In many species, when choosing a mate, one sex puts on a display, and members of the opposite sex choose the one that they think puts on the most attractive display.
There are many examples in diverse life-forms. For instance, why do fireflies shine? To attract a mate. Why do toads croak? Why do stags grow big antlers and head-but each other? Why do birds call? OK, I know that birds call for many other reasons too but you get the idea.
In most species it is the male that does the display for the female’s delectation. For instance, the peahen is a grey, unremarkable bird, unlike the gaudy non-functional extravagances of the peacock.
It is commonly believed that with human beings, the sexes are the reverse of this. It seems that human females are the ones putting on the display. I believe that this is mostly wrong.
Women do display themselves with makeup
and an obsession with appearance
. This is obvious and continual, but I don’t think it is the real story.
There is more than one kind of display. A disproportionately large percentage of all human creative expression is made by males. I don’t wish to suggest that men naturally have more talent, just that the urge to do something that says look at me is much stronger in the male.
In the stereotypical sociology of children, the girl is concerned with relating to peers and fitting in, whereas the boy is fighting and trying to break the rules. I don’t think that these stereotypes arise without any foundation. Men have an urge to act differently to each other, women the same, just as most dress codes favour more conformance in males than in females.
For instance, getting up on stage and singing rock is almost exclusively a male pursuit. And it is legendary for getting the singer laid.
The stereotypically attractive males are those, not necessarily with perfect skin, hair and make-up, but with rugged, muscled bodies, which signify activity.
From the most structured and learned art right down to ditch digging; it is a male trait to be proud and show off your work. Be honest guys: we do stuff in order to impress the girls.
Then the core of the argument: In the human species, neither side has a monopoly on mating displays: Women display by being, men by doing. But for the most part, men display, women choose. We are no different to most other animals in this.
fuzzy and blue says Do bear in mind that there are huge cultural variations in human sexual displays, and that the idea that "woman is, man does" is kind of fading out with "gender equality" (women making more money and men becoming increasingly insecure about their appearance) in Western (esp. American) culture.
While it is true that men becoming more conscious of appearance and women more active, I think that culture can only compensate for biology up to a point. It is true that in humans, as intelligent animals, a simple exchange is turned into an elaborate social ritual, a game with give and take.
But we are not blank slates. As in any mammal, both genders are impelled by programmes inculcated into our genes by millions of years of Evolution. A male will pass on genes by having more surviving offspring, by sleeping with lots of women. A woman will pass on genes by having more surviving offspring by gaining the loyalty of a father who will care for them. Hence, a male displays to persuade. A female chooses. That is our nature. Culture can only go so far to ameliorate that. It will do so for social justice issues such as pay equality, but will not alter our desires.
As Steven Pinker says in The Blank slate:
Humans are mammals, and our sexual behaviour is consistent with our Linnaean class. Donald Symons sums up the ethnographic record. "Among all people it is primarily men who court, woo, proposition, seduce, employ love charms and love magic, give gifts in exchange for sex and use the services of prostitutes." ... But the male of Homo Sapiens differs from the male of most other mammals in a crucial way: men invest in their offspring rather than leaving all the investing to the female. ... this means that women are also predicted to compete in the mate market, though they should compete over the males most likely to invest (and the males with the highest genetic quality) rather than the males most willing to mate.