Summary: Even if there are some evolutionary influences on what we find attractive, like happiness, attraction is not static. It depends, at least in part, on things we do, think and say. Both in the present and in our lived past. And this occurs in a cultural/social context as well as an evolutionary one.
What causes attraction in the first place? People will say ‘chemistry’. But what do they mean? Is it true? Or is chemistry just a myth, or perhaps just another social construct?
I became interested in this issue when three female friends, all of whom considered themselves to be strong feminists, confided to me that they preferred their male sexual partners to be taller than themselves. Had they internalised socially constructed patriarchal ideas? Or was there some other basis to this aspect of their attraction?
There are two main theories for what causes attraction, evolutionary theory and cultural theory. Culture includes that which feminists have referred to as social conditioning.
The two theories are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, if it is true that evolutionary forces have any influence over what we find attractive, then one would expect that any given culture would reflect, and reinforce, but potentially also modify, these evolutionary influences.
Evolutionary theory holds that sexual attraction is mainly, or at least significantly, influenced by factors that are “hardwired” into the brain, due to evolutionary forces. These may operate to influence both physical or psychological attraction.
Theories on evolutionary (biological) influences and physical attraction
Male peacocks have large colourful tails. There is no immediate survival advantage. Indeed, such a large tail would hinder their escape from predators. But female peacocks are hardwired to find these tales attractive. Thus, some physical features evolve in animals simply because they provide a sex selection advantage to the holder. The evolution of characteristics because of their mating benefits, rather than because of their survival benefits, is known as “sexual selection”.
Among homo sapiens female attractiveness is said to be linked to observable cues to fertility- youth (e.g., clear skin, smooth skin, full face, lustrous hair) and cues to health (e.g., absence of sores or lesions).
Buss and Schmidt claim there is extensive cross-cultural and historical evidence for the importance of waist to hip ratio as a key component of female physical attractiveness. They say that how large a part it plays (in comparison with other cues such as body mass index, breasts, buttocks, face, and hair) remains to be determined.
Male physical attractiveness is said to be linked to features that will likely result in healthy off-spring. Indeed height is said to be one of these features. Broad shoulders with narrower hips, athleticism, a strong jawline, and a deep voice are said to be others.
Marta Iglesias says that it is important for feminism to understand evolution. She says some feminists believe that equality of behaviour in the sexes would exist in nature and it is only culture that generates inter-sexual differences.
Iglesias thinks there is a reluctance by some feminists to recognise evolutionary influence in physical attraction because it is feared these may provide a biological justification for inequality.
But she says this fear, apart from being anti-scientific, is based on wrong assumptions. One of these assumptions is that because something is biologically based it is “natural” and therefore both ‘good” and immutable. She says the idea that everything that is natural is good or immutable is wrong.
“If all natural things were good, then companies making orthodontic braces would have gone bankrupt long ago… It might be natural to have sex with 13-year-olds who are already sexually mature…or to use other species cruelly for our personal benefit. And yet, most of us do not do these things, nor do we excuse those who might. That a form of behaviour has its basis in biology does nothing to recommend it. Cultural norms are agreements about conduct and ethics, and they need not be justified with reference to what is and is not natural. Finally, with regard to whether all phenomena with a basis in biology are immutable, we can refute (that) by observing that guide dogs refrain from marking their territory at every corner.”
Buss and Schmidt make a similar point:
“The fact that evolutionary factors lead female physical attractiveness to be so highly valued by men in mate selection does not imply that the emphasis placed on it is not destructive to women. Evolutionary psychologists, and evolutionary feminists may agree that the value people place on female beauty is likely a key cause of eating disorders, body image problems, and potentially dangerous cosmetic surgery. Feminist stances on the destructiveness of the importance people place on female attractiveness need not, and should not, rest on the faulty assumption that standards of attractiveness are arbitrary social constructions.”
If other animals, like the peacock, have physical features which provide a sex selection advantage, this might also be true for human beings. And yet the theory that there are physical features we all find inherently attractive due to evolutionary influences still raises bothersome questions:
- If evolutionary forces make it “natural” to find certain physical features attractive how come people who do not possess the desired features, or who lack them in sufficient abundance, still mate? And how is that such people sometimes do so with others who do possess the desired features?
- What of the argument that anything that exists must be natural, including for example, homosexuality? How do the evolutionarily influenced attractive features apply to same sex attraction, if at all?
- If hip to waist ratio in women is such an important physical cue, how is it that physical attraction may continue even when a hip to waist ratio, or some other desired physical feature, has changed significantly with age?
- Philosophers have argued over whether beauty, not just human beauty but beauty generally, is purely subjective or whether it has some objective qualities. This issue has never been resolved. Why should the issue of human beauty or attractiveness be immune from this same controversy?
- If the features of attractiveness with a basis in biology are not immutable, then how “hardwired” in our brains can they really be? At the most it seems that if there are evolutionary influences for attraction they can only constitute a tendency. If there is a natural tendency, but it is mutable, what does this say about the relative importance of social conditioning in influencing our images of what is attractive? And if attraction based on physical features is mutable, how is it then affected by the psychological aspects of attraction?
