Hello again, dear readers. I’ve been vacationing in Europe, but I am now back home in the good ol’ U. S. of A. And to celebrate my return (oh, yeah, and the founding of our great nation—Happy Birthday, America!), it seemed like a good idea to post on my blog.
So, before you report me, I’m talking about this guy:
This little bug, known in the UK as a “lesser water boatman” and officially classified Micronecta scholtzi, is an aquatic insect that sings to court females. But how he sings is a little bit unorthodox. Hence why he’s also known as the “singing penis.”
I can’t make this stuff up.
Many insects (and some other animals) use a behavior called stridulation, which simply means rubbing one body part against another to produce sound. Some more familiar examples are the songs of crickets (which rub their wings together) and grasshoppers (which rub their legs against their wings).
But these guys… These guys “sing” by rubbing their, erm, “bughood” against their abdomens.
No word yet on the state of their eyesight.
But the best part is just how incredibly loud these blokes get when they’re in the mood. They average 78.9 decibels—about as loud as a freight train. Relative to body size, that makes them the loudest animals on the planet. The only reason humanity isn’t being deafened by these lover-bugs is that they make their sweet, sweet love-music underwater, dampening 99% of the sound as it crosses the barrier from water to air. But even after that, human passersby can still hear them.
For the curious, you can hear recordings of the singing penis (and how many times will I get to say that in my life?) in the BBC Nature article here.
Scientists propose that this might be a case of runaway selection: Mentioned in an earlier post, this refers to when animals keep demanding bigger and better of their mates, driving the continued growth of things like elk antlers, peacock tails, and this little bug’s positively enormous…sound.
On the off-chance you feel the overuse of cheap innuendo in this article left you hanging (so to speak), here’s a bit of fun trivia (and a fantastic mental image) to make you feel better:
Relative to body size, the largest penis in the animal kingdom belongs to the barnacle.
Disclaimer: This post is going to use some “grown-up” words. Remember when the movie theaters used to tell people “No crying babies”? Yeah.
So, recently I had the privilege of once again seeing one of my favorite comedians, the inimitable Christophe the Insultor. He’s a self-described “verbal mercenary”: People pay Christophe money—very good money, from what I’ve seen—to insult their friend; and in return, he unleashes all the fury of the English vernacular, channeling it into a tightly focused death ray of linguistic might and blasting a hole in the psyche of the aforementioned (and erstwhile) friend. Christophe is a hitman with the entirety of the English lexicon for his arsenal—and he makes good use of it. While I’ve not seen any statistics, I’d wager he has a vocabulary to rival Shakespeare, and a grotesquely warped imagination that I like to think would do George Carlin proud.
And he’s vulgar. Very, very vulgar. I don’t mean the kind of vulgar that would make your tight-laced Victorian throwback for an aunt tut-tut disapprovingly; I don’t mean the kind of vulgar that would make proverbial sailors blush; I mean the kind of vulgar that would make a baby’s underdeveloped prefrontal cortex ooze out its ears, send the Aristocrats into hiding under assumed aliases, cause grown men to bury their faces in their mothers’ laps, muffling their cries of “Take me back!”, and make your grandmother fall down stone dead. Twice.
Yet, having seen Christophe more times than I can count over the past five years or so, he always has a packed house. And he should: His stuff is beating-puppies-with-the-claw-end-of-a-hammer wrong; but, if you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s by far some of the funniest stuff anyone’s ever thought to say in the English language. And when he really shines is when he’s faced with a heckler, hooligan, or other miscreant in his audience—not because I wish this on any entertainer; but because it proves that Christophe didn’t just sit up at night in a dark basement somewhere thinking up all these awful things to say to people. While yes, the bread-and-butter of his routine has been carefully polished to bring out the fullness of its glorious awfulness, he is more than capable of coming up with something equally pointed on the fly that’ll take somebody’s knees out from under him.
Now, being the person I am, as I sat listening to Christophe most recently, I was contemplating some of the reasons his show is fascinating to an evolutionary psychologist.
I Do This For You
At the beginning of the show Christophe asks, by a show of hands, how many people in the audience have seen him do his dirty work before—and it’s often the majority. Not only do people keep coming back to see Christophe take the mickey out of people; but there are plenty who happily volunteer to be on the receiving end of Christophe’s craft, like Aztec warriors skipping giddily up the pyramid steps on the way to their own sacrifice.
“Taking one for the team” is often heralded as the mark of the truly best members of society. Whether it’s giving up a seat on the bus or taking a bullet for somebody, altruism is one of the greatest puzzles to evolutionary science, because it makes no sense: If all that counts on the evolutionary scale is getting your genes passed on to the next generation, then any action that helps somebody else get ahead would seem counter-productive, and natural selection should weed that kind of behavior out of the population almost instantaneously.
If, say, there were a self-sacrifice gene that made moose throw themselves into the gaping jaws of wolves in order to sacrifice themselves for their brethren, and then a random genetic mutation created a selfish variant of the gene that produced a moose who just went ahead and let his moose comrades get eaten, you know what you would get pretty soon? A whole herd of selfish moose. “The needs of the many” doesn’t apply to evolution.
