The Biology Of Fashion

If sexual selection was merely about the first generation of mating, there would be more scope for a wide variety of sexual taste; a woman might consent to breed with a man whom no other women found attractive, if she were unable to pull the conventionally attractive. And similarly for men. But selection is not about a single generation and so there is less scope for creative idiosyncrasy than there might otherwise be. Genetic success means not only attracting a mate and having children, those children need to be attractive too; if they fail to breed, you will have no posterity beyond them, as surely as if you were yourself sterilised.

But how, when choosing a man to sire your children, can you know what kind of man will be in fashion when your sons come to reproductive age? You cannot, which means that you need to be conservative in your choice, and pick a man who embodies the consensus in your own generation and in past generations as to what is attractive. Mating with a startlingly different-looking man and having startlingly different-looking male children might pay off, and your unique son might cut a swathe through the future crop of girls. Among fruit flies, says one textbook of evolutionary biology, “certain rare genotypes enjoy a mating advantage over commoner ones simply by virtue of their rarity: the females are more receptive to a male of novel characteristics.” One must stand out from the herd; or in this case, from the cloud. On the other hand, your unique son might be laughed at; this is a high-risk strategy. Experiments have been done on birds, whereby males were equipped with artificial charms, courtesy of other species’ feathers and some superglue. A perfect bandwagon effect was observed: as more males were tricked out in this meretricious finery, suddenly all the females wanted a piece of the New Look. In these circumstances it would have been reproductively dangerous for them to mate with one of the Old Fogeys, because then their sons might be Young Fogeys whom no one wanted.

In principle, therefore, there is a solid biological basis for following fashion, although nowadays our twenty-year generations are wildly mismatched with our twenty-week fads. We might therefore say that our instant fashions are a cultural exploit of some biological hardwiring, a hack more profitable to the couture houses – and Apple! – than the individual reproductive player.

Posted on May 4, 2011 at 09:01 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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