Reading The Evolution of Beauty, a book by ornithologist Richard Prum, brought to mind some speculative thoughts arising out of Prum’s thesis, which are discussed below.
If females have employed aesthetic selection (AS) as an evolutionary tactic to remold males with the objective of increasing female sexual autonomy and thereby improving their reproductive outcomes, as Prum argues, it would appear to be necessary for evolution to also produce a refinement of aesthetic perception (AP) as a trait in females. By definition, the Greek root of the word “aesthetic” means “of sense perception.” One meaning of the word when used as an adjective is “concern with appearance.” Thus, it seems that the term can be used to convey the idea of “concern with perceived appearance.” I think this is probably a pretty good guess as to what Darwin meant in his use of aesthetic selection, and Prum seems to accept Darwin’s position on the matter. Once this trait is well established, strengthened and elaborated, it would probably generalize to concern with perceived appearance for other activities that were not involved in the original evolutionary purpose for AS.
I think the term “beauty,” as it is being used here, essentially means attention to appearance. In the case of AS, this concern is for how physically dominant, aggressive and asocial a potential mate appears and selection against those traits in mates. Following this type of selection bias, one would expect a shift in male appearance and behavior toward the female end of the spectrum, which appears to have occurred in the human lineage. The successful application of AS by females, as an evolutionary strategy, I think would strengthen attention to perceived appearance and in turn produce greater aesthetic perceptual skill. The improved perceptual skill would then result in finer discrimination of physical and social attributes.
I posit that in humans AP, grounded in a strong concern for physical appearance, generalized from mate choice to include concern for the appearance of oneself. A trait having a biological basis, however, does not rule out the potential effects of social values and culture on the expression of concern with appearance. Strong repressive patriarchal cultures allow little or no expression along these lines. More open liberal cultures allow for much more freedom of expression. Even in more open cultures, social values and practical considerations could influence women to voluntarily moderate their self-directed concern for appearance. When expression of AP is moderated, I suspect the concern with appearance might be found to more strongly influence the attention given to living contexts; i.e., physical spaces. I think that as the physical and social differences between men and women narrow, including social roles such as occupations, it could easily lead to more emphasis on drawing distinctions between the appearance of the sexes. If women have already evolved a strong concern for appearance, one response might be to use female beauty culture to accentuate differences.
I hypothesize that the generalization of AP played an important part in the social evolution of a feminine beauty culture as a means of establishing a distinct gender identity. If such is the case, this would entail women using their person as a “canvas” for the expression of beauty motivated by the AP trait.
Further, the beauty motif in feminine culture seems to be related to a range of expressions involving things like fashion in clothing, colorful and tactile sensitive fabrics, make-up, adornment, styling of hair and gracefully patterned movement and mannerisms. Expression of the AP trait also may extend to presentations involving the context in which a woman lives.
There is likely to be a range of variation in the strength of a trait like AP. What one would expect is a distribution that follows the pattern of many other traits. The trait will be quite strong in a small portion of the population, moderate in strength in the majority of the population. and weak in a small portion of the population. There is also likely a social imitation factor in the adoption of components in beauty culture by those in whom the trait is relatively weak. Thus, social imitation might make the biologically based trait appear more dominant than it is in actuality. The strength and expression of the trait may also vary with changes in social preferences and economics, among other factors.
It seems likely that the trait may have migrated to males to some extent. One would expect it to be largely absent in many, generally weaker in those males who have acquired it and normally distributed in those males who have the trait as is the case for other traits. Suppression of the trait seems likely in males due to the implicit need to sharpen the contrast in appearance between men and women through the expression of gender identity.
Most explanations that I’ve read or heard about beauty culture is that it is tied to the notion of sexual signaling. In short, women’s self presentation is for men and intended to attract their attention. Note that the sources of most such explanations that I am aware of seem to have come from men. I don’t doubt that women do, at times, employ their manner of presentation to appeal to men. However, I think this an insufficient motivation to explain the extent of beauty culture. On the other hand, I have often heard women object to the sexual attraction interpretation of their presentation. They often say they don’t “dress” for men that they “dress” for other women. I’ve also heard it said that the behavior is motivated by a sense of personal satisfaction derived from expressing oneself beautifully. In light of the AP trait, explanations like these seem to me to make sense. Who else to better appreciate the explication of a trait than others who posses the same trait? Who else but someone possessing a trait would find intrinsic reward through expressing it?
I was born and reared as a male in a male-dominant culture, so perhaps my speculations are off the mark. They do, at least, seem reasonable to me from my perspective. Women may have a very different take on the beauty culture. I know of some who see it as arising out of male oppression. That is, a set of behaviors imposed on them by men for their own purposes. I think there may be some truth to this, for example, in the case of sexually explicit styles of dress. However, beauty culture goes well beyond sexually explicit dress, and I don’t think it can be adequately explained solely by a dominant patriarchal culture. Prum’s discussion of aesthetic selection based in aesthetic perception seems to have explanatory merit.