It is impossible to understand attractiveness without reference to Darwin’s majestic theory. Humans are the product of biology and that biology has programmed us to seek out the mates that give us the greatest chance of passing our genes on to the next generation. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – this is certainly true. Noted anthropologist Donald Symons put it another way:beauty is in the adaptations of the beholder.
Evolution is a deceptively simple idea. Traits that give an advantage are selected for by natural selection. The better fitted you are to life the more offspring you leave behind with your genes. So when we chose a mate we are seeking the best possible partner to perpetuate our genes. The really interesting point is that there is no particular reason that we should be consciously aware of why we make the decisions that we make. Subconscious drives work just as well. As long as the result is beneficial natural selection will select for it.
An interesting example of this is smell. It turns out that the way a member of the opposite sex smells plays a very big part in how attractive we find them. This in turn is related to the immune system. We find most attractive those people whose immune system is most unlike our own. This might well explain why so many people are so suspicious of internet dating. Interesting the phrase that is often used for an unsuccessful date with someone who looked perfect on paper is “the chemistry wasn’t there”. Well too right it wasn’t! Specifically the exact phenotypes of the leukotrienes and prostoglandins were incompatible.
There are things that are so familiar to us that it may never cross our minds to see the hand of evolution at work. That men prefer younger women is a commonplace observation, and that although women prefer younger men too – that preference isn’t quite as strong. This is something we rarely give a second thought too. Viewed from an evolutionary perspective it is not hard to explain.
The older a woman gets the more her reproductive potential diminishes – so does a man’s, but not so much and not so finally. It is often said that men have a mid-life crisis some time in their forties. Although buying a motorbike is probably the top example, running off with a much younger woman is a pretty popular option. Indeed, I suspect that if there were more younger women who were prepared to go along with the scheme, they might give the Harley Davidsons more competition.
The male mid-life crisis is often treated with bemusement and even derision by the crisis ridden male’s circle of friends and acquaintances. But there is a serious biological angle to it. The man’s wife has also reached mid-life so he has no chance of increasing his contribution to the gene pool if he sticks with her. Reprehensible as it seems to us socially, chasing younger women is likely to be biologically rewarding. And the guys who did it successfully in the past left more offspring than the more reliable ones.
This isn’t in any way to condone such behaviour or to say we are powerless because of our genes. But it is perhaps easier to understand when we take into account the origin of the urges that lead to it.
Women are also affected strongly by their biology. Their interest in the mating game is to find a partner that is going to stick around long enough to contribute to bringing up the children, so they are likely to consider fidelity a top priority. This is probably why they value things like wedding rings, and indeed big elaborate weddings, that are tokens of commitment. They are seeking out providers, so outward signs of success and sporting prowess are going to be high up their list.
Once you start looking it is fascinating to spot how many everyday and no so everyday observations can be traced back to the biology behind attraction. What constitutes an attractive figure? It turns out that the way the body deposits fat is highly influenced by sex hormones. They also seem to play a role in the health of the skin – explaining why we don’t like having spots. Why is the wicked step father a prominent figure in many folk tales? Could it be that the step father doesn’t want to expend energy on offspring to whom he is not genetically related?
In the end it all boils down to this. We are products of biology and it is our biology that determines what we look like and what we look for. And it is only by understanding biology that we can work out how to best play the hand that the process of evolution has dealt us.
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