Watch enough American cable television, and sooner or later you will find a pretty good analogy for almost any intellectual revolution in evolutionary biology. For me, the revolution in sexual selection ideas in the last twenty years of the 20th century is nicely symbolized by the eclipse of the "Miss America" beauty pageant by newer, more fitness-oriented contests such as "Ms. Fitness USA." In 1980, before the Ms. Fitness contests were invented, biologists thought that most sexual ornaments were arbitrary. Ornaments supposedly evolved through the runaway process or some other arbitrary process. In this picture, the peacock's tail did not reflect any aspect of a peacock's fitness, so was not a very rational basis for sexual choice. Yet a minority of biologists became skeptical about this view that most beauty is arbitrary. Similarly, feminists protested against Miss America pageants, upset by the apparent arbitrariness of the cultural norms of beauty used by the judges. The ability to totter around in high heels and swimsuit did not seem to reflect any very significant aspect of a woman's being.
In response to such criticisms, a promoter named Wally Boyko turned the tables on the beauty contest industry by inventing the "Ms. Fitness USA' contest in 1985. This contest explicitly favors women with the highest physical fitness, not just the greatest beauty, (Indeed, the Ms. Fitness World contest, founded in 1994, is held in conjunction with the annual Arnold Schwarzenegger Fitness Weekend.) The Ms. Fitness contests include three rounds:
an evening gown round (to judge beauty grooming, poise, and speaking ability), a swimsuit round (to judge muscle tone, body fat, and apparent fitness), and a fitness outfit round (a high-energy, 90-second display of strength, flexibility, endurance, and creativity, set to music). In the third round contestants usually do somersaults, splits, jumps, and one-handed pushups—in such a way as to make the difficult appear effortless. The whole aesthetic shifted from Miss America's soft-bodied, giggly display of femininity to a hard-boiled, active display of health. The judging criteria no longer looked quite so culturally arbitrary. Miss America contestants could improve their chances by dieting, getting silicone breast implants, dyeing their hair, and skillfully applying makeup. But Ms. Fitness contestants, such as the currently top-ranked Monica Brant, can win only by training like professional athletes with aerobics, weightlifting, stretching, sports, and healthy eating. Their physical fitness would be manifest in any culture at any point in history, regardless of minor cultural variations in the norms of beauty.
Some evolutionary biologists responded to the idea of arbitrary sexual ornaments in the same way that Boyko's "International Fitness Sanctioning Body" responded to the Miss America pageant. They rethought the judging criteria. Why should animals choose mates for arbitrary traits, when they can choose mates for traits that reveal their condition and fitness? Certainly, the runaway process can happen in principle, but maybe it is not so important. Maybe it creates transient sexual fashions that come and go, but it does not explain the sexual ornaments that stick around generation after generation. The ornaments that stick around should reveal some information about fitness, about good genes. Most sexual ornaments should be. fitness indicators. The debate over this issue has an illuminating history.
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