Runaway effect in technological evolution: when sexual selection beats survival selection

As sexual selection explains pretty well some behaviors in the natural world, could it be also applied to an indirect selection in technologies?


Two selections exist in the natural world
Can human behavior be reduced to biology alone (no)?
Major biology principles can still guide our understanding
Indirect selection(s) of technologies?
A technological show-off
Maximum emPower or entropy production (MePP)
Application to low-tech
The sociological effects behind objects and brands is huge

Two selections exist in the natural world

ince its inception by Charles Darwin and predecessors more than 150 years ago, evolution has been repeatedly confirmed and refined. At first, some schools of thought like “social Darwinism” reduced it to survival (utilitarian) selection, the “survival of the fittest/strongest”, but in the meantime forgot half of the theory: this survival selection plays a role, but so does sexual (seduction) selection [1–3].

Sexual selection states that each sex develop strategies to both choose the best mate of the other sex for mating (intersexual selection) and to compete with other members of their own sex for doing so (intrasexual selection). Some species may as a result display some high sexual dimorphism — where the male shows ornaments that choosy females (who have none) select, and requires strength and tactics to compete with other males through e.g. physical fights. However, other species are “pair-bonding” such that male and female look the same. Sexual dimorphism is well-represented in species like peacock or turkey (left), and numerous examples of pair-bonding (right) exist in birds (eagle, albatross…) and various other vertebrates (wolves, jackals, gibbons, voles, skinks …).

But this dichotomy pair-bonding / dimorphism is not the full story, and pair-bonding VS polygamous should be considered too. Although pair-bonding is usually associated with high male/female similarity (monomorphism), a species can be pair-bonding and dimorphic, like sometimes in humans. Conversely, a species can be monomorphic and not pair-bonding: a lot of invertebrates show for instance little differences between sexes, but have developed strategies to by-pass courtship in mating, e.g. through traumatic insemination for bed bugs.

Also, while sexual dimorphism usually leads to the dominance of males (gorillas…), the dominance of female can lead to either dimorphism (the females have bright colors like in Phalaropes, a bird) or to monomorphism (Topi antelope, killer whale, birds of prey …).

At last, pair-bond can be short or long term, social or dynamic: there exist every behavior along the “strictly monogamous” to the “fully polygamous” spectrum in the natural world.

Can human behavior be reduced to biology alone (no)?

While the behavior of non-humans is more difficult to explain through biology alone than scientists expected, due to a diversity of rules and exceptions, these principles have always failed to fully describe selection in humans, as our species shows all these patterns at the same time, depending e.g. on cultural habits, environmental circumstances and the moment in time we look at it. Even in one homogeneous group, disparities of sexual selection and behaviors are observed. As Robert Sapolsky said,

“We are not a classic pair-bonded species. We are not a polygamous, tournament species either… What we are, officially, is a tragically confused species.”

We can simply think of the dichotomy in behavior (and society arrangement) between rather sedentary groups of people (traditional hunter-gatherers or agriculturalists) and the so-called “nomadic pastoralists”, people that are constantly moving, in herds, in a word “the shepherds” [2]: while the first ones are oriented to land production, and have conflicts oriented towards materialist perspectives, the second ones value honor and symbolic vengeance, have warrior classes, and strong myths associated to their religion [2]. This dichotomy is also illustrated by Levi-Strauss in Tristes Tropiques [10]:

“One could not imagine a higher contrast than between the Wise and the Prophet. Neither are gods, that’s all what they have in common. In all other respects they are opposed: the one chaste, the other powerful with his four wives; one androgynous, the other bearded; one peaceful, the other bellicose; one exemplary and the other messianic.”

We see here a beginning of explanation for the behavior of human groups through the environment’s pressures, or the difference of climate: rain forest VS desert, abundant living area VS scarce ones. While abundant areas tend to make people rather staying in the boundaries of those areas, inhospitable ones tend to make people move. But it has also been demonstrated that abundant areas favor more rivalry for survival between species, while harsh areas favor cooperation, as it is more difficult to survive alone * [11]. Thus, there tends to be contradictory evidence between these models, or at least a trade-off between both.

What this tells us is that different layers of cultural effects are going on there, and there is no way to reduce human behavior to biology alone.

Major biology principles can still guide our understanding

It can nevertheless be interesting to extract a few biological rules that still play an important role in human behavior — along with other effects — having a sufficiently strong effect to predominate in specific situations. What biology tells us:

1. To increase sexual selection can favor intra-sex competition, and a runaway effect that intensifies ornaments (usually in males). This will itself increase intra-sex competition, constituting a positive feedback loop.

