On beauty, sex and evolution

Apparently we (and some other animals) think people are more ‘beautiful’ if they are more symmetric (and here). Presumably, this is why Les Damoiselles d’Avignon caused such a stir when it arrived on the Paris scene at the turn of the last century. Asymmetrical ladies, not really pretty in that context.

Les Damoiselles d'Avignon

Yet this famous picture is now thought to be one of the most influential, important and yes by some beautiful, pieces of art today. I think probably most people realize that the definition of beauty changes over time, and this definition is influenced by things from human social structure and fads to, especially in the modern age, advertising. However this doesn’t seem to stop some scientists from making the link between ‘ideal beauty’ and how we choose our sexual partners to human evolution.

Much interpretation (at least as it is reported in the mainstream media) of beauty and sex studies are linked to evolution in a sort of ‘Well out on the veld, you would need to be strong and promiscuous in order to spread your seed; which is why today we prefer (fill in the blank)’ kind of way. Which sort of reminds me of buying a horse. Because, apparently, somewhere you can ‘tell’ in your lizard brain about those childbearing hips or even recently, wrists and feet and how this relates to a suitable mate for makin’ babies.

Personally, I find reading some of these studies fascinating but there often seems to be an over-interpretation of the results – specifically when making a link between beauty and sex and evolution. These interpretations are often wrought with unconscious bias. ‘Beauty’ like ‘intelligence’ are incredibly difficult to measure because you have to start with some assumptions about what beauty and intelligence are, and extending this to evolutionary pressures is even more difficult as there is often a pre-supposition about what the answer is before applying it to a theory.

Here is a good example, in the article mentioned above ‘Men find women with small wrists more attractive’ women didn’t actually show a consistent preference between big wristed and small wristed men. But instead of just saying – “we cannot estabilish a link” this was what the researchers concluded:

Women may lack a consistent preference because powerful, masculine men can be a mixed blessing, evolutionarily speaking, says Atkinson. “If they go for a big alpha male, they’ll get good genes,” he says. “But they may be left to raise the child themselves.”

But why this conclusion and not “there is no preference, and we have been unable to find that women select their mates on size alone” ?
Apparently giraffes are the real size-queens.

Moreover, how exactly do you define an alpha male? They are not always the biggest and bulkiest male on the block – and it has never been clear how an alpha male is defined in human social structure (or if there even is one), not to mention, if you want to make a link with the other social animals there are alpha females too (such as in wolves).
However this statement seems to apply the caveman theory – me Tarzan you Jane – of which not only is there not much information, but we’ve been out of caves (for the most part) for a pretty long time.

The article goes on to state this in support of the evolutionary ‘alpha male’ love ’em and leave ’em theory:

Indeed, the women who took part in the study were twice as likely to rate the large-wristed morph as more open to sex without love, and by the same margin opted for the small-wristed morph as a better candidate for a long-term relationship.

On the surface these things might seem to be related but I would argue that while the former statement is a mere over-interpretation of the results (or the non-result), this statement or ‘finding’ is not at all related to the first. How do you know that the alpha male is bigger? But even assuming that he is, how do you know that sex without love means there is no long-term relationship? And what does love have to do with it? Making evolutionary statements based on love is opening up an even bigger can of worms. Go on, define ‘love’ in a scientific sense. The idea of ‘love’ being important to a long-term relationship, is historically relatively recent, just go read about the Tudors and Henry VIII desire for male progeny if you don’t believe me.

Both John Manning at University of Liverpool and Darwin himself caution against overgeneralization and making links between sex, beauty and evolution. In the words of Manning “Darwin thought that there were few universals of physical beauty because there was much variance in appearance and preference across human groups.”

But alot of people still persist in doing this and there is a danger in dressing up ideologies by over-interpreting scientific results. Humans are pretty complex creatures with a pretty complex social structure and I think this needs to be kept in mind when assessing the links between beauty and evolution.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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7 Responses to On beauty, sex and evolution

  1. Teresa Gryder says:

    Hi S. The very first link doesn’t get to its destination. And I agree, it’s far more complex than bone structure. And I’m glad to have this new smidgen of data about the small wrists. Interesting! I want to read the whole study, now. But I’m hitting the road, headed for Arizona from Utah today.

  2. sylviamclain says:

    thanks! fixed the link – sorry I have link autism sometimes. Enjoy

  3. Claire says:

    I wonder if the reason researchers tend to supply such answers (eg…pulled out of their arses) is because they feel insecure about saying simply “I dunno.” I think it’s just human nature. I find myself doing it often despite my best efforts at being as aboveboard as I can. Of course, that might just be because I’m omniscient and don’t want others to be intimidated.

  4. Claire says:

    I would have read the entire article, but I am busy. It’s foot binding day.

  5. sylviamclain says:

    I think having a big theory also is a bit more ‘sexy’ than just saying the results are inconclusive – so I agree this is a possible driving force for such things – Scientists are afterall only human.

  6. marius says:

    Scientists are only human… and reviewers probably ask for more interpretation of data if not provided. Also: this hypothesis (I wouldn’t call it a theory) might have some nice testable predictions, which is better than zilch.

  7. Michael says:

    When you mention it is difficult to define beauty it strikes me that something that always seems to get overlooked in discussions about evolution and attractiveness is that the preference as well as the preferred trait is heritable and can evolve. It’s one of the most important principles in sexual selection but it never gets a mention.

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