Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Law porn and the peacock's tail

I've posted this image and the briefest of explanations on BioLaw, but it occurs to me that there is a MoneyLaw connection as well:

Peacock
Writers here at MoneyLaw have taken a mostly dim view of "law porn," the technical term for the flow of correspondence that floods law schools each September and October in anticipation of the annual U.S. News & World Report popularity contest. Jeff Harrison adamantly opposes the practice. For my part, I look upon the custom whimsically. In very practical terms, I have nixed a mass-mailing of the University of Louisville's law alumni magazine to legal academics.

As I look at Alistair the Peacock, who belongs to the author of Beyond the Fringe, an Australian blog, I realize that law porn is better explained as a manifestation of sexual selection rather than natural selection. After giving a very cursory explanation of the underlying evolutionary biology, I will apply my insight to law school administration and the "law porn" phenomenon.

Recall what Charles Darwin said about the peacock's tail. The garish -- indeed, crippling -- display of feathers comes at some expense to the peacock's survival. It takes more energy. It reduces the peacock's ability to escape predators. But those costs are offset by the tail's value in attracting peahens:



If the above video does not render, click here to view it in a popup window

Moving from peacock courtship to law teaching, let us apply this wisdom to our own little ecosystem. Law schools send out self-promoting porn, not because it enables them to do their jobs better (quite the contrary is demonstrably true), but rather because it is crippling. Sending out law porn, at enormous expense in terms of printing, postage, and personnel, issues a readily understood signal: My law school can afford to promote itself this way. Vote generously.

PeacockIndeed, in even more precise biological terms, law schools' practice of shipping law porn manifests a human variant of koinophilia. Organisms exhibiting koinophilia prefer mates who do not have unusual, peculiar, or deviant features. In other words, sexual creatures prefer mates with common or average features. Peacock courtship is often cited as the classic instance of koinophilia. If peacocks are any guide (and I am strenuously arguing that they are), law porn will not only be persistent. Over time, it will converge toward a stylistic sameness that becomes rigidly obligatory. Woe be unto the law school that attempts to opt out, or to deviate in its porn-shipping strategies.

To sum up:
  1. Law schools send out porn, not because it helps them do their jobs, but precisely because it is costly and everyone else knows it.

  2. Law porn is an ironically appropriate term because the evolutionary phenomenon it resembles is sexual rather than natural selection.

  3. Because law porn, like the tail feathers of the peacock, reflects the underlying koinophilia of its producers and consumers, it is not only persistent. It will converge toward a consistent "industry standard."

5 Comments:

Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Excuse me for a minute. I need a cold shower.

10/25/2007 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have parts of this backwards. The theory behind the peacock's tail is that the ability to invest lots of inputs into a showy but essentially useful item is a sign that that particular peacock has a great surplus of energy, etc. to invest. (A controversial theory, by the way.)

But in the intellectual hierarchy of law schools, the way institutions signal their extreme wealth of resources is by false modesty -- rather than investing in the display, the top schools do without such a display. The very fact of bypassing an opportunity of self-promotion is a signal that such self-promotion isn't necessary --- that one's place in the hierarchy is already assured and well-known. (Sort of the way those with old money in England may be content to live in shabbier houses...)

10/29/2007 6:11 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

Very nice commentary, Jim. I have a little riff on Robert Frank's application of evo-bio to economics:

http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/
2007/05/limits_of_perfo.html

He calls big antlers in elk "smart for one, dumb for all." These promotional materials probably end up being similar.

10/30/2007 11:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Following up on frank's reference to Robert Frank: is this really a case of koinophilia? just as the peacock with the unusually glorious tail attracts the most attention (not the one with the most average tail), here too there is a race to produce more, glossier, longer self-celebrations. A race to waste more money, except that the theory suggests it is not a waste. whereas if I understand the term koinophilia correctly, then outliers in either direction would not be evolutionarily successful.

10/31/2007 8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what is the surivial of the peacock

10/29/2008 10:15 PM  

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