Evolutionary fitness and attractiveness

If evolution is all about survival of the fittest, why are we attracted to the cutest?

Cecil’s column fixated mostly on male attraction to females based on hip ratios and body mass indexes, which misses out on most of a very broad subject.

First of all, “fitness” in an evolutionary sense ultimately corresponds to what is actually successful in the long run, not necessarily what we might consider fit. Having a superb immune system or the ability to survive recurrent periods of famine might be more “fit” than strength or speed.

Second, the letter writer says that “physical beauty doesn’t correlate with any of those qualities.” But there is evidence that to some degree it does. Studies suggest that body symmetry correlates with overall good development, and things like skin and hair condition, body posture and facial expression are indicators of physical and mental health; perhaps more in the sense that we’re extremely sensitive to deficiencies in those areas.

Thirdly there is the phenonemon of sexual selection- individuals who happen to have an attraction to a certain physical type and mate with those who fit that type tend to produce offspring with both the physical type and the attraction to it- leading to the possibility of a subpopulation where those traits get perpetuated.

Finally, there is what’s sometimes called “exuberance”- the fact that species and indivduals exhibit behaviors that have no apparent immediate advantage and even appear to impose a burden on survival. The best guess is that such behaviors are very indirect third and fourth-order byproducts of traits that are evolutionarily advantageous.

Isn’t evolutionary fitness, roughly, a measure of adaptation to the environment an organism inhabits (as measured by survival rate of offspring)?

I’m not sure if this would be called “exuberance” or not, but I once read an article that suggested that such traits are an indication of health. The author used the example of peacock tails. If a peacock can afford to drag around such a large thing that does absolutely no good on a day-to-day basis, then obviously he is healthy–otherwise he could not afford such a “waste” of resources and energy. And of course that in turn attracts a mate.

I have a couple of issues with the reply.

The first is that the definition of “beauty” seems to be mostly based on the views of 40 horny college boys. Even if we grant Cecil the benefit of the doubt, and agree that something as subjective as “beauty” can have a scientific underpinning, it still seems like there would be a certain cultural bias. For example, if Sir Mix-A-Lot is to be believed, the hip-to-waist ratio preferred by our English frat boys is not universal.

I would also suspect that the preference of what body type is beautiful has changed over time (e.g. the painter Ruben revered, well, Rubenesque women). So I don’t trust that today’s scientific definition of beauty means our Neanderthal forefathers were only dragging skinny bitches back to the cave.

Secondly, Cecil’s reply seems to focuses (mostly) on body shape. But what about a person’s face??

I think there have been studies that have found an “ideal” face has certain attributes - symmetry, ratio of features, etc., and (I believe) that the preference is similar even account for cultural differences. I would also think that facial preference might be more consistent over time, but I’m just making that up.

But if we’re attracted to a certain symmetry of features, for example, why is that? It doesn’t seem to have much to do with reproductive capability. Does it?

The reply also does not answer what happens when there’s a disconnect between face and body, for which many college “butterfaces” I’ve known could serve as examples.

Certainly wasn’t amongst the most comprehensive or enlightening replies. After the humor, was the question answered in The Reader? We online see the online edition out here.

Is the heat and drought affecting you folk’s thinking in Chicago?

Southsider in exile in CA

It was just an excuse for Cecil to brag about his hot wife.

I think the more appropriate answer is that the traits that we generally regard as beautiful or cute are generally either indicators of health and fitness, even if through the filters of culture, or are exaggerations of features that are indicators of health and fitness.

The reason why this idea is pretty much discredited amongst evolutionary biologists is that it makes no sense. It is either completely self-contradictory or totally Lamarkian.

Just ask yourself, if an animal that can “afford” to drag around such a large tail is obviously healthy, then how healthy must an animal be if it can afford to be blind? Or an animal that can afford to have deformed limbs? Or an animal that can afford to support huge numbers of parasites?

If this hypothesis were in any way true, then the most attractive mates would be those who were lame, blind an diseased. After all, it requires much more energy to survive with those traits than to merely survive with a long tail.

And this is where the concept becomes self-contradictory. We define “healthy” as an an individual who has traits that make survival easier, and then claim that a peacock is healthy because it has a trait that make survival more difficult. Those can’t both be true. Either a trait is an indicator of health when it aids in survival or a trait is an indicator of health when an organism can survive despite the trait making survival more difficult. It can;t be both simultaneously

The reality is that the peacock’s tail is an example or runaway sexual selection. At some point in time having an exaggerated tail must have been indicative of an actual survival advantage, whether mechanical or simply a sign that the individual could find more food than any other. As a result any females that selected based upon tail characteristics produced more surviving offspring than those who selected based upon other traits. Each generation therefore saw more females that selected based upon tail characteristics, and males with better tails had access to ever more mates. Very rapidly such a situation spirals out of control because it is self-reinforcing.

