narratives, particularly in terms of different mate-choice criteria in males and females. Creed notes that people do not conform exactly to the male-display/female-choice dynamic typical of many species:

“In the mating rituals of the musical, this gender division is not at all clear-cut. Darwin’s comments reveal that in human societies it is usually the male who chooses and the female who practises the art of adornment. This is not true of the early musical, in which both male and female often wear costumes and decoration, although the costumes of female performers are usually more elaborate. Although both sexes participate in the ritual itself—dancing, singing and performing on stage—in the Busby Berkeley musical, the visual emphasis is on the female chorus line.” (79)

But instead of cataloguing examples of display in Berkeley’s musical numbers, we might gain more insight if we examine the prediction that both men and women engage in some sort of courtship display, since both sexes at least potentially have the agency to choose. Although women tend to practice the “art of adornment,” suggesting that males use physical beauty as a primary criterion in selecting a mate, the popular notion that women are choosier than men when it comes to picking a partner is actually a key prediction of sexual selection theory. A common (albeit simplistic) hypothesis is that women ought to advertise their fertility, which may be correlated with features we consider “beautiful,” and men ought to advertise the resources that they can offer a female and the offspring the couple must provision. We can think of no better cinematic representation of this dynamic than the number “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” from Howard Hawks’ musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), in which a beautiful woman played by Marilyn Monroe demands costly jewelry, not romantic love, from multiple suitors. There are countless examples of such displays in popular narratives before and after Darwin, suggesting that they reflect not so much the influence of Darwin on those narratives as the validity of Darwin’s insights into human mating behavior.

Similar narrative examples could come from almost anywhere. Though “high” literature has been best represented by this new species of literary criticism, there is no reason that we couldn’t find fine examples of truly Darwinian themes in romance fiction, which has always shown an interest in evolutionary issues like fidelity, paternity, jealousy, and of course coupling and reproduction. And the same assumptions could rule our interest in visual culture, particularly cinema and television. Soap operas—from traditional daytime stalwarts such as CBS’s The Young and the Restless (1973-present) to untraditional night-time “zombie” soaps like AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010-present)—show many of the same interests as romance fiction, although they specialize in the tribal relations that have long sustained human survival and reproduction. Further, many movies in what Stanley Fish has lately called the “‘revenge and avenge’ tradition” (e.g., Taken, 2008) lend themselves well to Darwinian readings, given their perspectives on humanity’s evolved attitudes toward kinship, child-rearing, and filial affection.[3]

Again, we are prejudiced in favor of film scholars who experiment with evolutionary methods. They are attempting a difficult task—forging a new field, something that no one is ever trained to do—and thus they often deserve the benefit of the doubt, for they must grapple not only with their own inexperience but with the entrenched biases of scholars content with the kind of film studies that mixes a little close reading with a whole lot of culturalist speculation. The problem with that kind of film studies is that its premise is often cultural constructionism, an incoherent mix of ideas that rarely deals in an honest way with politically sensitive issues of “human nature,” the origins of art, and universals in the aesthetic dispositions of human beings. But an evolutionary approach to film can help us answer questions about origins and universals in the arts while helping us situate the cinema—and all its genres—as a particular form of art.

Writing this review has helped clarify our own preferences for the new subfield whose emergence we foresee. First, though we want to encourage film scholars to participate in this subfield, we cannot do so without demanding their rigor as well. The field of biology, including evolutionary science, is a mature discipline. Its central insights cannot be fudged, and even its emerging hypotheses must be handled at least as carefully as we would handle any cinematic “masterpiece.” We must remember that in their role as film scholars, scholars interested in evolution will not be scientists per se; they will be interpreters of the scientific findings of others, applying these findings to film and film culture. Their initial audiences in film studies may be ill-equipped to evaluate or question their interpretations of the science. Consequently, they must be as rigorous as possible to avoid misdirecting other film scholars. This is why we feel it necessary to dwell on some of the defects of Darwin’s Screens.[4]

