Unhappiness is a positive evolutionary trait

Body cult and beauty mania

Winfried Menninghaus

To person

Dr. phil, born 1952; Professor at the Free University of Berlin, Peter Szondi Institute for General and Comparative Literature Studies, Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin.
Email: [email protected]

In parallel to the everyday cult of beauty over the past few decades, a theory of beauty has developed in biology and psychology that understands our aesthetic preferences as the inheritance of our biological evolution.


Parallel to the everyday beauty cult of the last decades, which has all the characteristics of a technological and mass media supported cultural boom, a theory of beauty has developed in biology and psychology, which our aesthetic preferences - especially towards the body of the other, but also of our own sex - understood as a legacy of our biological evolution. [1] In terms of knowledge policy, the phenomenon fits into the general appreciation of biological and genetic explanatory patterns that has been observed over the past few decades. In the following I will discuss some of the evolutionary biological hypotheses on the life-promoting advantages of beauty and confront them with opposing mechanisms that interlink beauty and harmfulness, even beauty and death. Today's admiration for the perfect appearance has a high price: It shows a number of features of a cult that has become tyrannical with a high potential for pathological effects.

In the medium and long term, evolutionary processes in the sense of Charles Darwin can only choose those physical characteristics and behavioral patterns that promote survival fitness. This is not measured, or at most in the second place, by the age of individuals, but by their continued existence in the next generations ("reproductive success"). Darwin's question was now: Why did sexual "ornaments" develop at all and why are they mostly asymmetrically distributed between the sexes of a species? What is the advantage of such ornaments, if they are often as impractical as the paradigmatic peacock wheel? After several decades of continuous brooding over this question, Darwin gave the answer: The sexual ornaments provide advantages in the competition for sexual partners. Even more: if it weren't for sexual competition, there wouldn't be the evolutionary fixation of increasingly extreme body ornaments. Sigmund Freud directly adopted Darwin's thesis that the evolutionary sense of physical beauty is sexual desire; Since Plato's definition of the beautiful as the coveted object of eros, this thesis has been varied many times before it became the basic narrative of the evolutionary theory of physical beauty. This narrative not only supports the motifs that drive today's cult of beauty, it even gives it the character of an eternal natural compulsion.

In order to be able to think of the possibility of developing too often bizarre sexual appearance differences ("dimorphisms"), Darwin assumed a fundamental willingness to prefer above-average and new stimuli (today widely accepted as "neophilia"), to prefer differences for the sake of differences. Only such dispositions that encourage variation allow rapid radicalization of certain trends in appearance as well as standstill and reversal of evolutionary preferences in attractiveness. The nature of "sexual choice" must not have a fixed ideal in order to be able to remain selective over and over again and in an unpredictable manner. Darwin therefore saw good reasons for repeatedly and systematically parallelizing sexual appearance preferences - that is, the engine of the evolution of sexual ornaments on the body of living beings - with the "caprices of fashion". For him, the beauty preferences of the individual species are the natural historical representatives of cultural fashions. They have also been identified as important factors in the delimitation of closely spaced species and the evolution of new species.

But why should the preference for beautiful objects over less beautiful objects be an adaptive mechanism? Darwin's answer was: A mechanism is needed to guide sexual choice. It should be noted that most animals do not go through a long phase of advertising and getting to know each other, but rather (have to) decide for or against a partner in very short time frames. In some species there is a high proportion of violent competition for sexual partners, but the winner is by no means automatically accepted by the female; in a very large number of species this competition takes place wholly or in part by means of any system of body signs that arose exclusively for the purpose of sexual self-promotion. In the case of birds, this can be the demonstration of feather headdresses, singing, dancing and sometimes bizarre building arts during the mating season. Darwin called this preference on the basis of sexual ornaments and aesthetic arts of self-expression in contrast to "natural selection" as "sexual selection" and in the singing, dancing and building arts of a number of animals already a transition from the preference for given physical advantages to artistic achievements, ultimately to the targeted production of art seen as a medium of beneficial self-expression.

