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First published: October 2000

Theory of Beauty

by Michael Sones

There is a theory as to why there is beauty in the world and why and how we are capable of perceiving it. This theory is based upon evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology and in its basic form it goes like this: Beauty has a simple biological purpose and that is to attract for purposes of sex. The biological purpose of sex is not fun but reproduction. As the song says birds do it, bees do it, even the flowers and trees do it.

However, the song does not say much about the competition involved. In the natural world in order for living things to survive and grow they must compete for resources. Even in a forest trees and other plants compete for sunlight, water, and nutrients from the soil. Among many animals, including most primates, there is competition to see who is most dominant and "top dog." Animals further up the hierarchy of the social group generally have more access to resources such as food and mating opportunities in order to survive and reproduce their genes. Animals must compete in order to get resources and mates. Animals which did not compete for food would not get enough to eat and so would eventually die. Animals which did not compete for mates would not be able to pass on their genes. Some characteristics which enable an animal to adapt to its environment, and so obtain a reasonable share of resources and mates, may be passed on through its genes. Over countless generations and countless reproductions these characteristics which enable adaptation to the environment become part of the genetic makeup of a species.

Humans, as do many animals and insects, have an innate capacity to find flowers beautiful. This seems to have evolved in us in response to one of the evolved functions of flowers which is to provide information about the plant. Our appreciation of the beauty of flowers may well be innate or instinctive and be an adaptive response to colourful cues in the environment which originally helped primitive hominid species to find sources of food. With experience flowers tell us a lot about the ripeness of a plant's fruit.

Plants use flowers, the reproductive part of the plant, to attract animals and insects to assist in their reproduction through pollination and the spread of seeds. The flower helps us (and animals and insects) to visually find and identify specific plants in what might otherwise be an indistinguishable sea of greens. Contrasting colours within a flower also help make it more visible to insects and animals. Flowers are often most colourful when they are mature and ready for pollination. Colourful bilateral symmetry in a flower indicates that it is more advanced.

One of the first known nonfood hominid uses of flowers is on a Neanderthal grave, dated at over 60,000 years ago, in the Shanidar Cave in Zagros mountains of Iraq. Pollen analysis revealed that the body of a man had been placed on a bed of flowers. Why is not known but one suggestion is that the perfume given off by the flowers helped to cover the odor of the decomposing corpse.

It is in the nature of the genes for them to seek to reproduce themselves. Genes seek to reproduce themselves through having offspring. This, of course, is not 'conscious' but just the way it is.

Robert Trivers is an influential sociobiologist with an important theory of parental and sexual investment. The simple version is as follows: an offspring of two animals carries approximately 50% of the father's genes and 50% of the mother's genes. The cost to the female animal in terms of expenditure of energy and calories of carrying the foetus during pregnancy is considerable. After birth the female animal initially does most of the nurturing through nursing and other caretaking. The parental investment of the female in terms of time and physical energy is greater than the parental investment of the male though the offspring has 50% of the male's genes. Females are therefore a valuable resource to males who can pass on their genes to their offspring with a minimum of investment or cost to themselves.

Because of the cost to the female of carrying the foetus and then expending energy in raising the offspring she will want a male partner of good genetic stock so that her offspring are healthy. It would not pay to invest all of that time and energy in an offspring which would not have much chance of surviving and passing on it genes to its own offspring. Animals which did not select in that manner would not survive themselves. Females cannot see or know what the genes are but appearance gives an indicator. A vigorous, large, strong, dominant male is preferred by the females of many species. Elephant seals are a good case in point. Male Elephant sealselephant seals are much larger than female elephant seals. A male elephant seal might weigh four times as much as a female-perhaps 4,000 pounds to the females 1000. Male elephant seals guard their harems jealously. If another elephant seal tries to mate with a female there is often a ferocious battle as can be seen in the picture. The bigger and stronger elephant seal wins and passes on its genes. If a smaller male elephant seal tries to mate with the females they will often alert the male.

The difference in size between males and females of a species is called sexual dimorphism. Males tend to be larger, more muscular, and take longer to mature. There is greater risk of injury or premature death to males because of their competition for sexual access to females.

Males are not as particular in their choice as females are. It does not take much energy to fertilize a female of even relatively poor quality and if only a few of the offspring survive to pass on their genes then the male has had a bit of fun but not expended any energy in parenting. Thus, females of species tend to be more selective, males tend to be more promiscuous.

There is pressure upon animals for them to be attractive in various ways to members of the opposite sex in order to secure mating opportunities. Among the male animals this usually has to do with size, strength and fighting abilities. Often among birds it has to do with colourful plumage. The female birds choose the male bird which has either built the better nest or has the most colourful feathers. Colourful feathers are often a sign of good health and robust genetic stock. It is as if the male bird is saying "look at me-I can afford to spend all this energy in creating this beautiful plumage because I am healthy."

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Humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor from which we diverged about 6,000,000 years ago. It is important to understand that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years and our bodies evolved in adaptation to that lifestyle and those environmental conditions in which the availability of food varied. Primitive agriculture only began about 10,000 years ago and that is a small fraction (.16%-not even one per cent-check our maths! 10,000 is only 1% of 1,000,000) of the 6,000,000 years that humans have been evolving. Anatomically modern human bodies have only been around for about 150,000 years (about 2.5% of the time). Bodies which could not cope with periods of relative scarcity and abundance did not survive to pass on their genes. Women, in particular, need to have bodies which are capable of storing up food reserves as fat in order to be able to feed their children.

Our ideas and preferences for what is beautiful slowly evolved during the long course of human evolution. Having children was risky and costly to women. A woman needed a man to help provide her with the resources necessary to raise children. It was important to be able to gauge the health of prospective mates. This could only be done through appearances in the days before blood tests. Men generally needed to be tall and muscular in order to be successful at hunting and fighting and thereby able to both resource and protect the women and children from fearsome predators and marauding males. Women needed to be able, hopefully, to withstand the rigors of childbearing and nurturing. Health and beauty were linked.

David
David
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