On the other hand, biological science cannot answer every kind of question. It cannot tell us why Darwin’s ideas spread so explosively in the cinema over the past century. Only a film historian using controlled historicist methods will give us a plausible reading of that phenomenon. Nor can biology offer a comprehensive reading of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). A biologically informed method might help us understand aspects of the novel (in terms, for instance, of “extra-pair copulation”) and aspects of the movie (in terms, say, of “male resource acquisition”), but this kind of interpretation is unlikely to be holistic and could not possibly deal with the intricacies of authorial intention, textual form, industrial production and distribution, and cultural reception. Evolutionary insight is too general to deal with the full cultural complexity of most forms. For that reason, we believe that the evolutionary perspective—which, in the hands of some literary critics threatens to become another totalizing method of interpretation—will eventually supply film critics with the same things that so many Grand Theories, such as psychonalysis, now supply them: pragmatic methods to be used locally, specifically. The evolutionary perspective provides critics with another toolbox, and a truly perceptive movie critic will have a lot of toolboxes.

For us, the main value of the evolutionary perspective is its ability to provide reasonable answers to the broadest questions: What is art for, biologically speaking? Why have art-making practices culminated in highly stratified forms of cultural distinction? Why do certain genres of film, including pornography and horror, have a broader appeal than other genres, such as avant-garde cinema? Biology cannot offer exhaustive answers to these questions, of course, for it is difficult to imagine how an evolutionary perspective could deal with the (sub)cultural values and attitudes that have accumulated around certain genres (e.g., cult film, art cinema, etc.). But such a perspective could still offer crucial insights that re-orient how we think about genres, class distinctions, gender, and many other issues of interest to culturally oriented film scholars.

For example, it seems to us that any new study of pornographic movies—i.e., those that are blatantly sexualized and are received as such—must begin with the assumption that their basic pornographic appeal comes from the way in which they target the reproductive organs of the spectator. Thus, an evolutionary approach might give us clues indicating why people have so reliably enjoyed Deep Throat (1972) in some contexts (it activates a physiological system that is crucial to the propagation of an individual’s genes), find it so funny in other contexts (it makes public what people have evolved to consider private), and fear it so much in others (it threatens parental care of the young and threatens social chaos by corroding the public-private split and potentially disrupting culturally specific practices of pair bonding).

This perspective could help us navigate the difficulties of defining “pornography”—a problem that Creed analyzes effectively in a previous book, Media Matrix (2003).[5] And it could also drain the animosity out of the porn debates, showing that all of the major reactions to pornography are in a sense “built into” human nature and are in that sense specific to our social roles and cultural stations and cannot be resolved or transcended in any direct or enduring way. It could also help us grasp why men and women have, as distinct gender groups, so often been depicted as having different aims in the production and experience of (and the cultural response to) porn. The same might be said about cultural differences owing to sexual identity rather than gender. Clearly, these generalizations would not exhaust a new study of highly sexualized movies—they would not, for example, have all that much to say about textual specifics—but they would certainly re-orient our idea of those movies, providing a new framework for discussion and a new basis for academic tolerance towards all the players in the porn debates. These insights could also lead to a re-consideration of other genres, like romance or horror—which, like porn, target an audience's physiology, albeit in different ways.

An evolutionary approach to film cannot, then, answer all questions. It will not provide an all-encompassing picture of film and film culture. And it should not be expected to provide an adequate interpretation of individual texts. There will, then, always be more than enough for traditional film scholars to do even in a discipline that expects them to know something of biology. But this emerging subfield can provide such scholars with tools that will help them create more coherent and convincing pictures of the cinema, pictures that not only make sense of cultural phenomena but fit them into a biocultural framework that connects cultural constructions, like cinema, to natural selection and human physiology through concepts of cultural evolution, niche construction, etc. To do all this, however, film scholars must take themselves back to school—and they must learn to apply what they learn there in clear and accurate ways.

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