But the point to note is that the trait must initially be selected for because it has an actual survival advantage, and it continues to be exaggerated because it produces more offspring. At not stage is it selected for because it demonstrates that the organism can survive the very adversity that the trait produces. If that were true then we would see large numbers of species where disease and crippling deformity were selected for.

Many traits that humans, especially males, find attractive are indicators of youth rather than fitness or health. A 40 year old female athlete may show vastly more signs of fitness and health than her 18yo self, yet the vast majority of men will find the 18yo version more attractive.

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Bingo. You are right.

I wish someone would do studies on the mating behavior of people well past reproductive years, now that there’s a sizable population past that point who are still actively mating wiht no interest in reproduction.

There are two evolutionary factors at play here. The first is the dichotomy between the sport definition of fitness (capacity to perform tasks) and evolutionary fitness (capacity to bear and raise fertile children). The woman at 40 may better match the first definition and not the latter. Younger females are also less likely to have had other mates, which increase the likelihood of any future offspring being the males, which is a reason why youth is highly valued for males. Females are more concerned with provision and emotional fidelity so that their offspring are not abandoned, so age is less of a factor.

Zahavi contributed to the development of the handicap principle.

It seems that Dear Cecil’s answer was at least partially influenced by his distraction (at the moment) by the lovely (I’m sure) Mrs. Adams, and focusing on ‘body proportions’.

A few of preliminary notes.

1.) This is almost all ‘speculation’ (which I like), so we are unlikely to arrive at anything ‘definitive’ here.

(As an aside, I find that I particularly like to speculate on this subject.)

(Though, Cecil did have, however ‘incomplete’, some ‘scientific papers’ to rely on.)

2.) It seems that it really doesn’t matter all that much (in some sense) about the ‘attractive attributes’ that women may or may not have – there seems to be a large component of the “mating selection” that is done by women.

(While men can find various levels of ‘attractiveness’ in different women, when it comes ‘down to it’, many men will ‘mate with anyone’, if given the chance – and then likely ‘move on’. In fact, it seems ‘common knowledge’ that many men would ‘mate with mattresses’, if the mattresses would be at least ‘semi-cooperative’.)

3.) Joe and Cecil are both males (as am I), so the discussion is quite one-sided.

(Relevant to what I wrote in ‘point #2’, it would be more ‘useful’ to examine what physical features women generally find attractive in men; though the discussion might be less ‘interesting’ … to men.)

4.) Joe specifically asked about evaluating “beauty”, while the the title to the piece mentions “cutest”, and what men are “attracted” to. Nowhere is mentioned ‘raw’ “sexiness”. As an ‘armchair philosopher’, I wouldst distinguish between all of these terms (at some length), but will herein refrain – continuing the muddle created by a conflation of meanings, under the rubric of “attractive”.

(When you think about it, you might easily see that there could be differences between a woman you would like to have sex with, at least once; a woman you think that you could ‘live with’; a woman you would want to have children with; a woman you would want to ‘be seen with’; a woman that you would call “beautiful”; and maybe even a woman that you could ‘spend some time with’ – as they are “cute”, or “charming”.)

5.) I suspect that most of our evaluation of ‘beauty’ is based upon ‘cultural influences’, and that there are few, if any, universal aspects.

6.) Further, I think that we might look for ‘general tendencies’ within a culture, but there does seem to be much variation (probably based upon individual psychology, and maybe a few other factors, such as ‘circumstances’).

(Years ago, someone said to me, in a ‘voice of sagacity’, that “it’s a good thing that we guys are not all attracted to the same woman”.)

Some further ‘complications’.

A.) There are ‘specific features’ (breast, lips, etc.) that can be ‘evaluated in isolation’ (and I apologize for this level of ‘objectification’, but these things are ‘in fact’ ‘factors’) – a woman might be more of less attractive in terms of how her ‘individual scores’ added up. (Though, it might also be a fact that some ‘features’ go better with some other ‘features’, so that there could be more than one ‘package’ of ‘equal value’.)

(Cecil assumed the, excuse the expression, “gross morphology” of “silhouette” and “BMI”, as a means of addressing the question.)

B.) “Horniness”. Similar to the ‘appreciation of food’ (where an “optimal degree of hunger” is important for ‘peak experience’), it is my perception that there is an “optimal horniness” for ‘appreciating female physiognomy’ (or “peek experience”, if you will). A guy may not be so ‘appreciative’ just after an orgasm; and there can be a state of ‘overly horniness’, where a guy “just wants to get his rocks off”, and also is not so ‘appreciative’, nor ‘particular’. “At optimum”, there is a ‘wide appreciation’, but ‘preferences’ are still discernable.

C.) “Clothing”, (or “not”). This can ‘say a lot’ about a woman, including “values identity” (or “style”), which can play into 'attractiveness", eh?

