Beauty and the beast: Mechanisms of sexual selection in humans

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Literature in evolutionary psychology suggests that mate choice has been the primary mechanism of sexual selection in humans, but this conclusion conforms neither to theoretical predictions nor available evidence. Contests override other mechanisms of sexual selection; that is, when individuals can exclude their competitors by force or threat of force, mate choice, sperm competition, and other mechanisms are impossible. Mates are easier to monopolize in two dimensional mating environments, such as land, than in three-dimensional environments, such as air, water, and trees. Thus, two-dimensional mating environments may tend to favor the evolution of contests. The two-dimensionality of the human mating environment, along with phylogeny, the spatial and temporal clustering of mates and competitors, and anatomical considerations, predict that contest competition should have been the primary mechanism of sexual selection in men. A functional analysis supports this prediction. Men's traits are better designed for contest competition than for other sexual selection mechanisms; size, muscularity, strength, aggression, and the manufacture and use of weapons probably helped ancestral males win contests directly, and deep voices and facial hair signal dominance more effectively than they increase attractiveness. However, male monopolization of females was imperfect, and female mate choice, sperm competition, and sexual coercion also likely shaped men's traits. In contrast, male mate choice was probably central in women's mating competition because ancestral females could not constrain the choices of larger and more aggressive males through force, and attractive women could obtain greater male investment. Neotenous female features and body fat deposition on the breasts and hips appear to have been shaped by male mate choice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)157-175
Number of pages19
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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