The peacock’s dazzling tail feathers do not exist for them to carry out everyday activities such as eating or sleeping, but because their colourfulness is attractive to peahens: the more brilliant the feathers, the greater the chance the peacock has of finding a sexual partner. Tail feathers, to peahens, can be powerfully attractive. Scientists have long been interested in unravelling the subconscious processes that influence partner choice, since heritable characteristics that are favoured in sexual partners will tend to increase in frequency in subsequent generations. That’s why the peacock’s tail feathers are so radiant: over many generations, more beautiful tail feathers have been selected. This means that partner preferences tell us something about the evolutionary pressures that shape a species – including us. So what do we find attractive in each other, and why?
Meritocracy has become a leading social ideal. Politicians across the ideological spectrum continually return to the theme that the rewards of life – money, power, jobs, university admission – should be distributed according to skill and effort. The most common metaphor is the ‘even playing field’ upon which players can rise to the position that fits their merit. Conceptually and morally, meritocracy is presented as the opposite of systems such as hereditary aristocracy, in which one’s social position is determined by the lottery of birth. Under meritocracy, wealth and advantage are merit’s rightful compensation, not the fortuitous windfall of external events.
War is the most complex, physically and morally demanding enterprise we undertake. No great art or music, no cathedral or temple or mosque, no intercontinental transport net or particle collider or space programme, no research for a cure for a mass-killing disease receives a fraction of the resources and effort we devote to making war. Or to recovery from war and preparations for future wars invested over years, even decades, of tentative peace. War is thus far more than a strung-together tale of key battles. Yet, traditional military history presented battles as fulcrum moments where empires rose or fell in a day, and most people still think that wars are won that way, in an hour or an afternoon of blood and bone. Or perhaps two or three. We must understand the deeper game, not look only to the scoring. That is hard to do because battles are so seductive.
You might have seen the cartoon: two cavemen sitting outside their cave knapping stone tools. One says to the other: ‘Something’s just not right – our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past 30.’