Mania is a disabling disease that reveals much about our emotional makeup. The innovation resulting in the evolution of our own species was the development of an intensely positive sensation elicited when others admire us. The endless nature of Homo sapiens’ hunger for attention from one another distinguishes our species. The powerful drive to seek the attention of an audience has resulted in the development of an endless variety of species-specific behaviors tantamount to competitive sexual display. The pervasiveness of this strong proclivity in humans renders us all at once brilliantly creative, cruel, and absurd. Ancient biblical texts distilled these qualities into a single word: vanity.
Body decoration, like wearing a necklace of pierced shells, is seen by scholars as an advance in the cognitive ability to create symbols enabled by fortuitous genetic mutations (the “cognitive revolution”). The shell necklace is a symbol if it stands for something else, like belonging to a group or conveying social status. I propose that wearing jewelry only secondarily became symbolic, and that a more plausible explanation for its emergence is as a natural response to the simultaneous desire for—and the desire to be desired for—beauty. The principle in play here is that, when there is a will, the will finds a way.
One dimension of our species’ response to beauty, in this case a beautiful shell, is to find it attractive and perhaps pick it up. But then, the other linked motivational component is that it’s you (and not the shell) that wishes to be desired for being beautiful. The first step in the resolution of this dilemma is to possess the shell. However, although everyone needs to know that the shell belongs to you, what’s the sense of owning it if you don’t show it off? So, ardently drawn by these vain desires, how much brain power would it take to figure out how to display that pretty shell by poking a hole in it and fastening it around your neck with a reed? And once a couple of people started doing it, many more would have started imitating it, like an early fashion craze. Another excerpt here.
Cognitive leap or just vanity?