Now, obviously, the moose example is a bit extreme: Christophe’s performances generally don’t actually kill anybody, so getting verbally trampled on probably isn’t going to permanently remove you from the gene pool. But still, it doesn’t seem to do you any favors. So why do people sign up to be on the front lines at Christophe’s shows? Maybe taking one for the team means you’ll endear yourself to that girl you brought to the show (or the saucy wench you just met by the bar); maybe it shows her that you’ve got enough self-esteem to take a few verbal shots across the bow without breaking a sweat. Maybe Richard Dawkins should go see Christophe’s show.
You Show Me Yours…
Having seen a number of these shows, I’ve noticed a general trend in the insults: When it comes to sex, the biggest insult for a woman is to say she’s had too much sex; but for a man, it’s that he hasn’t had any.
“Well, obviously,” you say. But why is that obvious?
From an evolutionary perspective, sex is a very different proposition, depending on your plumbing. For a woman, sex is a major deal: If she gets pregnant, she’s looking at nine months of that particular joy—she’s slow-moving, sick all the time, and she’s got an alien organism growing inside her and sapping all the nutrients out of her body. Then when that slice of heaven is over, she has almost two decades of child support to look forward to. All that just to pass on her genes. For a man, on the other hand, we’re talking about a minimum investment of approximately five minutes of his time. Now if he wants to invest more in ensuring the survival of his offspring, that’s his prerogative; but he can just as easily go the quantity-over-quality route and produce in bulk: If you make enough kids, some of them have got to make it to adulthood—blind squirrels, nuts, and all that.
So from an evolutionary perspective, a man who can’t get it on with anyone pretty much fails at life—not that you can’t live a rich and fulfilling existence without producing any progeny, of course; but your genome is probably going nowhere. But with women, for whom reproduction is very much a long-term commitment, you want to be careful whose genes you decide to help propel into the next generation. Ladies have to choose their mates carefully; so a woman who goes around with an “any port in a storm” attitude is basically evolutionarily stupid.
And speaking of stupid, Christophe uses a catch-phrase I quite like: When he’s going to make some sort of cultural reference or some other statement requiring more than a rudimentary knowledge of bodily functions in order to be understood, he prefaces it by saying, “Smart people, get ready to help the dumb people.”
To do his show and do it well, Christophe has to be scary-smart. I’ve seen him switch tracks from classical literature to reality TV when the former made his audience go tharn on him. And in the case of hecklers, drunkards, and other “problem people,” Christophe has to deviate from his usual format in order to slap said offenders down to parade rest. And all of this raises the question: We got a neocortex for this?
The human brain is a massive drain on our bodily resources. It’s big and heavy—so big it’s the reason so many women die in childbirth, and even then we come out as small and helpless as we do because if we stayed in the oven cooking any longer we’d get too big to ever fit out the door; the brain burns glucose (cell food) like nothing else in our bodies; and if your brain goes more than four minutes without getting any oxygen, you’re looking at the possibility of doing an uncanny vegetable impersonation for the rest of your life (short though it may be). But when the vast majority of animal species on this planet have gotten by for millions of years with approximately the IQ of a broccoli patch, why on Earth do humans waste so many resources on the costly lump above our necks?
Well, one theory (Christophe, this is for you) is that smart people are sexy: The theory goes that, much like a peacock’s tail, smarts say to somebody, “Hey, look at me! All these resources dumped into lugging this giant handicap around, and I’m still awesome.” But, like in the case of the peacock, sexual selection (pressure from potential mates guiding the path of evolution) can lead to what’s called runaway selection—that is, the demand for bigger and better constantly forces us to up the ante on the desired trait. So if smart is sexy, then we should be breeding our way to a race of über-nerds even as we speak.
The second theory, called the Social Brain Hypothesis, says that we’re smart because we need to be in order to keep tabs on our neighbors. When our ancestors started hanging out in groups, it was no longer enough to know that Bob’s an asshole; you also needed to know that Joe thinks Bob’s an asshole, too, and Mary knows that he’s an asshole; and you needed to know how Mary knows that Bob’s an asshole, and what Bob thought about all of this… Now if you try keeping straight all the social connections within a group of, say, two hundred people, that’s a lot of information to have to keep straight in your head all at once. The Social Brain Hypothesis predicts that the smartest critters on the planet are going to be mammals living in complex social groups, who got smart simply so they could keep track of what was going on in their group. And considering nature’s biggest intellectual heavy-hitters include chimpanzees and bonobos, dolphins, and elephants—all of which live in large and complex social groups—there’s some strong evidence to support the theory.
But in any case, I tip my hat to evolution for producing a singular wit like Christophe’s, and look forward to seeing him again.
If you would like to learn more about Christophe the Insultor, you can visit his website, or find him on Facebook here. But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the content. My blog strives to remain PG-13, but Christophe distinctly has crossed the 18-and-up line to dwell on the farther shore. But if you’re up for it, do take the time to pay him a visit. As for me, I’ll be back at his show this weekend.