Runaway Beauty

Perhaps human aesthetics emerged through runaway sexual selection, with aesthetic tastes evolving as part of female mate choice. In this view, some female hominids just happened to have certain tastes concerning male ornaments. The artists best able to fulfill these tastes inseminated more aesthetic groupies and sired more offspring, who inherited both their artistic talent and their mothers' aesthetic tastes.

Something like this still happens among the Wodaabe people (also known as the Bororo), cattle-herding nomads who live in the deserts of Nigeria and Niger. At annual geere wol festivals, hundreds of people gather, and the young men spend hours painting their faces and ornamenting their bodies. The men also dance vigorously for seven full nights, showing off their health and endurance. Towards the end of the week-long ceremony, the men line up and display their beauty and charm to the young women. Each woman invites the man she finds most attractive for a sexual encounter. Wodaabe women usually prefer the tallest men with the whitest teeth, the largest eyes, the straightest nose, the most elaborate body-painting, and the most creative ornamentation. As a result, Wodaabe men have evolved to be significantly taller, white-toothed, larger-eyed, straighter-nosed, and better at self-decoration than men of neighboring tribes. This divergence probably happened within the last few hundred or few thousand years, illustrating runaway's speed. Journalists who know nothing of sexual selection often comment on the "reversal of sex roles" in Wodaabe beauty contests compared to European and American counterparts. But biologically, the Wodaabe are behaving perfectly normally, with males displaying and females choosing. The Miss America contests are the unusual ones.

As we saw with the runaway brain theory, runaway aesthetics would require polygamy and would result in large sex differences in artistic production. At first glance, it looks as if it should also produce large sex differences in aesthetic tastes, with females much more discriminating than males. If art were grown instead of made, that would be true. The peacock does not need the peahen's appreciation of a good tail—he needs only the tail itself. But for men to make good art, they must embody the same aesthetic discrimination as women. While decorating themselves, they must be able to access the same aesthetics that women will use in judging their decoration. Given this twist, the runaway aesthetic theory predicts sexual similarities in aesthetic taste, but much higher aesthetic output by males. That is roughly what we see in the history of art (although cultural and economic factors may have amplified the sex differences in artistic output over the last few millennia).

Yet the runaway theory cannot account for anything about human aesthetics other than their existence. It can explain why we find some things more beautiful than others, but it cannot explain any of the aesthetic criteria we use to make such judgments, because any standard of beauty can evolve through runaway. Runaway sexual selection is arbitrary, so it does not offer a very satisfying theory of aesthetics. It might still be the right explanation, but perhaps we can do better.

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