Beauty and Biology

February 11, 2013

Did someone say Alpha Male?  Image from
Romance novels and erotica worship the stereotypical Alpha Male, a composite of crowd-pleasing physical traits that authors hope imply both physical fitness and moral uprightness (that is, except when he's prone and acting immorally).

My work is no different.  Though my male protagonists are complex, brainy, and goofy creatures on the inside, on the outside they are entirely what you'd expect central casting to send if you called up asking for a romance novel hero.

Tall.  Broad shoulders, wide chest, torso rigid and silly with musculature.  Deltoids, biceps, triceps--not too bulky, but well-built--and long legs covered in lean muscle.  A giant swinging John Thomas, natch.  He should have a square jaw and a remarkable pair of eyes, the better to hold an injudicious amount of lustful smolder.  And, unless he's in the military, he should have a full head of lustrous hair to drag his hand through when he's feeling frustrated.

Why these traits?  According to this classic 1996 article called "The Biology of Beauty", researchers believe that our brains have evolved to embrace traits that suggest physical fitness, resistance to disease, and fertility.  For example, let's think about that square jaw on Mr. Alpha Male:
...the heavy lower face that women favor in men is a visible record of the surge in androgens (testosterone and other male sex hormones) that turns small boys into 200-pound spear-throwers. An oversized jaw is biologically expensive, for the androgens required to produce it tend to compromise the immune system. But from a female's perspective, that should make jaw size all the more revealing. Evolutionists think of androgen-based features as "honest advertisements" of disease resistance. If a male can afford them without falling sick, the thinking goes, he must have a superior immune system in the first place.

But not everyone agrees.  In the 2000 National Geographic article "The Enigma of Beauty," anthropologists fired back at evolutionary scientists and sociobiologists who believed that beauty is completely hardwired in our brains.
"Our hardwiredness can be altered by all sorts of expectations—predominantly cultural," says C. Loring Brace, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan. "The idea that there is a standard desirable female type tells you more about the libidinous fantasies of aging male anthropologists than anything else."...To think you've found a cultural universal is thrilling, says Elain Hatfield, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, "but you don't want to deceive yourself into thinking that biology accounts for everything. The sociobiologists say we're trapped in our Pleistocene brains. The idea can be slightly bullying, as well as chauvinistic."
This is fascinating stuff to me.  With luck, the more I learn about what turns my readers on and why, the better I'll get at doing it.  And I will enlist as many lantern-jawed javelin hurlers as I need to achieve this lofty, noble goal.

Those are some mighty big spears, gentlemen.

I now have a Pavlovian response to Pony by Ginuwine.