Guest Post by Merien Grey The Science behind the Spark
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with the charming Asa Maria Bradley. I mentioned I had been studying non-stop lately and the conversation shifted to my nerdy academic pursuits. In two months, I receive my BA in Anthropology. My final class is Human Evolutionary Sexual Selection. I wanted to understand why we choose the mates we do. Is it hardwired instinct, cultural conditioning or something else entirely?
I was surprised to learn on an instinctual level, humans are attracted to the products of a person having robust health and energy to devote to something specific after their basic survival needs are met. Humans are attracted to features that require a lot of sustained energy (mental and metabolic) to acquire or perfect. I hoped my text would have male and female cover model shaped diagrams with the various swoon worthy features neatly annotated. No such luck.
We’ll stick to the men for the purposes of this post. I used to think it was the biggest or toughest males that attracted the female eye. I thought it was because they could defend the woman, her offspring, their resources, etc. The truth is men evolved larger and heavier to compete with other males for the chance to be considered as mates. It only affected the females by determining which eligible candidates they had to choose from. The part furthering large body dimensions and fighting ability played out before the ladies entered the picture.
In modern society, it is no longer acceptable to beat the competition to a bloody pulp or make them go away permanently, in most circles anyway. Since the way men compete to garner attention is different, sheer size and strength alone no longer guarantee female notice. The evidence can be seen in any crowd. For hundreds of thousands of years, men were up to 36% larger than women were, over the last few thousand years, men and women have grown closer to being the same size. That means women are not basing their mate choices on height or large overall size.
In an evolutionary sense, women drive evolution by individual choices. Individual females pick what they like, and that determines which traits survive and which ones don’t. That is why preference and prevalence of specific physical traits has and will continue to change over time.
So what is it that attracts women at first glance, if not broad shoulders or an expressive face? The easiest way to illustrate the answer is to talk about peacocks for a few sentences. Male peacocks have breathtaking tails specifically for attracting females. Unless there is a tickle fight, those plumes aren’t chasing off any competition. The tails are cumbersome, useless except for attracting females and put the male’s life in danger since a fully matured tail is so heavy it eliminates any chance of escaping predators. So why evolve a showstopper chick-magnet tail at all? It shows the females he can grow it. It advertises that over time he has had plenty of food, has avoided predators and has the genes to grow good tail (apologies for the bad pun). Being able to grow a tail of immense proportions is the key, the tail itself matters, but not as much as what it represents.
The same concept of ability applies to humans. If a man has a carved physique, a successful career or is an accomplished artist he draws attention, if only on an instinctual level and only for a second. He will be more attractive than those who do not have some stellar cultivated aspect. Do not discount the appeal of artistic talent. There is actual fossil evidence to prove our male cave painting and musically inclined ancestors killed it with ladies. Even those early humans had an aspect or talent that made them more accomplished and therefore more desirable than their peers.
All of these things show the male in question has the ability to do something specific long enough to become exceptional at it and avoid all the extraneous distractions and pitfalls that weeded out or kept other males from doing the same thing. On an instinctual level, what will catch the eye of a female reader, in the most literal sense, is a man who is uncommonly adept at something. That distinctive something can be any ability that makes the hero more desirable to the heroine than the next guy.
It is the author’s job to characterize their heroes into something more substantial as the story progresses. At first glance, a heroine seeing or knowing that stellar aspect of the hero and that ability catching her attention will strike truer than her being attracted by a specific feature or during a casual interaction. The heroine who knows the hero is a famous author, basketball player or violinist, or reads his remarkable book, watches him play a fantastic game or hears him play a moving piece of music, will be more believable enthralled than if the hero simply has eyes she finds attractive or nice broad shoulders.
Instinct is only an initial urge; it is not the final word in attraction. Each author must decide what works for his or her characters. I hope knowing a little about instinctual sexual attraction will help authors use it to advantage whenever they can.