You take everything — the laurel and the rose, too! Go on, take them! But, in spite of you, one thing goes with me now and tonight, when I, at last, God behold… and that’s my panache. -The dying words of Cyrano de Bergerac.
Evolution only requires two thing from us: 1) Reproduction, and 2) Survival, which really only matters if you reproduce. So really, one requirement. It doesn’t matter how long you live; it only matters how many offspring you have, and how fit they are. Of course, if you live longer, you improve your chances of having more offspring. But you’ll really improve your chances of having more offspring if you dress so beautifully, so outrageously that you are constantly flirting with death. In other words, if you have panache.
Panache, that quality so highly prized by Cyrano de Bergerac and swashbucklers everywhere, means “flamboyant confidence of style or manner.” But literally, a panache is the long feather in the cap of a young braggodocio — think of the ostrich plume in the hat of a Musketeer or the pheasant tailfeather in Robin Hood’s archer cap. And when it comes to panache, in every sense of the word, no animal does it better than the King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, one of Papua New Guinea’s many splendid fops.
Dismissed as a taxidermist’s joke when the first specimen was sent to a European museum, the King of Saxony uses its antenna-like head plumage to its best effect when attracting a mate: shaking it, raising it straight up and straight forward, and tickling the female with it from over two body lengths away. But for a bird that really knows how to shake a tailfeather, witness the King of Saxony’s close cousin and polar opposite, the Ribbon-Tailed Astrapia:
With two streamer-like tail feathers over three times its body length, the Ribbon-Tailed Astrapia has the longest tail in the world relative to its size. It is amazing it can even achieve lift-off. In most places of the world, its tail would make it a slow-moving target for predators, a haute cuisine meal on the wing complete with fanciful decorations. But the relative lack of predators in Papua New Guinea means the birds can focus less on survival and more on reproduction. And that has lead to some extravagances beyond anything a modern fashionista could conceive.
Wilson’s Bird of Paradise, one of the best dancers in the avian world.
Blue Bird of Paradise, hanging upside-down and rapidly vibrating to show off his fluorescent plumage.
Male and female Superb Bird of Paradise. The male’s wings are thrust forward to make a display that looks like a black-and-blue ghost. Here it is, without the display.
Magnificent Bird of Paradise, the forest’s green heart.
And its other valentine, the Red Bird of Paradise. From another angle, the display changes.
Goldie’s Bird of Paradise? More like Blondie’s Bird of Paradise. Totally eighties!
Dazzling colors, spanning into the fluorescent. Ridiculous feathers. Complex songs. Elaborate dance moves and displays, judged by drab but incredibly discerning females. How did a crow — the Birds of Paradise’s most immediate ancestor — end up looking like a drag queen at the Carnivale in Rio?
Imagine that crow, back in the day. A female might judge it by how big it is, or how much territory it can control, or how glossy its black feathers are — all indicators of health and strength and its inherent ability to survive. Well, what if that crow was a mutant with a bright blue feather on its chest? Not only does it have the size and the territory, but it also seems to flourish despite being a more obvious target for predators. It survives, plus. It survives with flair. Females find this attractive. The blue-feather gene continues, and undergoes elaborations. After many, many generations, the crow becomes a Blue Bird of Paradise, and females aren’t just concerned with how well it survives despite being a target. The flair is now a mandatory requisite to mating, and females want to mate with the sexiest male, which will produce the sexiest sons, which will in turn mate more and produce more grandchildren. “Survival” is taken for granted at this point; only reproduction matters anymore. Only sexiness.
Shorter tail feathers may keep you from getting killed by mongooses, but only long tail feathers will get you laid. And there’s no point surviving if you’re not passing on your genes. So the point is to become as sexy as possible without getting yourself eaten because of it.
Introduce one predator into the ecosystem, and perhaps the shorter-tailed Astrapias would dominate the mating game, only because the longer-tailed ones would be eaten before they could reproduce. But the long-tailed attribute would still be the “sexy” one, and Nature would find a balance between cumbersome, dangerous long tails and dweebish, emasculating short tails. The root of pride? Growing your tailfeathers long even though they could get you killed. But survival and sexiness are mutually exclusive: one keeps you alive longer, but one makes you immortal, through your many, many children. Death can take everything from you, except your panache.