I'd been instructed to look for a 6-foot, 5-inch man in black nail polish - "Mystery," the pickup guru and author of

The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed.

I'd seen his image on the book jacket, hands held near his face to display the lacquered nails, hair gathered into a long ponytail, head covered with a fuzzy, floppy hat. He looked like he'd painted his own stripe on the transgender rainbow.

But I knew from his book that Mystery was simply peacocking - making an attention-getting appearance.

When a real peacock engages in peacocking, the scientists call it sexual ornamentation. The phenomenon is inspiring some disagreement among researchers.

Mystery's peacocking is an integral part of his pickup method.

He swept into the hotel lobby, a fashionable half-hour late, wearing a long suede coat, cowboy-like hat, boots and various accessories - a pair of opera glasses, earrings, lip stud and a heart-shaped locket around his neck. "Don't you want to know what's in it?" he teased.

He spent several hours demonstrating his techniques. A man, he explained, has to project that he's "a leader of men and a protector of loved ones." And he must radiate self-assurance. Then Mystery lowered his voice, acknowledging that, while it's politically incorrect to say so, "all women want to be dominated." He leaned in so close I could see the beautifully applied eyeliner inside the lower lash line. (I can never achieve that without smudging, I told him.)

Darwin himself was said to have been flummoxed by strutting peacocks. He didn't see how they could have evolved those tails through natural selection. Eventually, he realized that the peahens were creating the tails through their sexual choices. As long as the hens kept mating only with males sporting the best tails, each generation would produce ever fancier feathers.

Darwin described the process he called sexual selection in his book The Descent of Man.

The sexual habits of peahens make their males particularly prone to developing elaborate ornamentation over generations, said Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico and author of The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. Instead of each one choosing her own partner, the females all flock to the same few males. "It's like Beatlemania," Miller said.

Another biologist, however, says Darwin was just plain wrong about ornaments and sexual selection. Joan Roughgarden believes that all the ornaments help by influencing animals' rank, status and belonging within groups. Those tails may have proliferated because they impressed other peacocks - and that bought them the status they needed to get the sex.

In her book Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, Roughgarden proposes replacing the concept of sexual selection with social selection - an evolutionary force involving whole groups of animals, not just mating pairs.

Could a peacock really be just trying to impress other peacocks?

In an observational study, evolutionary biologists from France's National Museum of Natural History recently found that the males with the longest tails do get to the top of the pecking order, exerting dominance over other peacocks and acquiring the biggest territories. But for the females, length didn't matter. The researchers found that the peahens care about just one thing - the number of those beautiful eyespots called ocelli.

So it appears that the peacocks are shaped by the behavior of females and other males - both social and sexual selection.

New Mexico's Miller says biologists already understand that social status is intrinsically connected to sexual success. For him, the most interesting version of human peacocking is what he calls creative intelligence.

Creativity expressed in dancing, music, storytelling or problem-solving stands as a proxy for our mental and physical fitness, he said. He proposes that mate choices played at least as big a role as survival in the shaping of this aspect of the human mind.

To Miller, sexual selection is a form of intelligent design, albeit one unconnected with a supernatural creator. Men helped to design women and women to design men. So the next time you complain that men are obtuse or women are unfathomable, remember who's to blame.

Carnal Knowledge | Health & Science

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