Theories on evolutionary (biological) influences and psychological attraction
Because behaviour and survival is so complex, many adaptations are necessary for human survival.
The evolutionary adaptations that we make, potentially include psychological or personality adaptations. But “personality” has so many variables and is extremely hard to define in a measurable way. Perhaps because of this, analysis of the psychological aspects of attraction is often reduced to biochemical explanations.
Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher thinks we have evolved three different brain systems for mating– lust/sex drive, romantic love and attachment.
Lust may be felt towards a range of potential sexual partners. Fisher thinks it is appropriately described as an “intolerable neural itch”.
Romantic love normally focusses on a particular individual. It stimulates dopamine receptors in the brain. This brain activity is located in the same centres which are stimulated by cocaine usage.
Indeed, Fisher says romantic love results in some of the same behaviours as drug related intoxication- craving, obsession, distortion of reality, impairment of judgment, withdrawal symptoms etc.
Fisher says the craving from romantic love is not just sexual but emotional. Joy and suffering (when there is not reciprocation) are two sides of the coin of romantic love.
Romantic love is ultimately stronger than the sex drive. No one kills themselves because they can’t get laid. And, where reciprocated, romantic love sets things up for the third system- the calm serenity of the attachment phase.
The attachment phase may not be lifelong. But it serves to at least facilitate people tolerating each other long enough to meet the evolutionary requirement for reproduction and the rearing of children.
Fisher says the three different brain systems might all co-exist in the same relationship. But it is also possible for them to become divided or come into conflict. For example, an individual might feel strong attachment towards one person but feel romantic love for another, or lust, for someone else.
The existence of these three brain systems explains the different stages of attraction and love. But it does not explain why we choose individuals with particular personality traits as partners.
Fisher has developed an elaborate (and in my view dubious) explanation for why different “types” of individuals are attracted to each other based upon predominant chemicals in the body.
She claims that there are four types of lover which, in turn, reflect the dominance of particular chemicals within our brains. This is her explanation for psychological attraction between different ‘types’ of individuals.
The four chemicals she says may dominate us in different ways are serotonin, estrogen, dopamine and testosterone.
Fisher says that in two cases similarity attracts. But in the other two cases opposites attract.
Why psychological attraction (like happiness) is more than just biology
Just as Fisher provides an explanation for attraction between individuals based upon biochemical compatibility, biologists tend to conclude that happiness in general is not determined by salary, social relations or political rights but by our neurology. People are really only made happy by one thing – pleasant sensations in the body- serotonin, dopamine and oxytocins.
Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman contests the view that manipulation of the biochemical system can be a sufficient basis for happiness. If this were true a person might spend his or her whole life happily attached to a machine which dispenses the required chemicals in the body- like Aldous Huxley’s “soma”. Yet we all know this would not be a “happy” or rewarding existence. Kahneman maintains that there is an important cognitive/ethical component to happiness.
Kahneman says that we have two different kinds of “self” which are relevant to happiness- an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self”. He says that we tend to err in our consideration of happiness whenever we overlook this distinction.
The experiencing self is akin to immediate pleasure. It is the part of us that lives in the present. It is like a “film” that roles in our mind during our everyday experiences.
The remembering self is akin to long term contentment. It is the part of us that edits our everyday experiences. It commits to memory those experiences that we believe to be our most important ones. It decides whether we are satisfied with our life’s achievements. It “keeps score” in our life- deciding on whether we are satisfied or not satisfied. It turns our everyday experiences into the stories that form part of our self identity.
Image making regions of the brain- cortices that process visual, auditory or tactile information- relay information to the association cortex. Here records are made of what went on in the image making regions. These records are our memories. We are capable of relaying information from the association cortex back to the image making cortices in the brain. The same part of the brain that records the initial images is used for recalling information.
So, where does happiness reside? In the image making regions, upon which the experiencing self depends? Or in the association cortex which facilitates the remembering self? Or, as seems likely, in both?
Kahneman’s insistence upon a cognitive/ethical component to happiness raises a question: Is happiness primarily a feeling or primarily an idea? Kahneman seems to be saying it is potentially both.
We can apply the same framework Kahneman has developed to analyse happiness to the question of psychological attractiveness. After all, feeling ourselves to be psychologically attractive, and finding somebody else psychologically attractive, is likely to impact our happiness both in our experiencing and remembering selves.
It follows then that no matter what our experiencing self tells us about whether we have an initial physical or psychological attraction to somebody, over time, our experiences, including our erotic memories, become part of our remembering self- the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the experiences that count the most for us.
These stories never occur in a vacuum but are mediated by our culture- our social conditioning. So, feminism re-enters the picture. So too does human agency.
Neither happiness nor attraction are static. They depend, at least in part, on things we do, think and say. Both in the present and in our lived past. Seduction is, or at least can be, creative and dynamic. It involves more than just a physical feature or chemical. We define ourselves as lovers in much the same way, as we define ourselves as human beings. And we do so in a social context as well as an evolutionary one.