2. Inter-sex competition can favor an “evolutionary arms race” **, in which both sexes develop increasingly refined strategies to dominate the issue of the reproduction and to maximize the transmission of their genes.

3. The simultaneous action of survival and sexual selections favors trade-offs: high-risk environments select for more survival traits (e.g. camouflage), and low-risk situations favor sexual dimorphism and conspicuous ornaments [13, 14].

Indirect selection(s) of technologies?

With these principles in mind, we can now consider the evolution of technologies through time. It is straightforward to see that technologies are selected by the amount of materials or energy they require. The environment indeed provides a limited amount of these two, and a “survival selection” [1] will discard the technologies that consume too much, selecting the optimal ones ***. This direct utilitarian selection is analogous to survival selection in the natural world, and can also be seen not on technology alone, but as an indirect evolution pressure on humans.

An example of a powerful but resource-intensive boat (left) compared to Tara-Tari (right), low-profile and made of burlap

But with that only, a nuclear bomb or a supersonic plane should never have appeared, because they consume far too much energy. So there also seem to be a selection for the technology that consumes the most. This selection could be an effect of sexual selection, because people would display that they can afford to use such resource-intensive technologies, despite the scarcity of resources, just like the bright colors of some birds: seduction-enhancing, but survival-jeopardizing. But other theories may explain it too, and are discussed in the section after the next.

We hypothesize here that technologies are indirectly selected by survival selection along with — similar to the natural world — some sexual selection, which would imply that technological choice is integral to the processes of mate choice occurring within socially complex and competitive groups [6].

« ”We no longer buy oranges, we buy vitality. We do not buy just an auto, we buy prestige.” And so with all the rest. In toothpaste, for example, we buy, not a mere cleanser and antiseptic, but release from the fear of being sexually repulsive. In vodka and whisky we are not buying a protoplasmic poison which, in small doses, may depress the nervous system in a psychologically valuable way; we are buying friendliness and good fellowship, the warmth of Dingley Dell and the brilliance of the Mermaid Tavern. With our laxatives we buy the health of a Greek god, the radiance of one of Diana’s nymphs » [Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World Revisited” (1958)]

A technological show-off

The general idea is that some technologies or objects are used as aesthetic displays [6] more than real needs, which authorizes to discard them rapidly after use, and to design them for planned obsolescence, since such change of ornament must be quite fast to fake a change in the person that uses it, and because the owner must show some continuous effort to obtain better objects [6]. Some studies even postulate that objects are symmetrical in design to mimic a sign of good health in mate choice, and that aesthetic additions to it are encouraged to increase the show-off [6]. In other words, since humans would favor good-looking, healthy-sign-display objects, technologies would also be selected to favor such properties.

But such effect, in addition to playing a role in intersex competition, could even favor an intrasex (or same-sex) competition [5]: there would be a struggle for social status through technological conspicuity within members of the same sex, with the same exaggeration on aesthetic ornaments and conspicuous consumption (rather than physical performances) [5] as previously discussed.

Lycurgus cup (left) is aesthetic but a terracotta cup (right) is just practical and sober.

Maximum emPower or entropy production (MePP)

It has also been postulated that, in nature, a structure would self-assemble to have the highest emPower, i.e. the highest potential for energy dissipation, or entropy production [7]. So it possibly applies to technology as well: there would be an irresistible evolution towards the maximum embodied power, which does occur when the efficiency of the conversion is not perfect nor too low, but somewhere in the middle [7]:

But this principle simply states the most probable path for a system: there might exist a variety of other paths that also occur in real life. Also, it is valid for the short term only: when the system is getting closer to equilibrium, on the long term, a minimization of the entropy instead occurs [8, 9].

So we see here a convergence between the maximum emPower principle and the indirect sexual selection: they both lead to a technological “show-off”, where inefficiency regulates the design of objects, and maximum dissipation of energy occurs. However these are two different explanations for the same observation — one from thermodynamics, more general and theoretical, and one from biology, more applied and specific: it is not clear whether both could partly explain the observations, or whether one should be preferred over the other. Noteworthily some scientists like Lotka tended to think that the maximum emPower principle give direction to Darwin’s evolution [7], unifying both principles.

Application to low-tech

After a long developing of theory, let’s get into more practical considerations: what features are important when dealing with low-technologies and the sustainability problems of objects? In a nutshell, low-techs tend to tackle the environmental problems associated with the westernized lifestyle, problems that are mostly due to the use of technologies and technics and how they are designed. The conclusions — for an object to be useful, sustainable and accessible — are usually to remove all the unnecessary parts and features that enhance the complexity of the object “for nothing” [4]: elaborated design, ornaments, aesthetic colors etc. Not only these features make the production processes more complicated, they also imply some specific paintings (containing heavy metals), and can for instance complicate the design.