D.) When I was a youth, I heard the a ‘folk observation’ that guys (or “young guys”, at least) tend to be attracted to women who “resemble Mom”.

(This would tend to throw the notion of “universality” out of the proverbial ‘window’.)

(Oh, and besides the “Rubenesque” thing, already mentioned by someone else, I once read that there was a time when women tended to be found ‘attractive’ who had very ‘light skin’, as this supposedly showed that they were of ‘upper class’ and need not be exposed to the sun. For some time now, however, women who are ‘tanned’ are thought attractive, as they have the ‘discretionary time’ to spend some of their days out-of-doors. I think that “smoking cigarettes” has also reversed in terms of ‘social cues’.)

E.) There is a truism that, as men age, they find a wider and wider variation in female-features to be attractive.

(I remember that B.F. Skinner had his own, “behavioralist”, explanation for this phenomenon.)

F.) As Cecil mentioned, the “scent of a woman” can be a factor’; as well as listening to a woman talk, and watching her move.

(There are obviously can be very many factors that play into ‘attractiveness’, such as ‘personality’, and ‘ability’, et cetera, but we want to ‘focus’ on what we can ‘focus on’.)

G.) Miscellaneous factors in a male’s evaluation of a female. “Time of night” (or day); “opportunity” and “fleetingness” thereof); being in a “vacation mode” (or a “Friday after work mode”); ‘confidence’ and testosterone build-up, after “winning” a competition; the well-known “beer goggles” effect; the lesser well-known, but widely recognized “Coolidge effect”.

(I will add a factor that I dreamed up, and that is a “ripeness factor”. This is the case where two people are both “seriously looking” for a partner, and they more or less happen upon each other. Each person, is not only ‘looking’, but they also sense the “ripeness” in the other person. This can make for a very “hot date”.)

So, given all that ‘preliminary hoo-hah’, is there anything left to be said, in response to the original question? What might underlie a ‘general beauty’ and ‘attractiveness’ in female facial features (and probably ‘head-shape’)?

Quite some time ago, I read that “evenness of features” (which is a little vague, eh?), and “symmetry”, were often found attractive, as these aspects were thought to indicate “good genetic material”. (I guess that I will ‘accept that statement’, for now, as it is a ‘start’ for further examination, later – by someone else, I hope.)

Also, I’ve read, we have an ability to ‘look for the norm’ in our surrounding population, and there is some tendency to appreciate those features which are most within the ‘median range’. I guess that we sense that ‘things are safer within the center of the herd’, and that would be the best way to form a ‘rating’.

However, I will add a couple of other aspects to consider.

Of course, “nubility” is probably one of the primary and obvious elements. That is, anything that suggests of a woman being within a few years post menarche, and ‘general healthiness’. Certainly ‘skin tone’ would play into such, but also size of nose and ears (as these continue to grow, as we get older). “Eye sparkle” would indicate ‘healthiness’, I suspect. (Shaving body hair might stem from this aspect, perhaps.)

Leaving the face, for the moment, I’m guessing “perkiness of breasts”, and “flat abdomen” would be ‘noticed’ and ‘appreciated’.

Another broad category could be “distinguishability from men”. Men like to easily see that they are ‘in the right ballpark’, for ‘mating purposes’. I think that men tend to like some ‘delicacy of features’ (such as smallish chin and nose), as these are obvious ‘objectifiable’ characteristics – kind of “go” signals, if you will. We usually like to ‘see’ at least some ‘bumps on the chest’, and maybe some ‘extra padding’ on the behind. (Long hair, jewelry – particularly earrings – and dresses, all symbolize femininity.)

Somewhat following that line (maybe), humans tend to exhibit “sexual dimorphism”. I’ve done a little reading on the topic, but I can’t really absorb everything I read. In humans, this is the tendency for males to be physically larger than females. For whatever reason this is, guys usually prefer gals that are smaller than they are.

I’ll ‘toss in’ that a certain “wideness of hips”, within a range of proportionality (and norm), would ‘look like’ a woman could readily give birth to one’ s offspring.

And, I can’t help but think that ‘puffy and rouged lips’ are suggestive of sexually stimulated ‘lower labia’.

Lastly, it is generally pretty ‘sexy’ when a woman smiles at a man. It seems to be saying, “maybe, baby”. Dontcha think?


I enjoyed that “very broad subject”.


Cecil seems to have missed the obvious. Preintelligent humans lived in small groups generally formed around a family, with the alpha male running the show. For men, passing on genes was a matter of mating with as many women as possible, which meant competing to be the alpha male. That’s why men are competitive. And for women it meant attracting the alpha male’s attention, which is why women are attractive, and why they compete to be the most attractive.

