The Evolution Of Beauty, Part Of A Special Section On The Evolution Of Sex In The 25 September 1998 Science

ng to be more responsive to some stimuli than to others," says Ryan. "If males have a variety of options by which to signal their sexual interest, females will favor those who use signals they are already keyed into." Supporters of the theory have yet to convincingly demonstrate its applicability among humans. But Ryan points to studies that have shown how symmetrical body features, chiefly in the face, tend to be seen as more beautiful than asymmetrical features. "The traditional explanation," says Ryan, "is that if you have a genetic disorder, you may not develop correctly," so the asymmetry sets off a kind of warning signal. "But another possibility is that human perception is simply better at responding to symmetrical cues." Humans learn symmetrical patterns more quickly than asymmetrical ones, for example, and harmonic rather than discordant music strikes us as more pleasing in part, studies suggest, because of the way the inner ear is structured.

Ryan says that the sensory exploitation model challenges, but does not supplant traditional theories of sexual selection of the last 30 years. In general, the theory of natural selection says that if a trait increases an animal's reproductive success, defined in terms of how many viable offspring it produces, then that trait should be favored in the competition for mates. Well-documented male traits favored by females include large size (to better protect her and her offspring) and a bigger territory (to provide more food). But there are confounding exceptions: many females have strong preferences for male traits, red feathers, say that don't seem to relate to their offspring's number or well-being.

One of the most common explanations for this has been the "good genes" model, in which red feathers, for example, might be coincidentally determined by genes that also confer a trait that natural selection would favor anyway, such as resistance to parasites. In this case, a female's predilection for red feathers

Contact: Diane Dondershine
(202) 326-6421
American Association for the Advancement of Science

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