How We Use and Show Our Social Organs

Your face my thane, is a book where men may read strange matters.


The jillions of individual animals who have lived on this earth have usually left their potential life spans, uncompleted. The prospects are much the same today and can only continue that way into the future. Those who have been dressed in somber colors with few frills to attract the attention of the predator or frighten the prey have been able to postpone death's cleaver to a slight degree and be around to hatch their broods, suckle their young, or make it to more than one nuptial season.

But we can't look at only this dimension of animal life - the way many functional anatomists and physical anthropologists have - we can't interpret only how this hair patch or that organ system makes individuals better able to survive and cope with the physical environment (food, weather, predators, etc.). Despite the slim probability and hope of living well beyond reproductive maturity, there are other equally potent pressures affecting an individual's appearance. In most 'species, an individual’s social relations with other members of the population are a central factor determining how, and if, he will overcome the physical demands to survive and reproduce. The individual's appearance is an important part of how he interacts with associates. Sometimes the priorities of those social demands override the selection process arising from the need to remain inconspicuous.

If you've never thought about it this way, it may be worthwhile to think of most animals as dressed for a social event. Many fish and reptiles have a very flexible wardrobe. These species have small color cells (chromatophores) that can expand and contract. So a species of minnow or lizard have a whole spectrum of instantly available clothing changes. They also use their appendages - fins, gill covers, crests, throat flaps - to modify their social dress. Birds and mammals do the same, except that it is with feathers and hair; their colors are fixed (except for some, including man , who have exposed skin areas that can become colored). Birds and mammals can change their dress dramatically with the season. Some seasons, particularly the, rutting breeding seasons, are full of aggression and disputes about critical matters. A brief thumb through a pocket bird guide or mammal book illustrates the vast differences between breeding and nonbreeding pelages or plumages. Social dress also varies between the sexes, each having a different social role. In addition, dress varies with age in many species. The very young seldom have the same dress as adults, and more often than not there is a special juvenile pelage as well. The attire of the young frequently carries a special status value, and is this not true also in human beings?

In Taku Fjord just behind Juneau, Alaska, I have watched eagles feed on a fresh bear carcass. The adults - white-headed and tailed, with bright golden-yellow beaks, irises, and, legs - could be distinguished easily from the drab juveniles. Adults would seldom let another adult near the food, but the more uniformly colored juveniles took it with free license and in some cases even took food directly away from the adults. Niko Tinbergen described a similar occurrence among gulls: the special gray garb of the young gives them a different status within the population of white adult gulls.

In order to picture how social organs function, let's suppose there is a species of animal which fights with its head (either mouth or antlers). In this species, there is a positive relationship among neck size, age, strength, likelihood of winning, and status. Most of the deer family, most antelope and cattle, cats, canids (the dog family), and many primates all fight with the heads in some way or other. Among these different species the older animals usually have disproportionately large necks. A stronger neck gives a fang deeper penetration or an antler more torsion (deer fight by antler-wrestling rather than by clashing). Suppose an individual of one of these species had fought twenty opponents, and of the ten to whom he lost, all had larger necks, while the ten which he had beaten all had thinner necks. He meets opponent number 21, who has an unusually thick neck. . . what is his strategy going to be?

If fights are inexpensive it will probably be to his best advantage to challenge, but if the bouts are significantly wearing or dangerous, it may be better strategy to write the bull-necked fellow off as a probable victor and look for new stamping grounds.

What is to happen, in a situation like the one just described to a few variant individuals who happen to have thicker hair around their necks than most? In other words, what about a fake big neck? In general it can provide some privileges not normally enjoyed without it - although it can also have the potential of getting you into trouble. If there are two individuals of equal strength, but one has an artificially enlarged neck, with a thick ruff, the latter may have a more menacing appearance and reduce the opponent to submission without fighting. But what if a juvenile is carrying around an artificially thick neck, way out of proportion to the neck size he would normally support? That's bad business! Along the status hierarchy high dominants seldom notice low subordinates and vice versa. It is members of adjacent age classes and nearby status ranks that get most of the static. And here comes little Joe with a big stick but nothing with which to back it up. He loses all his fights; moreover, he continually receives challenges and is intimidated by all of the powerful contestants around.

There are inherent pressures, therefore, to correlate threat devices with actual ability. We can see the same kind of principle in our own dress. Professor Higgins wouldn't have put Eliza Doolittle in upper-class English clothes and sent her to the ball before he changed her accent and mannerisms.

It's a beautiful sight to slip up on a slowly moving caribou herd in the late fall and see the neck display of the mature bucks. Their neck manes are brilliant white, contrasting with the dark milk-chocolate-colored body. The long white hairs hang in a tress along the underside of the neck. When possible opponents come near, they show the neck by turning the head at an angle to bring the neck into full display. Yearlings, young bulls, and cows have poorly developed manes, and the older caribou bulls have them best developed. It is a continuum which corresponds with an animal's social state during the rut.