The actual indicators of attractiveness are purely subjective measures and vary from society to society. It’s a case of once a system is established you either go with it or you don’t mate. And because the system is a feedback system driven by many varying inputs it changes irregularly for no obvious reason. Trying to find logic in it is just silly. :slight_smile:

According to Darwin, there are two forms of selection: There’s the natural selection of fitness, and there is sexual selection. We all understand natural selection, but sexual selection is more difficult.

Basically, you have the two sexes of the species selecting each other for some trait that can’t be easily fooled. For example, the peahen doesn’t select a male based upon how dirty and dingy the males feathers are. Any male who wanders into a mud hole could make himself easily the most fit.

Instead, the peahen chooses the male’s plumage. She is looking for the brightest, showiest plumage around. Unfit males can’t fake that. The healthier and more fit the male, the better their plumage.

A note here: The peahen doesn’t consciously select some random feature. Evolution makes the choice. The offspring of peahens who bred with peacocks with dingy tale feathers simply couldn’t compete with the offspring of peahen who bred with peacocks with the brightest showiest plumage.

In each generation, the peahen selects the males with the best plumage. This puts evolutionary pressure on the peacock to out compete one another with the best plumage. Those with the showiest plumage get an evolutionary advantage by producing more and better fit progeny.

This competitive pressure on the peacocks to produce brighter, fancier, and showier plumage starts to produce plumage that is naturally unfit. However, whatever disadvantage the showier plumage has (easier for predators to spot, makes it harder to escape predators, harder to maintain, etc.) the advantage of sexual selection outweighs it.

Thus, a peacock’s tail feathers would not be selected by mere natural selection. If that was the case, the ones with the biggest showiest plumage would quickly disappear since their short tailed featured competitors would more easily survive. It’s sexual selection, the female peahens selecting the healthiest mates by using features that males can’t cheat on overrides natural selection.

Sooner or later, a balance will be achieved between natural selection and sexual selection. If the tail feathers get too big, and the peacock can’t move, natural selection will move in no matter how attractive it may be to the peahen.

Youth is an indicator of health and fitness. Especially reproductive fitness.

That’s not really relevant to human evolution, though. That’s more of a side effect of an innate sex drive coupled with health and longevity and medical support.

Dear Cecil,

In addition to the shape of women indicating their ability to carry children there are many other important indicators going on as well in our desire. Here are a few thoughts you may find interesting. Proper shape indicates a greater likelihood of a normal hormonal milieu including menstrual hormones like estrogen and desire hormones like testosterone. Evidence of unusual hormone levels may be expected to show up in ways that we would find less attractive such as acne, obesity, absence of breasts etc.

Recognition of shapeliness also confers a survival benefit. When out on the hunt away from one’s village a typical female form with slim waist, wider hips and breasts gives early information, from a distance about whether the approaching person is a potential male (enemy from another tribe) or a potential mating partner (female).

In addition, in “The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Desire” by Matt Ridley, Ridley explains that the genes for pheromones are tied to the gene for the HLA B27 immune system antigen suggesting that we are attracted to people who match with us in such a way that we pair bond with people who will produce offspring that will be better able to defend themselves, immunologically, from their own bacteria and parasites. This helps prevent them from losing ground in the fight for survival (thus running in one spot like the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland).

In The Evolution of Desire David Buss studied 10,000 people from 37 cultures and shows that one of the strongest indicators of who women will be attracted to are indicators of social power. This, of course, is a surrogate indicator that may suggest a greater likelihood that the male can provide safety and food for offspring - conferring a greater chance of survival. These indicators may look different in different cultures. In a third world country it may mean having a well or a cow or being a chief or it may mean having a fancy car, jewellery, job etc. Interestingly, times have changed perhaps confusing evolution. Nowadays nerdy geeks can run massive tech companies and unattractive men can be rock stars. Men with a lot of the trappings of wealth can actually have a lot of debt.

There is moderate research showing that if you take beautiful women like Cher and Celine Dion who have striking facial features like Cher’s cheeks and Celine’s chin and morph them together with the computer to create a series of ten in between facial images men will find the average (middle) face the most beautiful. Why? Faces that are further from the societal average may be more likely to belong to people that carry genetic abnormalities or don’t belong to our tribe. Don’t think of the examples I have given above but rather think of Marty Feldman or Shane MacGowan or Lyle Lovett. Now think of a more extreme example like Quasimodo (don’t mate with him). On the other hand, think of Whitney Houston who reportedly had one of the most symmetrical (average) faces in show business - something that we perceive as beautiful.

Interestingly, in male birds the size and color of the plumage and how wonderful the song is can be partially tied to testosterone levels. In the same way that chest hair (at times in our social history) and muscles in men may be tied to testosterone levels as well. These features indicated to potential female partners something about his hormone levels.

The system is wonderfully complicated.

evolution is like the weather, too complicated to ever make sense out of it. think cecil was poo pooin all the junk science everybody brings to such discussions.