The science of attraction: What does evolution tell us about our partner preferences?

In what ways do our modern dating and mating behaviours reflect our biology?

Writer: Sophie Maho Chan
Editor: Denis Duagi
Artist: Will Ning

We say that “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder”—that beauty does not exist independently, but as a social construct. However, many scientists are now claiming otherwise.

Evolutionary psychology has been a budding field of research over the last few decades, producing much literature explaining modern human behaviour in terms of Darwinian laws of natural selection. A particular topic that has been receiving attention is the application of evolutionary psychology in the context of human mate preferences. Many researchers are now claiming that they can reasonably predict, explain and even substantiate that there are universal patterns in what people look for in a partner — a lot of which concern physical characteristics.

A Royal Society review article compiling over 250 studies concluded that there are certain facial features that seem to be deemed ‘attractive’ across cultures, sexes and even species. One such feature is facial symmetry. As far as the evolutionary view goes, the idea is that individuals differ in their ability to maintain facial symmetry under environmental pressures. Thus, symmetry is favoured by men and women alike, as it serves as an indication of a healthy partner and ‘good’ genes to pass onto potential offspring. Symmetry has also been linked to survivability and fecundity, while asymmetry has been linked to respiratory diseases and mutations, which propels a selective pressure for being able to recognise and choose symmetrical mates. Other physical characteristics claimed to influence mate choices include ‘averageness’, masculinity/femininity and skin health. 

Furthermore, through  this biological lens, researchers have also postulated and evidenced sex differences in mate preferences, which arise from differential mating strategies between men and women. Here, the general consensus among Darwinian scientists is that females, who spend greater time and energy to conceive children, have evolved to prioritise parental qualities in a partner, while males have ‘genetically’ evolved to seek short-term relationships and higher number of fertile sexual partners to increase the chances of passing on their genes to the next generation. Over the past decade, researchers have proposed that men are attracted to low waist-to-hip ratio and physical cues of youthfulness, while women put greater emphasis on non-visible qualities such as status and wealth.

As you may imagine, such studies are greatly controversial. While some (predominantly male) scientists have used this as a gateway for further research, others have heavily scrutinised such application of evolutionary theories to modern mating behaviours. Among the most common criticisms include the Western biased samples, self-reported subjective methodologies and male-focused perspectives. 

But perhaps, the larger concern with evolutionary psychology is not the accuracy of the theories, but how the theories can come to influence our behaviour. There seems to be a widespread belief that having an evolutionary explanation of a behaviour which grounds it in fundamental biology, serves as an apt justification. However, do scientific explanations for infidelity or polygamy make them ‘right’? A controversial example that illustrates this is Robert Kurzban, a former psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who after publishing research arguing that men are more likely to mate with younger women, faced allegations of having multiple inappropriate sexual relationships with female students. 

Furthermore, evolutionary psychologists are quick to neglect the influence of environment and culture. There is still much to be understood about the interaction between biology and culture in informing personal behaviours.

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