Darwin believed that the attractiveness and thus selection advantage of better developed body ornaments is based on a self-sustaining mechanism: It is advantageous for peahen - mind you, purely evolutionary, that is, without any involvement of intentional action - for that reason alone, male peacocks with slightly longer ones To choose feathers and even more perfectly symmetrical patterns, because the other peahen whimsically do the same; Fashions, according to Darwin, have the capricious property of an ultimately undetectable emergence and rapid spread with a simultaneous tendency to maximally exhaust a direction once it has been taken. Once a population has such a preference for certain body ornaments, it is to be expected that offspring who inherit the slightly exaggerated ornaments will in turn have advantages in terms of sexual competition, etc. Therefore, appearance fashions fixed on the body, according to Darwin, need no other sensible ones Justification as that of the attraction that emanates from purely cultural clothing fashions. (Some neo-Darwinian hypotheses that simply equate physical attractiveness with health, fertility and "good genes" should not be confused with Darwin's own teaching.)

In the vast majority of animal species, the female specimens are inconspicuous, while the male ones are stronger and often spectacularly ornamented. Darwin concluded - and has since been confirmed many times in it - that the more beautiful the male sex of a species, the more it is subject to the choice of the female, because otherwise the ornaments in question could never have been driven to such an extreme. Wherever we see highly ornamented male animals today - birds of paradise, deer, lions, etc. - we have to deal with the evolutionary precipitate of continued acts of "female choice", the female "taste" of increasingly extreme ornamentation to do. Or more generally: The `` more beautiful '' sex of a species ultimately looks exactly as the opposite sex has `` wanted '' it over many generations, taking into account its secondary, sometimes also the primary sexual characteristics. This theory, of course, contains enormous explosives for the discussion of human body politics.

Another conclusion: the greater the beauty gap between the two sexes of a species, the more the 'fair sex' is subject to fierce competition within its own sex. A high degree of beauty, high same-sex competitive pressure and a high risk of failure when being elected by the opposite sex are therefore directly related to one another. The inconspicuous peahen all get a peacock and have a relatively uniform reproductive success; of the beautiful males, on the other hand, only the most beautiful ones come into play, while the great majority falls out of evolution. This literal survival of the prettiest is putting enormous pressure on it. If one does not look at this happening from the winner takes all side - which the theory of evolution almost always does - then it is always more convenient to belong to the relatively inconspicuous sex, which has the power of choice for reasons other than beauty. In addition, the life path of the 'most beautiful' animal species experiences a particularly steep kink in sexual success and social role after a brief period of splendor. Individuals of less ornamented species usually live longer, participate longer in the theater of advertising and mating, and do not experience an equally dramatic dethronement by their younger successors. The highest degrees of beauty and beauty-based rewards are thus paid dearly. Quite a few resumes of aging divas seem to confirm this rule.

As a result of Darwin's evolutionary biology discovered a related rule: the more the degree of ornamentation differs between the sexes of a species, the lower the proportion of parental investment on the part of the most beautiful and sexually successful individuals. The polygamous peacock, for example, contributes nothing to its offspring other than the sexual act itself. For those species in which the females are the beautiful ones, basically the same was stated: "Beautiful females work less." A distant echo of this general rule has been measured even in today's human population. The most beautiful women are regularly not considered to be the best mothers in attribution theory tests. They do significantly worse than average-looking women on parameters such as "caring for others", reliability, and willingness to work hard. The theory of evolution sees strong evidence that there is an evolutionary control loop of the following type: Large differences in beauty between the sexes of a species correlate with large differences in "parental investment" in the contribution to work on the offspring; where the sexes are about equally 'beautiful', on the other hand, the theory of evolution predicts about an equal distribution of work. There are the craziest examples of this control loop in the animal kingdom. The conviction that is widespread today that beauty makes many things easier, that it provides undeserved advantages in love, work and other social life that others have to work hard to achieve, finds support here from evolutionary theory.

According to Darwin, humans have long ceased to be subject to sexual 'choice' based on appearance preferences. Culture has largely disempowered the beauty choices popular with animals. Agreed marriages, exchanges of women between clans, family alliances, religious affiliation and social status considerations ensured that mere appearance preferences were far less decisive in choosing a partner than with most animals. But since the early 19th century, there have been increasing signs of a fundamental change. Traditional social determinants of partner choice have since become less and less important. The purely individual 'liking' gains complementary power - and with it not only the expectation of attitudes compatibilities and divisible self-designs, but also the orientation towards appearance preferences. "Fashion", that of clothing and that of the body itself, inherits the traditional codes for partner preferences (religion, family, class, etc.). In a world that increasingly consumes all social frameworks, the 'homeless' individuals are only there as abstract individual bodies - and seek and find a kind of religious substitute in the nature of the body itself. This development can be interpreted as a return to the times of animal beauty choices , as a surprising short circuit of highly cultural modernity and archaic times.

