Aesthetic Perception and Beauty Culture

Having read The Evolution of Beauty, a book by Richard Prum, I subsequently had 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 favor 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 the word, and Prum seems to accept Darwin’s position on the matter. Once this trait is well established, strengthened and elaborated, it might generalize to giving concern with perceived appearance to other activities that were not involved in the original evolutionary goal for AS.

I think the term “beauty” as a concept held by non-human animals is unlikely and could be dropped as being too anthropomorphic. Instead, I’d suggest to just simply go with “concern for appearance.” In the case of AS, this concern is for how physically dominant, aggressive and asocial a potential mate appears. As aesthetic selection progresses, 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 success of AS for females, as an evolutionary strategy, I think would strengthen the focus on perceived appearance and in turn produce greater perceptual skill. resulting in finer discrimination of physical and social attributes.

I posit that AP grounded in a strong concern for physical appearance generalized from mate choice to include self. This does not rule out the potential effects of social values and culture on the expression of concern with appearance. Strong patriarchal cultures such as most of those in the middle east allow little or no expression along these lines. More open cultures, such as those considered to be western, allow for much more freedom of expression. Even in those 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 wonder if the concern with appearance might be found to more strongly influence the attention given to living context; i.e., the home or office. 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 other means of distinguishing between the sexes. If women have already evolved a strong concern for appearance, I think one response might be to employ female beauty culture to accentuate differences. 

I suggest that the generalization of AP played an important part in the social evolution of a feminine beauty culture. This culture can serve as a means of drawing an observable contrast between men and women. Further, and less tied to specific times and circumstances, I suggest the possibility that the generalized AP trait has led to women using their person as a “canvas” for the expression of beauty motivated by the AP trait. 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 a social imitation factor in the adoption of components in feminine culture that are influenced by AP. I think that many females in whom the trait is relatively weak may imitate trend setters in whom the trait is stronger. This might make the biologically based trait appear more dominant than it is in actuality.

One caveat is that these speculations are for females in general and may not apply to specific individuals in which it might be weaker. Even if one were to look at individual women, 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. The strength and expression of the trait may also vary with changes in social preferences and economics, among other factors. It is likely that the trait may have migrated to males to some extent. though one would expect it to be largely absent in many, generally weaker in those males who have acquired it, distributed in those males who have the trait in a manner similar to the distribution of other traits. and to be subject to significant social forces of suppression.

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 “dress” for men to attract their attention. Note that the sources of most such explanations have been men. I don’t doubt that women do, at times, employ their manner of “dress” 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 this interpretation of their behavior, saying that they don’t dress for men. I’ve heard women say that they “dress” for other women. I’ve also heard them say 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 or who else would be intrinsically rewarded by expressing a trait than someone possessing the trait?

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 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 aesthetic selection based in aesthetic perception seems to have explanatory merit.

David Center

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