Beauty – Adaptive or Arbitrary

A number of days past, I made a post titled Wildflowers where I pondered the evolutionary adaptations of plants.  How their beauty, shape, and the perfume of their flowers attract certain pollinators to ensure the propagation of their species.

Naturally, I simply enjoy their beauty, regardless of how it came to be. 😊

Then yesterday, I stumbled upon an article discussing the theories of “adaptive adornment” versus “arbitrary beauty.”*  And I must admit, those terms are much more scientific and deliberately descriptive than my own ponderings.

It seems that Darwin had a second theory apart from natural selection – sexual selection.

This theory has now had 150 years of dust removed and is garnering some more attention.  Of course, context is important.  We have to make judgments and draw conclusions from the other species’ senses that come into play.  What their point of view is, or could be, not ours with our own sensory limitations.

For instance, other species see more or different wavelengths of light and hear more or different sound waves (Hertz) than we do.  I’m sure other species’ range of scent is much different than ours as well.  Just look at dogs for example, who can even smell cancer infecting people.

So, it’s impossible to say that a particular adaptation is arbitrary if you’re not using the correct measuring stick.

On an amusing side note, I searched for a word to describe range of smell and found the word “Olf.”  It seems an “Olf” is the “sensory pollution strength from a standard person [as which can be perceived by humans] defined as an average adult working in an office or similar non-industrial workplace, sedentary and in thermal comfort, with a hygienic standard equivalent of 0.7 baths per day and whose skin has a total area of 1.8 square meters.”

If you want to insult someone, I suppose you can tell them their body odor is off the Olf scale. 😊

At any rate, Darwin’s sexual selection theory can be summed up as females choose the most “appealing” males according to their standard of beauty and males evolve toward that standard, despite any other metabolic and physically burdensome adaptive costs.  This theory runs counter to selection being based upon survival because excessively brilliant physical traits can attract predators, not just mates.

At the time, this theory seemed laughable to a society that could not credit other species with the ability to have cognitive thought processes.  An assumption that has also changed as our own species has increased its intellect.

So the question is whether the additional plumage and color and form and scent reveals an underlying “code,” a beneficiary evolutionary adaptation geared towards physical survival, or if it is just frivolous adornment with more of a cultural significance?

A recognition has evolved that all sentient creatures are governed by the external world they inhabit and their internal world of sensory perception – that is self-constructed. Imagine, birds could be choosing their mates merely on the basis of a cultural, superficial construct, perhaps engrained through genetics.  Who knows?

With humans, this theory of superfluous adornment is much more easily seen and documented in this modern age.  While it could be argued that certain physical traits, in the past, were associated with a greater chance of survival of our species, that does not hold true in today’s world.  It is pretty safe to say that our survival has been ensured, as long as we don’t destroy ourselves, and that physical appearance is totally divorced from survival.

Human physical “beauty” is now largely a cultural phenomenon being perpetuated and reinforced by mass media rather than a mechanism of adaptive physical superiority.

I supposed I could use my experience with Internet dating as a limited scientific study of human behavior in this regard.  It was quite clear, in that microcosm, and with my limited experience, that specific superficial and material expectations were arbitrary chosen to fit cultural expectations for what is considered to be “successful.”  As opposed to being chosen on the basis of any type of introspective value system.   And totally irrespective of “survival.”

Said another way, it appeared that many weren’t looking for individuals of high moral or spiritual character, or even simply a “nice” person to be with.  They merely sought cookie-cutter versions of societal-dictated beauty and monetary gain when choosing a partner.

This is not meant to be an over-generalized statement, and this stark conclusion, I doubt, or I hope, doesn’t actually apply to the majority in our society.  But I think it is safe to say that when it comes to beauty, for modern humans, what is culturally defined as beauty no longer has any connection with survival of the species.

I can’t make any conclusions with regard to other species, and it will be fascinating to see how future research develops in this regard.

Here’s to nature, and all of its beautiful adaptions, regardless of the “why.”


*The article is “How Beauty Is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.”

Photo: Pyrrhuloxia – The Western Cardinal.  I debated with myself over which pic I should use for this post.  I have quite a few to choose from, but I went with this one because I mentioned birds in my post and clearly I wonder what adaptive mechanism spanned a different color variation of a Cardinal simply because of its choice of a Western home.  I’m not sure what advantage this gives the bird, but it is beautiful nonetheless.


15 thoughts on “Beauty – Adaptive or Arbitrary”

    1. Thanks Dr. Perry! If it’s one thing I’ve learned in this lifetime, it’s that I don’t know very much. Always learning and it’s great to push our minds beyond any boundaries. You have a great day too!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. The beautiful red cardinal doesn’t have to choose his clothes every morning or decide how often to shower. Lucky bird. We humans make more decisions when it comes to attracting and/or keeping a mate. SO much more complicated for everyone when the surface doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s underneath.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Well…when it comes to birds and maybe humans 😊 it comes down to the response in song and the ability to feed one another.

    Interesting post, like usual. Another great photograph…I have a tendency to capture the bird in flight…I think I’m being too noisy or something…maybe it’s my olf. Ha.

    Liked by 2 people

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