Earlier fashions of clothing were, to a greater extent, disguises of the body; they also allowed less “perfect” bodies to participate in patterns of cultural attractiveness through certain cuts, fabrics, ornaments and dress codes. In the 20th century, on the other hand, and fully in its second half, a clothing fashion that no longer benevolently covers up physical 'defects', but mercilessly reinforces it and insofar functions as a "handicap" with truth value (Amotz Zahavi). Ultimately, a three-dimensional, beautiful naked body is presented and demanded everywhere. The exposure of the biological substance makes clothing fashion the agent of a biopolitics of aesthetic selection. Is there a convergence between today's modernity and the hard selection in evolutionary times? So is the biological theory of evolution actually the right theoretical offer for postmodern times?

Darwin's diagnosis that human culture has largely disempowered the choice of beauty for a long time inevitably brings with it an opposing hypothesis for the "evolutionary times" of the incarnation: in these there must have been sexual selection according to appearance, otherwise the secondary sexual differences would have been (Dimorphisms) of the human sexes cannot develop. Darwin sees sufficient signs of such a sexual selection according to aesthetic preferences in the striking deviations in human appearance from his predecessor: in the exposure of the skin previously covered with dark fur and in ornaments such as the head hair and beard. Whatever else the performance of the human skin may be, Darwin also recognizes in its creation, and not least, a 'fashionable' demarcation from our closest relatives. The bare skin shares the peacock wheel characteristics of relative harmfulness - because it gives neither the mechanical nor the thermal protection of the monkey skin - and the aesthetic gain in difference for the sake of differentiation: "Man - and especially women - experienced one for aesthetic and ornamental reasons Removal of body hair. "

Darwin therefore understands today's practices of body hair removal as a cultural echo of an archaic selection pressure to visually differ as thoroughly as possible from our hairy predecessors. At the origin of the human body, the human skin attests, so to speak, to a modernist-minimalist aesthetic that works with the means of removing previously existing shells. It makes it possible to apply clothing as a second ornament system to the exposed body. Even more: the bare skin as the cardinal ornament of the human being can only be endured in most environments if it is supplemented by artificial protection. In this respect, the bare skin is also a source of culture.

According to evolutionary biological consensus, the beauty assessment always implies a positive ascription (attribution) of high sexual fertility and also leads directly to measurably higher reproductive success. Human culture, especially ours today, seems to have weakened, if not interrupted, this connection between beauty and reproductive success. Experiments have repeatedly shown that women rated as the best looking are regularly considered neither particularly fertile nor particularly suitable mothers. Long-term partner decisions are therefore much less correlated with appearance preferences than short-term looks at potential sexual partners. There is even a whole host of mechanisms that ensure that particularly good-looking individuals have by no means drawn the lucky card of evolution. These downsides are often overlooked and systematically obscured by the beauty industry.

At the level of consciousness, according to all relevant surveys, the promise of beauty presents itself today as a universal promise of happiness: better partner chances, easier professional life, higher social prestige, etc. That is why more and more people want to improve their appearance, even to themselves through shaping efforts take on the role of evolution of all kinds, which was the great shaping agency of natural history. Let us assume that the evolutionary biology of aesthetic preferences is not only generally right, but also correctly describes mechanisms that are still at work in humans. Then one can nevertheless realize very quickly how easily the same mechanisms that serve life and survival according to standard evolutionary theory can lead to depression and even deadly pathologies in today's culture.

A first example: From Immanuel Kant to Charles Darwin and Francis Galton to the present day, anthropology ascribes man the ability to create average generic images on the basis of the bodies actually seen, which are the basis of all expectations of attractiveness. The material pool of this comparative work was limited to the direct living environment from primeval times up to the 19th century and was therefore necessarily realistic '.The same "averaging mechanism" leads under the conditions of today's living environment to extremely increased discrepancies between empirical and ideal 'bodies. Media imagery induces constant consumption of highly unlikely, mostly elaborately prepared model bodies from all over the world. The tendency towards a decrease in personal interaction in favor of media consumption reinforces the tendency that the entire body of body perceptions seen and averaged out to a fictitious average is more and more characterized by highly selective exceptional phenomena; The feedback to real average bodies is correspondingly weaker. But it was precisely this feedback that was presumably precisely the evolutionary function of the averaging mechanism. In this respect, our culture has ensured that a formerly adaptive ability no longer systematically delivers what it was evolutionarily chosen for: the stabilizing pattern of an average genus phenotype. Due to the medially distorted 'input', the same operation now results in the fixation of extremely above-average bodies as a guideline for aesthetic evaluation. The own and the real opposite-sex body therefore appear regularly only as defective beings that urgently need to be dealt with. From here it becomes understandable why long-term statistical surveys since the late 1960s reveal a clearly depressive slope of today's beauty cult. But not only the pursuit of unattainable ideals of beauty, also the positive gift of outstanding appearance has strong negative effects:

