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A Review of George Hersey's The Evolution of Allure:Sexual selection from the Medici Venus to the Incredible Hulk

By Linda Robbins


A fascinating journey through history from the Bronze Age to the present day awaits the reader of this provocative and persuasive book.

George Hersey brings together disparate disciplines and strands of development from art, religion and science to explore the question of what sexual selection has to do with art in Western Culture. With skilful reference to well known paintings and sculptures he explains how the diversity of bodily proportions found in Bronze Age art are gradually superseded by the types of body shapes which were considered beautiful throughout the Classical, Renaissance and Baroque periods in our culture. This ‘canonical‘ body shape became immortalised in art. The proportions of the body (counted in heads) became something of an institution with the Medici Venus, Michelangelo’s David and Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of The Vitruvius—Polykleitan canon being perhaps the best known examples of this.

Sexual selection

Hersey reminds us that in nature the sole purpose of life is that of reproduction. Even plants are sexually selected. Flowers evolved in order to attract insects and birds so that each unique species would have a chance of survival in the competition for space in relation to the others. Similarly in the animal world various methods are employed in the competition to attract the best mate and so continue that particular species and gene pool. Methods used in sexual attractor manipulation come in four categories. These are augmentation, borrowing, translation and exchange. They emphasise, perfect and exaggerate certain qualities. For example, baboons in acts of symbolic solidarity display symbols of sexual readiness that mimic those of the females. Hersey thinks these ways of behaving are related to the way humans relate and can be particularly likened to the use of sexually selective human clothing. When we borrow ornaments from other species such as feathers, flowers, fur coats, humans usually choose attractors. Flowers, bustles, bows, and other similar items are usually worn so as to draw attention to breasts or buttocks.


Venus and Mars, c. 1485
Venus and Mars, c. 1485
Botticelli, Sandro
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Violence is linked with sex as well as seduction. Males compete and the females decide who will be their partner. Darwin’s ‘law of battle’ is about this competition and has led to all sorts of development in mating systems. It has been claimed, Hersey says, that the ‘Dawn Chorus’ occurs partly because the unmated males want partners, some mated males are warding of rivals, and other mated males have adulterous motives towards already attached females. It is therefore no wonder that penis size is of concern to men and the ratios of these to total body height is explored in relation to the canonical bodies that are discussed. Size of muscles is also seen as a female attractor and is also discussed throughout.

In evolution sexual selection is the sort of mate choice that helps bring about permanent change

Hersey is of the opinion that figure art has encouraged us to ‘breed for beauty’. Much figure art was related to representation of Gods, Heroes and Saints. These were the characters to which ordinary people aspired and often the most usual form of art available to them. The artists used women from their own families whom they considered beautiful for their models and so ordinary people saw in their religious iconography the representations of women who in their faith were synonymous with virtue and beauty. In the illustrations he selected Hersey points out how the artist has used his techniques to emphasise the sexual appeal of the subject. In particular he points out that the folds of cloth depicted are used to emphasise breasts and the genital area. In representing males the penis was also similarly emphasised as was the musculature.

What are ‘body canons’?

It seems that over about the last 2500 years there has been agreement about the approximate proportions used in art in the representation of the body. The Polykleitan ideal of 71/2 – 81/2 heads became the standard and is in stark contrast to prehistoric examples such as the Venus of Willendorf which is dated 21000-30000 BC and had measurements of about 6 heads high. Later in the book we find that in 19th and 20 th centuries some art has moved to even taller proportions. These measurements apply to the relationship of all body parts to each other so they are in proportion.

Vitruvian Man 1492
Vitruvian Man 1492
Leonardo da Vinci
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The word ‘Canon’ comes from a Greek word meaning a reed that is marked off in equal spaces for use in measuring. Generally it is prescriptive and encourages structure where perhaps this had been absent. There are three main body canons, Polykleitan, devised by the Greek sculptor Polykleitos, Praxitelean, which was especially related to female images such as that of Aphrodite of Cnidos created by Praxiteles, and the Vitruvian canon of Leonardo da Vinci fame devised by Vitruvius. Vitruvius says that ‘if this man lies down with slightly raised arms, and with his legs stretched so as to form an open triangle, a circle can be inscribed around the perimeter formed by his finger ends and feet. The man’s navel will be at the circle’s center. If the man then brings his legs together and extends his arms horizontally, a square should be inscribed around his outstretched limbs and head.’ The proportions occurring in these body canons are still considered of use today in such forms as life drawing.

Further developments

Over the years in Western culture, outward appearances have often led to assumptions about the minds inside the bodies. Saints, Gods, Heroes and Angels were all equated with superior spiritual and mental qualities. It is therefore not surprising that in the 17 th century there arose an interest in faces. In the 18 th century Lavater developed a grid for measuring profiles and developed a series of silhouettes representing the most pleasing.

We are then introduced to Sheldon’s three extreme body types. These are: The mesomorph, the ectomorph, and the endomorph.Hersey compares these to the Polykleitan canon determining that the Mesomorph is the one that equates to this. He explores the notion current at the time that physique was indicative of personality type. This idea lost ground as there was no real basis for it.

The rise of Aryanism in the 19 th and 20 th centuries is linked with continuing preferences for certain body shapes. The preferred body types as portrayed by artists such as Leighton appear to fall into this category, but Hersey’s further investigation illustrates how much confusion existed about what was considered Aryans and what was atavistic in art at this time. Eugenics was of great interest throughout Western culture. However Aryanism has become synonymous with the atrocities and excesses of the Nazi period in popular thought. In fact the Nazi ideal of the tall, blue eyed blonde, (Nordic) physique as Aryan is a travesty if we follow Hersey’s account. Aryans could come from many cultures including Indo European and African.

At this time works of art from earlier periods were analysed from this new perspective. For example, Rembrandt’s Adam and Eve were seen as having atavistic qualities. For the Nazis, Adolf Hitler was seen to exhibit certain Aryan qualities such as a heavy brow, representing weighty thoughts and decisions, but many others would have fulfilled the criteria of ‘degenerative’ by their own admission. Hersey says that Nazism ‘added no new ideas to the ideologies it appropriated. Nazism’s only true novelty was the totalitarianism that put these notions horrifically into effect.’

The idea that body type and personality are interlinked and can be manipulated for political purposes is still around but seems to have taken second place to an interest in extreme body development. Even if one’s body shape does not start out as that of a mesomorph it is possible to work on the body to make it more so. Hersey explores this new dimension using illustrations of body builders. He also looks at how Dimorphism, (the exaggeration of the differences rather than the similarities between the sexes) is another outcome of the use of exchange and augmentation as sexual attractors. The Incredible Hulk and Motormouth are striking examples of this.

Finally, Hersey emphasises that there is a continuing dialogue between the visual arts of and sexual selection which continues to ebb and flow as it has over thousands of years. He likens the extreme proportions of the body builders to prehistoric representations such as that of the .Venus of Lespuge .

This book draws together many aspects of Western thought into a cohesive argument, giving us also an historical overview of the development of what is considered beautiful in our culture.

Linda Robbins is a psychotherapist.

The Evolution of Allure is published by The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts. London England, 1996.

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