Hello again after a long hiatus. Life has this unfortunate habit of getting in the way. Anyhow here we are with my first requested post! (Hi Raphael!)
So we have been talking about how different people react to someone who is what is considered attractive and why we do that. This blog shall address the second part of this complex question. So here we go… attraction.
As usual I’m prone to look back into nature to see what other species do and why. When it comes down to attraction two examples spring to mind: we consider babies cute and we/other species consider people/members of their species a possible object of sexual desire if they meet certain criteria. Why is either of that? Lets start with babies, because who wouldn’t love puppy pictures?
So there we have this cute little doogie. It’s SO CUTE. In fact it is so cute we are willing to forgive any chewed up shoe, every patently slobbered favourite book of ours and every accident before they are house-trained. See the pattern here? Babies need to learn a lot of things, they are clumsy in their approach and occasionally destructive. Not something you want to feed and teach. But the survival of the species depends on elders feeding and teaching the young in many many mammals, birds and other critters. So the babies need something going for them and since they are so inexperienced with the world they won’t wow you with doing your taxes any day soon. They might want to “help” tho. And isn’t that CUTE? And this is what they give you. Cute. You want to watch them learn because those who always wanted to watch the next generation learn were more likely to feed and teach them, thus increasing their chance of survival and in turn increasing the likelihood of passing on the AWWWW genes. Unsurprisingly baby stick insects which do not need to be fed or taught are not very cute. Nor have i ever observed their parents awwwing over cute. But the latter could be my limited skills in reading the emotional state in stick insects.
So here we go the attraction to cute, baby face, immature clumsiness and the like have very real reasons. What about sexual attraction? See here it gets less universal. We consider the babies of species who go for cute as cute ever if the likelihood of us ever needing to teach a lion cub to hunt is rather limited. We don’t go for lions manes as indicators of sexiness. (Some 80s hairstyles might beg to differ tho.) Neither do we go for peacock tails. Yes they are pretty but they are not sexy. In some obscure flies the measure for sexy is the length of the stem on which the eyes are positioned. In fact many male flies loose their eyes when shedding the last puppae skin because the stem is too long and thin. Notice the pattern? All male characteristics and all seemingly with no other pattern. Except often it does not increase the chance of survival much, does it? Having a peacock tail like the males have, even when its nicely folded up has got to be inconvenient at times. Even if the blind male flies might argue that’s not the shortest end of the stick. So why do some males have such weird physical feature and why is it such a big deal what is attractive?
Well the reason the males are the ones going for flashy signs is precisely because it hinders survival. You see in most species having a reduced number of males does not hurt population size or species survival. The surviving males may just have a harem and there is that. Having a decreased number of females normally does not bodes well because by and large the fertilised egg cell is the females to guard and nurture into a organism ready to give birth to or hatch. And sperm cells naturally and by definition are the ones more numerous and abundant at any given time. No females, no egg cells, no offspring; very inconvenient. So the females get to pick the males. The males in turn need to find a way to get picked. A female of course wants a fit male (as in having selective advantages, not physically fit, even if there is a potential overlap) and for some reason males do not have their respective fitness tatooed on their forehead or in lieu of a plainly visible forehead (hello mr. oyster) on another plainly visibly body part. So how do the females know which male to pick? Ha! Remember that male peacock with the colourful tail that screams “Your next meal currently resides here!” to every predator? Well he is still alive. With a tail like that you better are a good survivor otherwise. So the tails are handicap to survival. This is used as an indication of fitness. Same with all the other obscure things females of varying species go for. And that is the reason why what is considered sexy is not as uniform as what is cute in babies. Sometimes diverging sexual preference even is the sole reason why two different species became two different species.
So that was nice and dandy but it has on its own only a limited potential to explain the obsession with ripped abs and butts and why our behaviour is changed so much by this superficial display. A while back it was sexy to be overweight and pale. What we consider attractive changes over time to a certain degree. What never changes is our inherent drive to surround ourselves with attractive people because we are very hard wired to link attractiveness to fitness. I’m thinking as a species that is more or less monogamous and who takes considerable effort in childrearing females of course don’t only want good genes for their offspring but also a father who commits to childraising, who teaches the young and is in general a good father. I’m rather certain we confuse attractiveness with good character precisely because this qualities of character I mentioned also display increased fitness. So someone who looks good gets away with bullshit because we are blinded by good looks. Much like we let cute babies get away with making us deal with their poo. We vote for attractive people because we think they are good leaders. Which is a sad shortcut which obviously does not work very well. We have no other tradition in our genes to detect and value and validate competence. I certainly hope the age of free flowing information changes some of that but we are up against millions of years of natural selection for something quite different.