1. The downside of being particularly attractive women is the (anticipated) acceptance of their coldness and inaccessibility, incidentally also of their 'bourgeois', money- and status-oriented, 'materialistic' attitude and their lack of sympathy for the less fortunate and socially weaker. As experimental psychological studies have shown, high beauty scores are associated with an increased tendency to infidelity, a reduced sense of responsibility, vanity, destructive narcissism and neurotic behavioral patterns, while very low scores on the sociometric scales for “emotional stability”, “family, kindness, conscientiousness” "and" concern for others ". On these scales, women with higher body weight and lower attractiveness scores clearly do better - another reason why the relationships between beauty and desire are quite contradictory. The increased stress factor associated with a particularly attractive partner favors a tendency to avoid outspoken beauty, especially in long-term partner decisions. There is a consistent finding that the best and most balanced overall benefit balance is achieved through an average appearance - or by slightly exceeding the average. Much suffering, many self-esteem problems and many fruitless efforts could be avoided if this insight could prevail against the omnipresence of model bodies in the media.

2. Particularly good-looking individuals tend to attribute both their sexual desire and professional success primarily or exclusively to their looks. Your "I", if it is not identical to your physical appearance, accordingly benefits little or not at all from your successes. Studies have shown that the only time that particularly good-looking women don't take professional compliments as postponed compliments about their appearance is when the approval came from someone who hadn't seen them before. In friendship and love, the problem is no different: The good-looking want to be valued and loved for their 'personality', but believe that 'actually' only their body is desired. These mechanisms ensure that the account of the "I" tends to remain empty and in no way develops parallel to the (assumed) successes of physical appearance.

3. Outstandingly attractive female students, according to the result of a long-term study, 20 years later, on average, felt less happy than their former classmates. The résumés of film stars and models are rich in examples of the conflict between beauty and personal happiness. Several philosophers and psychoanalysts diagnose a causal connection between outstanding beauty on the one hand and long-term loneliness, depression and despair on the other.

4. A specific "disease of beauty" in oneself has only been increasingly investigated since the 1980s: its tendency towards self-misjudgment and negative self-assessment. Recent medical research has diagnosed diseases under the collective term "body image disorders" that are based on a systematic underestimation of one's own appearance in relation to imaginary ideal images of the lean or muscular body. Those affected by this are usually already particularly slim or particularly muscular. In the field of ideal dimensions, however, there is still this or that deficiency, this or that ability to improve, so that the relative proximity to perfection can reinforce an unhappy awareness of deficiencies and a compulsion to compare with (supposedly) even more perfect any positive transfer between appearance and self-esteem prevented.

5. Instead of being a means to the end of increased desire, obsessive work on one's own appearance tends to bite into itself. Mirror compulsion and overly critical self-observation then turn out to be a self-destructive trap: The goal of social and professional 'success' associated with enhancement of beauty is postponed further and further and can even be completely wiped out in favor of the obsessive way to get there.

6. Several studies diagnose a negative correlation between knowledge and concern for one's own beauty and lived sexuality. The more beautiful an individual is and the more they care about their beauty, the greater the risk that the benefits of good looks will be bought at the cost of neurotic effects on sexual behavior.

7. Several experiments have shown that there is no statistically significant correlation between physical attractiveness and self-esteem. Likewise, good looks do not help to increase values ​​for general well-being, satisfaction and subjective happiness with one's own life. Accordingly, greater physical attractiveness is generally threatened by the aforementioned double attribution crisis. Personal conquests and professional successes are latently ascribed only to appearance, so that the account of the ego always remains equally poor and equally empty.

8. The transformation of one's own body into an object of laborious and constantly controlled processing easily becomes a source of growing dissatisfaction in today's field of hypertrophic body ideals. Any success in beauty work is quickly devalued by the downside of refined expertise: by the negative realization of what is still lacking. In addition, there is an increased dependency on the control look in the mirror and with it the incessant worry as to whether and how far the desired image is achieved here and now. As statistical surveys have shown over the past four decades, structural dissatisfaction with one's own appearance has grown practically linearly with the expenditure on beauty enhancement.