Brain teaser: how grey mat­ter drives sex­ual at­trac­tive­ness

Fe­males are the ‘bi­o­log­i­cal pup­peteers’ driv­ing the evo­lu­tion of al­lure, says Si­mon Un­der­down

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Si­mon Un­der­down is se­nior lec­turer in bi­o­log­i­cal an­thro­pol­ogy at Ox­ford Brookes Univer­sity.

A Taste for the Beau­ti­ful: The Evo­lu­tion of At­trac­tion By Michael J. Ryan Prince­ton Univer­sity Press 208pp, £22.95 ISBN 9780691167268 Pub­lished 7 Fe­bru­ary 2018

At­trac­tion is of­ten re­garded as a mat­ter of per­sonal taste. Swathes of po­etry have been writ­ten on the per­cep­tion of beauty: some beau­ti­ful, some ter­ri­ble. It’s the way our brains tell the dif­fer­ence that has its ge­n­e­sis in the evo­lu­tion of at­trac­tion.

This is a hugely en­joy­able book writ­ten with au­thor­ity, easy charm and a great deal of wit. Michael J. Ryan sum­maris­ing his, not unim­pres­sive, ca­reer as “forty years study­ing the sex­ual be­hav­iour of a tiny, bumpy frog in Cen­tral Amer­ica” is one such gem; con­trast­ing the words of Don­ald Rums­feld with Dr Seuss while pon­der­ing the de­vel­op­ment of sex­ual beauty and mate pref­er­ence is another. This is sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion as it should be done: au­thor­i­ta­tive but never dull, en­gag­ing but never dumbed down. I’m in dan­ger of stray­ing into the ter­ri­tory of bad puns, but it re­ally is a beau­ti­ful book.

One of the most com­pelling ar­gu­ments comes right at the start, where a dis­tinc­tion is drawn be­tween sex and most other bi­o­log­i­cal func­tions such as eat­ing and sleep­ing. Such ac­tiv­i­ties are largely func­tional and just hap­pen. But Ryan ar­gues that sex is some­thing dif­fer­ent, sup­ported by a va­ri­ety of phys­i­cal traits as well as com­plex rit­u­als and courtship be­hav­iours that can be found right across the an­i­mal king­dom. As ever, we hu­mans like to think that our char­ac­ter­is­tics are unique or spe­cial, but here we seem to be fol­low­ing the same pat­tern as other an­i­mals.

The role of th­ese adap­ta­tions and be­hav­iours is to in­crease the chance of mat­ing and thus pro­duc­ing off­spring – the ul­ti­mate aim of evo­lu­tion. Dar­win was the first (isn’t he al­ways?) to pon­der the role of sex­ual at­trac­tion in evo­lu­tion, and his the­ory of sex­ual se­lec­tion el­e­gantly ex­plained why an­i­mals de­velop shim­mer­ing colours, elab­o­rate tails or be­witch­ing calls, ar­gu­ing that they have an in­nate sense of beauty. This cre­ates a sex­ual arms race that se­lects for ever more ex­trav­a­gant dis­plays.

While Dar­win was able to ex­plain why many an­i­mals evolved to be beau­ti­ful, he ran into a dead end when it came to how they evolved. Un­der­stand­ing how an­i­mals per­ceive and re­spond to beauty is the cen­tral is­sue ex­plored through­out the book. Us­ing a daz­zling range of ex­am­ples (do take a mo­ment to google the pea­cock spi­der; it will brighten your day), Ryan builds a per­sua­sive case for the role of the brain as the cru­cial con­trol mech­a­nism that drives the evo­lu­tion of beauty.

This link be­tween beauty and evo­lu­tion­ary suc­cess is based specif­i­cally in the brains of fe­males, which gives them the role of “bi­o­log­i­cal pup­peteers”, es­sen­tially driv­ing the de­vel­op­ment of “beau­ti­ful” traits in males. Once again the ac­cou­trements of hu­man cul­tural adap­ta­tion can be ex­plored and un­der­stood from this per­spec­tive. The epi­logue is es­pe­cially thought-pro­vok­ing and flags up sev­eral unan­swered ques­tions on, for ex­am­ple, gen­der and the in­her­ent na­ture of beauty that will leave the reader pon­der­ing the dy­nam­ics of beauty and at­trac­tion long af­ter putting the book down.

So it turns out that Shake­speare was wrong when he said “beauty is bought by judge­ment of the eye”. At­trac­tion is rather the do­main of the lit­tle grey cells.

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