But these aesthetic features must not be reduced, on the other hand, to absolute zero: it could result in a solution that is simply not applicable to the real world, or at most restricted to a small “niche” of people. This would even be in contradiction with one main low-tech principle: to be accessible to the greatest number of persons. People that value appearance would simply not adopt the technology, especially if they can easily have access to an alternative solution. Ensuring a trade-off between appearance and performance when building a low-tech is therefore a pragmatic move.

A perfect illustration is the velomobile — a 1-seater vehicle where the user pedals, seated in a small, light and aerodynamic cockpit: a very efficient solution energetically speaking, but the majority of people are not yet ready for the design (see below, right). The opposite extreme could be a luxury sport car (below, right) or a S.U.V., that consumes far more energy, but for which millions of $ were spent to make it good looking.

One is inefficient (compared to what we could achieve with our current knowledge) but powerful, the other is energy efficient but socially impairing due to its design. But this is not a fatality: actually low-techs can have a high aesthetic value, since they usually rely on a slow construction, on local craft where craftsman have time to make some aesthetic ornaments (e.g. an antique cabinet below) compared to mass-produced objects like for Ikea (at right below). One of the persistent problems is accessibility, as the price of more aesthetic objects would be higher, and because it is difficult to provide quality to the greatest number of people. Fortunately, low-techs also question the needs, which should limit the demand in quantity.

antique cabinet VS Ikea disposable
antique cabinet VS Ikea disposable

But one could also imagine very simple features that would make the objects more desirable, and that could be different from one user to the other, which would create a diversity and thus a feeling of uniqueness among users. The greatest challenge here is to limit the so-called rebound effect: to immobilize materials in an object that is used many times over the year thus seems a good strategy to limit product consumption by users.

The sociological effects behind objects and brands is huge

These sociological effects, linked to projection of oneself into objects and brands, are a powerful drive in our society. As Simondon said:

“Going further, we could say that there is something religious in this technical type of participation, based on the link with the technical object only, without ethnic, professional or family community at the base. Using a scooter of a brand still rare in France, I have been greeted with a big friendly gesture by the driver of a similar vehicle. Generally, we would be more willing to render a service to the user of an automobile of the same type as ours; drivers of cars of different brands are more foreigners. As in this area there are no limits, we can suppose that the feeling of participation is the real basis of dangerous exploits. Similar to the driver who, in a 203 Peugeot, competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and managed to finish the race, and to be classified along with the competition cars. It is also probable that this zeal is at the origin of the tendency to “inflate” cars of reduced power: a true lover of speed or power could get a more powerful car; but then the feeling of effort and merit would be diminished; the driver would no longer feel the comforting impression of having covered with honor the brand in which he participates, and of having devoted himself to it.” ▪ [3]

Example of strong identification with brands: in personal objects and clothing. However they enter in a capitalist perspective, so other identifications e.g. linked to ancient cultures should be instead encouraged.

So there could be a way to make people feel proud about the objects they use, without the latter being necessarily the new cutting-edge gadgets, nor the ones related to the highest social status: by brand identification, and — to get out of the capitalist spirit — by group or tribe identification [15]. This aspect is already sociologically well in place, and therefore could be a real asset in designing low-techs and sustainable practices in general.


Even if human behaviors cannot be reduced to evolutionary biology alone, both survival and sexual selections still provide powerful insights to explain patterns observed in society. Since technology is always used by humans, it is here hypothesized that these definitions can be extended to objects as well, linked directly or indirectly to their use by humans: survival selection is then performed through (limited) resources and energy, resulting (in theory) in rather efficient and sober technologies, but sexual selection favors aesthetic-focused objects, rather inefficient and costly, and could lead to a runwaway effect that increases energy and material dispersion in the end. However, we have seen that the maximum entropy production principle (MEPP, or maximum emPower) might also explain the emergence of inefficient and costly structures, which dissipate energy to return to equilibrium as fast as possible.

F. Zapata and his Flyboard Air: a runaway effect

We have finally applied these statements to the design of a so-called “low-tech”: when making it, care must be given to the aesthetic aspect, as physical performances are not sufficient to make it an applicable solution. The mentioned psychological or physical effects must be kept in mind to avoid developing naïve solutions that will end up in nothing but curiosities in a museum.