So in addition to being fake weapons (or, in this specific, case, fake areas that wield the weapons), social organs serve to dramatize one's social state: age, sex, size, and confidence. In this case they are based on artificially enlarged necks. Though I have mentioned only one character that could have evolved as a threat zone and explained how threat devices (manes) arose to support its signal, I think it represents part of a more general pattern. Many such organs have been modified to strengthen the signals of social state.

We can classify the kinds of social threat ornamentation among animals depending on the type of signal they transmit. There are at least four ways in which signals can be affected: (1) false contours; (2) contrasting and attention-guiding patterns; (3) supernormal signals; and, (4) social automimicry. I'm sure this list isn't exhaustive, but it will serve our purposes to lay the background for a discussion of the human counterparts.

I referred to the phenomenon of false contours when discussing neck sizes and artificially enlarged necks, the ruff or mane. In some animals the entire body is displayed as the animal threatens a potential opponent. The Rocky Mountain goat and the house cat perform this kind of display. The crest along the top of the back is made up of long erectile hairs, which add to the apparent size of the animal. Most threat displays involve an increase in apparent size - hair erection, air inflation, muscle contraction, blood congestion, etc. - and capitalize on increasing the apparent size of the specific organ or body mass. This is basically a signal change affecting signal strength or volume.

Signaling and ornamentation on certain parts of the body are more important than on others: these are our communication "hot spots." These centers are usually the location of important social organs. Some key zones are: weaponry, areas which wield the weaponry genitalia, locomotor organs, major sensory areas (eyes, nose, ears), and glandular regions. The tighter the lines on an elk's body, for example, the more important the area as a signal source. Other examples of social ornamentation are: false contours which affect signal strength or volume; contrast and attention-getting devices; supernormal signals which increase signal strength, automimicry, or self-mimicry. The purpose of this book is to pinpoint those zones and discuss not only how they came to be, but how the location of these hot spots has affected the social organs themselves.

At this juncture, can you begin to anticipate extending principles to human beings? A subliminal flash: human beards.

Contrasting patterns and gaudy outlines are an equally common form of threat orientation. These probably account for most of the colorful markings of animals. One of the more usual patterns is for the signal area to be outlined in contrasting color (or shade, in the case of color-blind animals); or, the entire area is set off with a contrasting color, like the white mane of the dark-bodied caribou. Wapiti have light colored bodies, usually a soft reddish sandy color; their manes, however, are a contrasting dark brown, especially in older bulls during rut. Individuals of a species that are normally viewed from the side by an opponent have a contrasting stripe down the crest of the back - white on black in wild cattle, from which our domestic species arose, or a black stripe on a burro's light body. The expressions of these principles are easy to in other animals, but what about human beings?

The so-called supernormal signals occur in the form of extra-large social organs, i.e. increasing signal strength by increasing the signal amplitude. For example, antlers and horns are used as an estimation of rank in many species of animals. In these species they either grow to gigantic size among the older males, or develop specialized modifications, like filling in between the tines to form palms, thereby increasing the visual effect from a distance; in some species, both things occur.

Social automimicry is a form of mimicry within one's own species or even one part of an organism mimicking another part of the same organism for social ends. One common form is one sex or age class mimicking another. Valerius Geist describes a case in sheep where juvenile rams and ewes have almost identical horn and body patterns. Their social status within the band is much the same they are treated in similar ways by the older rams. Wolfgang Wickler discusses the mimicry of the female's rump patch in male Hamadryas baboons; the patch has become a submissive display organ where once it was a sexual attractant. Another form of automimicry occurs when a signal coming from one part of the body is duplicated by another part. Wolfgang Wickler uses the example of the convergent colors and shapes between the male mandrill's snout and genitals. The crest down the nose and the penis are bright red, the alae for flaps similar to the prepuce; the scrotum and sides of the snout are robin's egg blue; and the chin and scrotum both have pointed yellow goatees. Both areas are used to threaten opponents. Some species of African antelope have ears resembling their horns, increasing the overall effect of "horns." The American pronghorn has a black hook on the ear tip at about the level of the horn's prong, adding to the overall weapon signal.

It is easy to see these principles illustrated in a caribou's mane or a mandrill's genitals, but can you see them in yourself and your neighbors?

Social organs tend to cluster in predictable areas of the body, in "hot spots" which vary somewhat with the group or species, but which follow several general trends running through most animals, including man. Here are a few of the dominant themes: (1) sensory areas; (2) weaponry and areas wielding the weaponry; (3) anal-genital areas; and (4) locomotor structures.

