protection to their family. Perhaps for the same reason, women consistently prefer tall men to short. If fitness indicators for health and fertility are useful, wouldn't indicators for mental ability be even more useful in choosing a partner for a long-term relationship? The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller has advanced the striking theory that such indicators do exist, but they are familiar under names that give no clue to their biological function. The indicators of mental fitness, in his view, include both cultural activities such as art, music, dance and literature and moral qualities such as 215
Evolutionary biologists have gained considerable insight into what makes fitness indicators true signals, and why they must be qualities that vary in a population. Fitness indicators, and the behavioral preferences for them, are brought about by sexual selection, a form of natural selection but one that works through mating success rather than physical survival. The mechanism of sexual selection was first recognized by Darwin, who had long been puzzled why the males of many species are heavily ornamented, with conspicuous horns or antlers or feathers. These baroque decorations seemed to contribute nothing to survival, posing an apparent challenge to Darwin's idea that the fittest survive. The solution he proposed in The Descent of Man was female choice: peahens for some reason preferred peacocks with gaudy tails, who got to sire more offspring, including sons with gaudy tails and daughters with a taste for them. These male adornments were therefore a worthwhile handicap to their owners because they assisted toward evolution's bottom line of getting more genes into the next generation. That still left the question of how these male embellishments evolved in the first place. Darwin's theory of sexual selection was largely ignored for a century—his contemporaries placed no credence in the idea that female choice could be a major evolutionary force—and it was not until the 1970s that biologists started to develop the theory. One insight was that male ornaments like long plumage were hard to grow and therefore served as an overall indicator of good genes. But if long red tail feathers, say, were the key to male reproductive success, soon every male would be wearing them and they would lose their utility in helping females choose between males of different quality.
The evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi realized that sexual signals of one's health and fitness, if they were to be true and reliable, had to be so costly as to constitute a serious handicap for the displayer. Weak peacocks grow unappetizing tails and only the strongest can grow really beautiful ones. It's that spectrum of ability that provides peahens with a basis for choice. Biologists call such a trait heritable—the quality of the tail varies from one individual to another and part of the variation is caused by the genes.
The physical features that have evolved as fitness indicators in the human mating dance—symmetry of features, fine skin, a shapely body—are known by another name: beauty. People find these features attractive not through some arbitrary criterion or dictate of fashion but because the male and female minds have evolved to look for and appreciate such qualities in a potential mate.
Zahavi's costly signaling theory explains, sad to say, why it is impossible for everyone to be equally beautiful or handsome. Since beauty serves as a fitness indicator, it needs to vary from one individual to another. If everyone were equally beautiful, beauty would have no value as a criterion for sexual selection. The privatization of sex that began 1.7 million years ago did not bring an end to all competition between males for females. But it was a major step in reducing human aggressiveness within societies. And it was followed, many thousands of years later, by a serious evolutionary reduction in the level of aggression between societies.
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