Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Evolutionary Psychology and Beauty

I typed a big long comment at Unfogged before I found out that the comments are down, so I'm moving it here. Lizardbreath asked:
It's a commonplace of online discussions (and, I suppose, of some offline as well) that men are attracted to women with certain physical characteristics such as clear skin, big eyes, thick shiny hair, a waist to hip ratio of .7, etc., because of evolutionary forces. Those characteristics act as a proxy for health and fertility, and so men who have sex with women with those characteristics have more children, and a genetic tendency among men to seek out sex with women with those characteristics becomes common in the population.

Okay, fine. But how good a proxy of health and fertility are these characteristics? Anecdotally, I don't see any connection between being pretty and being fertile -- I know big-eyed, clear skinned, slim-waisted women who had lots of trouble getting pregnant, and funny-looking pot-bellied women who had none. Is there any research supporting the idea that the cross-cultural standards of beauty that evolutionary psychology types appeal to are, in fact, a useful proxy for fertility?

(Maybe there is, of course. I just keep seeing this assumed as a step in the argument, rather than spelled out.)
I replied:
No Nym, in the comments at B.Ph.D. posted links to a slew of articles debunking the waist-to-hip ratio myth. Basically a few initial studies suggested it was true, and everyone ran with it, because it sounded so good, but later research showed it to be bunk. No Nym also gave a link to a study saying that the waist to hip ratio of Playboy centerfolds has been increasing, as the fashion model stick figure look catches on other parts of the culture.

In general, I bet you'll find a mixed bag with all of the traits you mention. I don't think anyone has suggested that big eyes are associated with fertility. They are a part of the larger human trend to look like a baby in order to garner more sympathy, and hence assistance from other members of the troop. Look at a baby chimp some time. They look far more human than adult chimps.
Even though I am taking the time to move my comment here, I am still not looking up No Nym's links.

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