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First published: October 2000

The Biological Purpose of Beauty

by Michael Sones

The biological purpose of Beauty is to attract for purposes of sex. The biological purpose of sex is not fun but reproduction.

There is a reason why flowers are pretty. Flowers are pretty in order to attract. Chlorophyll is green. Without color a plant would be invisible in the green sea of a tropical forest. Flowers communicate information to animals and insects telling them where there is a source of food. These animals and insects help pollinate the flowers and spread the seeds furthering the survival of the particular plant species. Those flowers which evolved some of the most distinctive colours and perfumes were most easily identified. Those insect and animal species which in their evolution learned to recognize sources of food survived-for a while. The dinosaurs teach us that the natural history of species is to become extinct.

Evidence is gradually emerging that many of our preferences for certain things evolved in us over countless millennia. We and our close primate cousins, the chimpanzees with whom we share 98 plus percent of our genes, shared a common ancestor 6,000,000 years ago. Modern human beings gradually evolved from this early ancestor. During that time one of the main preoccupations was survival and, in particular, getting enough food. 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). The world was undoubtedly beautiful, even then, with giant beasts, no cars, no pollution, and no Internet.


Why do we find some things beautiful and not others? Why do we naturally prefer some tastes? For example, all babies in all cultures prefer sweet rather than sour tastes. We can learn to like sour or spicy tastes but the natural preference is for something sweet. To say that this is because breast milk is sweet begs the question. Gradually, over time, we developed preferences for certain things. We became attracted to them. Being attracted by some things and repulsed by others helped us to survive.

Beauty attracts. Youth and health in humans are attractive because they signify reproductive capacity. Across cultures men generally are attracted to younger women more than older ones. Men are attracted to younger women because youth signifies the potential for reproduction. The beautiful woman attracts men who offer her time, attention, and resources in order to become her partner and have children with her. Women generally are attracted to older men because older men have more resources which can potentially be at the disposal of her and her children. The handsome, high status, strong man attracts women who offer him sexual access in order to get his love, attention and resources for her and her children. We are worried that if we are not attractive enough no-one will want us. We will not successfully reproduce and pass on our genes or will not attract someone of high enough status and sufficient income to look after us and our children. All of this stimulates competitiveness. Women compete with other women to be attractive to men. Men compete with other men for positions of power and dominance to be attractive to women because powerful, more dominant men have greater access to resources.

Many of our preferences for tastes or the visual sights which attract us evolved in us. Certain types of landscapes, such as savannahs, are found by people to be more beautiful than others. It has been suggested that this is because modern man evolved on the African savannah and savannah type views afforded long vistas where both prey and predators could be seen. The few trees on savannahs offered places to escape from fearsome predators or to spy out prey.

Views of mountains are generally considered beautiful suggesting mystery and unexplored, beckoning lands.

The reasons why we now find things beautiful gradually evolved in us over hundreds of thousands of years. For instance, woman's long shiny hair is not intrinsically more beautiful than short hair. The preference for long shiny hair evolved because when we were hunter-gatherers long hair could tell us something. Long hair is a visual history. Healthy, shiny hair indicated a healthy, well-nourished body and in a world with few medicines and no doctors it told the history of the health of its wearer and her potential fitness to reproduce.

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Awakening BeautyAnthony Napoleon, the author of Awakening Beauty: An Illustrated Look at Mankind's Love and Hatred of Beauty, is a psychologist who has spent many years studying beauty and its impact upon both individuals and society. He has worked with both cosmetic surgery patients and beauty pageant contestants as well as conducting original research into the field. Awakening Beauty is an unprecedented exposé on the subject of beauty. It is both entertaining and thought provoking, a combination that is as unique as it is telling about the author's approach to the subject of this book. The reader is taken backstage into the worlds of beauty pageants, plastic surgery, trophy wives, murderous rage, wardrobe, makeup, Bill Clinton, the events of September Eleven and other provocative topics where beauty has had its effect. Awakening Beauty invites the reader into a world that is as interesting as it is frightening. Readers are transformed as the author shepherds them from their world into his unique perspective and expertise on beauty. Awakening Beauty includes over one hundred tantalizing photographs and illustrations. Awakening Beauty is a compendium of some of the most interesting facts in print. The subject matter of the book along with the author's unique approach to it makes this book a "must read." Get ready to re-think everything you thought you knew about beautiful women and physical attractiveness.

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