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What We Find Attractive

November 2, 2009

I am a big believer in evolutionary biology and psychology.  Evolutionary psychology tells us that human behavior is generally adaptive to the species.  This means that language, social interaction, and our selection of mates all are based on natural selection.  I am most fascinated by mate selection and how that reflects what we find attractive in the opposite sex.  We all have individual tastes in what we find desirable in others, those tastes can vary over time and can be somewhat broad, but standards of beauty exist for a reason.

Evolutionary psychology theorizes that certain basic characteristics comprise what we think of as beauty and they all exhibit health, fitness, and fertility: clear skin and eyes, symmetry of features, a fit physique, healthy teeth and hair, among others.  There is even a mathematical theory behind what makes a beautiful face and it is consistent across time, sex, race and culture.  It makes sense that as a species whose goal, like all others, is to propagate our genes, we would instinctively seek out and find attractive signs of health and vigor:  men want the best female candidate to bear and raise their offspring and women want the same out of males.  Because women have a shorter period of fertility during their lives than men it is only fitting that manifestations of youth (youth=fertility) are considered attractive especially in females.  Women are seeking the best providers for their children, so it is not surprising that they typically find money and power along with a healthy body (healthy body=healthy genes) desirable in men.  Whereas our primitive ancestral males were out hunting and protecting their clan while the women stayed in their caves tending to the children, today’s men and women most often conform in large part to those same generalized roles.  Modern humans still seek out in others the traits that can best fulfill those duties.

Obviously there are exceptions to these rules.  There are many, many other factors that play a role in whom we choose to partner with besides physical attraction (although arguably many of those traits could also be attributed to natural selection).  Not everyone wants or has children.  People attracted to the same sex are not seeking out the best partner with whom to reproduce using both sets of genes.  Most 75-year old single women are likely not looking for men with the best genes to pass along to their offspring.  And not everyone we end up with is going to conform to the ideal of beauty.  But the standard of beauty is consistently reflected in all forms of media and art across time because our biology dictates it.  People complain about gold-digging women, rich older men who hook up with hot 20-something tarts, the pressure to turn to makeup and cosmetic surgery to make us look like younger, more sexually exaggerated versions of ourselves, impossibly thin models in magazines, and philandering husbands; but in fact these are all to some degree manifestations of our evolutionary drive to pursue the best chances to get our genes into the next generation.  It would be maladaptive for us as a species to seek out mates that were unhealthy, infertile, unable to provide or protect.  Beauty, while fine-tuned by culture, is not some hypothetical construct pressuring us all to live up to an unrealistic ideal.  What we find attractive is hard wired in the human brain – and for good reason.

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