But a low-tech is not necessarily constrained to a sober use of material and a simple design, as it also permits slow, anti-capitalist and handmade construction like in craft, which generally enables a good aesthetic value, at least compared to the en-masse cheap products of the capitalist system. Low-tech also calls for reappropriation of the production of objects, which could lead to customization possibilities, and therefore to use sociological effects like group identification and more generally, as we have seen, indirect “sexual selection” to improve their sustainability.


See also : Whitewashing conscience via ecological indicators: a disguised sexual selection? (in french, Gtranslate …)

* interestingly, harsh environments could better report and account for the survival rules, because there are fewer species than in abundant areas, and such rules can be disentangled more easily [12]

** This “evolutionary arms race” also exists in survival selection: the antelope selects for faster cheetahs, which selects for faster antelope, and so on.

*** even if the environment has abundance of some resources, they are still limited (and not all is easily accessible). it is possible that the MePP or sexual selection force us to believe that the resources are not scarce nor limited, or at least urge us to greedily acquire them.

See also : Anthropocene or entropocene?


[1] “Introduction to Ecology & Evolutionary Biology” and “Evolution Today”, MOOC

[2] R. Sapolsky, « Human Behavioral Biology », course at Stanford University (2010)
See also “Why Zebras don’t get ulcers”, 3rd edition (2012).
Behave : the biology of humans at our best and worst” (2017)

[3] G. Simondon, “Sur la Technique (1953–1983)” (in French)

[4] P. Bihouix, “L’age des low-techs”, Seuil, 2014 (in French)

[5] Hennighausen et al., “What if the rival drives a Porsche? Luxury car spending as a costly signal in male intrasexual competition”, Evolutionary Psychology, (2016).

[6] Kohn & Mithen, “Handaxes: products of sexual selection?”, Antiquity, (1999)

[7] Howard Odum, “Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-First Century”, University Press (2007)

[8] Chapman, Childers, Vallino, “How the Second Law of Thermodynamics Has Informed Ecosystem Ecology through Its History” (2015), BioScience (Review)

[9] Martyushev LM, Seleznev VD, “Maximum entropy production principle in physics, chemistry, and biology”, Physics Reports, 426: 1–45 (2006).

[10] C. Levi-Strauss, “Tristes Tropiques” (1974)

[11] Callaway, “Competition and Facilitation: a Synthetic Approach to Interactions in Plant Communities”, Ecology, (1997)

[12] D.P. Todes, “Darwin’s Malthusian Metaphor and Russian Evolutionary Thought, 1859–1917” (1987)

[13] Heinen-Kay, Justa L., et al. “A trade-off between natural and sexual selection underlies diversification of a sexual signal.” Behavioral Ecology 26.2 (2015): 533–542.

[14] J. E. Garcia et al., “Trade-off between camouflage and sexual dimorphism revealed by UV digital imaging: the case of Australian Mallee dragons (Ctenophorus fordi)”, Journal of Experimental Biology (2013)

[15] See for instance: Cova, “Tribal marketing: The tribalisation of society and its impact on the conduct of marketing” (2002)


Introduction to Neuroeconomics: How the Brain Makes Decisions”, MOOC, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow

G. Miller, “The Mating Mind — How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature” (2001)

M. Riddley, “The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature” (2003)

D. M. Buss, « The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (2nd edition) » (2010)

▪ The original quote from Simondon (in french):

« En allant plus loin, on pourrait dire qu’il y a quelque chose de religieux dans ce type technique de participation, fondé sur le seul lien de l’objet technique, sans communauté ethnique, professionnelle ou familiale à la base. Employant un scooter d’une marque encore rare en France, il m’est arrivé d’être salué d’un grand geste amical par le conducteur d’un engin de même espèce. Généralement, nous rendrions plus volontiers service à l’utilisateur d’une automobile de même type que la nôtre ; les conducteurs des voitures de marque différente sont davantage des étrangers. Comme en ce domaine il n’existe pas de limites, on peut supposer que le sentiment de participation est le fondement réel d’exploits dangereux. Comme celui de ce conducteur qui, sur une 203 Peugeot, a concouru aux 24 Heures du Mans, et a réussi à terminer la course, et à être classé avec les voitures de compétition.

Il est probable aussi que ce zèle est à l’origine de la tendance à « gonfler» les automobiles de puissance réduite: un véritable amateur de vitesse ou de puissance pourrait se procurer une voiture de cylindrée plus élevée; mais alors le sentiment de l’effort et du mérite serait moins grand; le conducteur n’éprouverait plus l’impression réconfortante d’avoir couvert d’honneur la marque à laquelle il participe, et de s’être dévoué pour elle. »

Low-techs, solutions basées sur les écosystèmes, biologie évolutionniste, énergie/climat…