(1) Most specialized sensory areas are also good transmitters. The reason, I suppose, is that they tell, or did originally, one's associate what kind of information you are looking for or getting. Eyes, for example, are one of the most important signal transmitters. Ears, or more precisely, mammalian pinnas, are highly mobile and form an important part of mammalian communication beyond their sound reception role. Dog and cat owners are familiar on a grassroots level with using eyes and ears to read their animals' moods. Nostrils and the mouth areas are other hot spots in mammalian communication. Eyes, ears, nose, and mouth are frequently set off with contrastingly colored outlines or eye-catching patterns. Ears of some species have a tassel of hairs on the tip in contrasting colors, further dramatizing the ear position. Human eyes have elaborate devices to alter the transmitted signal - colored irises, exposed scleras, long lashes, and others discussed in a later chapter.

(2) The presentation of weapons, as in the case of an antler threat is used by many species of animals. Sometimes they aren't presented to the opponent in the battle position, but to show the most impressive view; for example, Valerius Geist describes a display in mountain sheep wherein the ram twists the head to present the horn side-ways. Sometimes weapons are dramatized by contrasting colors, as in the case of many bird beaks. Early deer fought with teeth rather than antlers. A few of the present-day species still retain the black lip spot which gave contrast to the protruding white canine, as it still does today in the Chinese water deer. The human mouth also has not gone unadorned.

(3) Anal and genital organs became modified into social organs because of at least two different reasons. Mammals, one of the group of vertebrates with a well-developed smelling apparatus, have used urine and feces as part of the signaling of who was where and when. The actual acts of urinating and defecating have thus become secondary social gestures. Bison and many of the cattle group have a prepuce tassel, a tuft of hair hanging from the foreskin around the penis opening. The tuft is a scent disseminator, but may have a visual role as well, for it is contrastingly colored. Carnivores, meat-eating animals, almost universally have anal glands with which they anoint the feces, giving it a musky odor in addition to the odors of bacterial incubation.

The other type of signal comes from the sexual overtones of different ways of urinating. A 10-month-old beagle pup begins lifting one leg while urinating, instead of using the female squat. Many mammals dramatize their sexual differences in urination posture. Because of the usual differences in social stature between the sexes, genitalia have also become important signals of maleness and femaleness, aggression and submission, and the genitals have evolved specialized social ornamentation only obliquely related to the ancestral copulatory role. Few things harbor as many human taboos as the anal and genital organs.

(4) The appendages for locomotion - tails, fins, wings, arms - also undergo special modifications as a result of their social role. Movements or intentions of movements have become incorporated into many gestures of social behavior. Decorated appendages with contrasting lines and splotches dramatize these gestures. The two dominant themes are coming toward or escaping and going away from. Many have specialized gaits used in approaching struts or the exaggerated escape leap or "stott." Caribou have a stiff springy gait they use when alarmed, lifting their legs much higher than they need to, flashing their white spots above the glossy black hooves. It is a beautiful sight, enacted on the backdrop of an autumn tundra scene of bright red blueberry shrubs, and yellow dwarf willow.

There is a general pattern in nature for status paraphernalia to vary from one subgroup to the next within a species. The balanced pressures of status ornamentation can be affected by numerous physical aspects of a group's situation. The thick mat of hair used by some groups to increase apparent size of some organs or the entire body also affects heat regulation. A desert ungulate couldn't use the same high crest and thick mane as the Alaskan Rocky Mountain goat. Lion manes also tend to be thicker in cooler areas. In some areas, like the Tsavo Park, the male lions are maneless. In areas covered by snow most of the year, body decoration is often sacrificed for a more concealing white pelage or plumage. Hole-dwelling birds can have more brightly colored plumage than birds which nest in exposed places in the fields. The same sorts of varying pressures occur, between races and subspecies. Furthermore, most social organs are multi functional, and a compromise must often be made.

Likewise, the social situation varies throughout the range of the species. Some areas can support dense populations, other areas only a few scattered souls. Optimum social strategy could be expected to differ as well; and so could the accompanying social ornamentation. It has been shown that mountain sheep populations have better developed social paraphernalia (horns, rump patches, etc.) in newly exploited areas. David Klein, working with two deer populations illustrated how population density and severity of the winter affected selection for body and weaponry size from one population to the next. Undoubtedly, the interrelationships between the diverse physical and social climates experienced by man throughout the world have been responsible for the varying pattern of his social organs skin pigment, hair texture, armpit odor, eye color, nose size -most of the obvious things which, vary among human races.

This brief review of the social organs of other animals can now serve as a sketchy trellis on which the story of our own social organs can grow.