Culture Versus Evolution: Mating Preferences

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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There has been a question to what the purpose of life is. From a biological perspective, the question can be examined in a very simple fashion. The purpose of life is to reproduce and further the species. In order to do this, the human race must acquire quality mates in order for their best chance of survival. In this day and age, however, the qualities may be different than what our ancestors had chosen. So this leads to the question of what drives our mates selection and what has a major influence on who we decide to have offspring with? Are we more drawn towards mates that our ancestors desired for sexual and survival fitness or are our preferences dictated by cultural standards? There is quite a large amount of literature from different fields including biology, sociology, and psychology that attack this question and this paper is going to bring some of that research together to try and have a better understanding of what influences human mating preferences.

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In order to talk about evolution, there needs to be mention of Charles Darwin. Darwin was one of the pioneers on evolutionary theory and sexual fitness. Darwin was a biologist who researched natural selection and competition between organisms in a specifies (Ruse, 1975). Natural selection is the process in which certain attributes that are considered useful for survival are passed on to offspring. This means that if a certain traits leads to a higher likelihood of survival, then the host of that attribute is more likely to live and reproduce and pass that trait on. On the other hand, the hosts who do not carry that trait would then die off and not be able to pass on their genetic material. A great example of this would be the width of the birthing canal in humans. If a woman’s body was not optimally designed to safely deliver a child then that child would pass away and not allow for the genetics of small birthing canal to be passed on. This can be said with almost all traits that humans now possess including physical, emotional, dispositional, sexual, and any other qualities that can lead to the survival of the species.

Natural selection can be broken down into several parts. These parts are variation, inheritance, and fitness (Ruse, 1975).. Variation means that there are individual differences in everyone. Every human carries their own unique set of traits. Inheritance is the passing on of those individuals traits. Fitness is the capacity for having specific traits that aid in the collection of resources and the likelihood of survival. This sets up a type of competition. Organisms are competing for resources and quality mates for the purpose of passing on their genetic material to healthy offspring. From an evolutionary standpoint, there are two types of competition. First, there is intersexual competition. That means there is preferential choice exerted by members of one sex for members of the opposite sex possessing certain attributes (Buss, 1988). This means that rather than members of the same sex showcasing and having competition, it allows one sex to be picky and decide who they would like to make with. This is often the female choice. Think of a peacock. The females often pick the most beautiful colors that are shown off by the male. The female makes the ultimate decision for a mate based off of her preference. In contrast to this, there is also intrasexual competition. This is competition that is often completed by the men. It is the competition of mates between members of the same species. Think of two bighorn sheep who will ram into one another for the mate. The winner claims the mate for themselves. These types of competition help drive natural selection because it showcases that certain qualities are desired for survival of the species and the winners of these competitions are what shape the genetic material of later generations.

Biological sex differences have a major effect on sexual fitness. It all has to do with amount of resources (gametes) that each sex has to offer (Searcy, 1982). This is demonstrated through females having a finite number of resources (eggs) while males have an infinite number of resources (sperm). Because females have a finite number of resources, they have had to be much more selective with their mate. Women historically who have been more selective and found fit traits in their mate have had a higher likelihood of their offspring survive. This is thought to be a reason why women are slower to want to procreate with a person they just meet versus how quickly men are willing to procreate. They also have much more parental investment than males do. A women has to care for this child for at least 9 months while the men do not have much parental investment at all. This has led for certain traits for women to desire on an evolutionary standpoint. Women who have sought after men who have ambition have had a higher likelihood for them and their offspring to survive because that ambition leads to the male being able to provide food and shelter for the children (Buss, 1989). Males, on an evolutionary perspective, are then much different because they have more resources (sperm) and much less parental investment (Searcy, 1982). For this reason, men have had a higher likelihood of wanting to procreate with more people and have more of a willingness to procreate with a person they hardly know. The more people that the man procreated with, the more his genetic material has been passed on. While women tend to seek out ambition, men tend to seek out attractiveness (Buss, 1989).

Another argument that mating preferences can be attributed to evolution is the idea that there are several standards of beauty that are considered universal. The idea is that certain physical characteristics are signs that a person is sexually mature and healthy enough to carry a child (Cunningham, Roberts, Barbee, Druen, & Wu, 1995). A comparison would be similar to the evolution of humans craving certain foods. Human bodies over time have grown to desire certain high calorie and macronutrient dense foods such as foods with high protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Craving these types of foods have led to a larger chance of survival so it has become an adaptive trait. That is the same concept as certain standards of beauty. Some of these standards that seem to be universal are youthfulness, good health, and sexual maturation. Signs that show sexual maturation that are found attractive by men are certain dimensions of breasts and hips on females while females seem to be attracted to males who have larger amounts of muscle, sexually mature genitals, and a prominent larynx. Twin studies show that even twins who are separated tend to have similar physical traits the look for in a mate leading to the idea of biological desire for certain physical attributes.

This idea universal standards of beauty are even more supported when looking at cross cultural studies. A study was conducted by comparing attractiveness levels in different countries (Jones, et al., 1995).This study had people look at photographs of faces and rate the level of attractiveness. Men in these studies found and rated similar photos of high levels of attractiveness which showcases that those women were found to have universal beauty. Some of the attributes that seemed to have been found attractive included large eyes in relation to face height, small noses, and full lips. These seem to be traits that are also associated with youthfulness which seems to be an adaptive trait to be attracted to someone who is sexually developed and has the ability to birth.

Darwinian Theory and natural selection seems to have some effect on mating preferences considering there are certain traits that are deemed more fit and universal but it does not account for all traits. This seems to be where culture has an effect on mating preferences.


Culture is the spread of information that influences thought, speech, and actions of the in-group that are part of that society (Freeburg, 2000). Inside culture is socially learned behavior. Some of that information that is spread can have an effect and influence on high quality attributes to look for in a mate. Different cultures, therefore, can have different mating preferences. Cultural mate selection often has two opportunity variables (Hollingshead, 1950). These variables are the freedom of choice of the individual or whether culture dictates who is found as a quality mate. For example, a study was conducted that looked at how much social networks dictated mate selection and the likelihood of relationship longevity (Zhang & Kline). The study focused on comparing individualistic cultures against collectivistic cultures. Individualist cultures often focus on the needs of the individual while collectivistic cultures often focus on the needs and desires of the group. In this study, the researchers wanted to see how an individualistic culture (United States) and social networks impacted relationships versus how collectivistic culture (China) and social networks impacted relationships. The results showed that social networks, like friends and family, had a much stronger effect on relationships in a collectivistic culture than in an individualist culture. People from the collectivistic culture were much less likely to have a lasting relationship when the family disapproved of the partner. This is quite different in the individualistic culture where the mate selection was based much more off of love and was not dictated by a large amount based on social networks. This showcases how different styles of cultures can have an impact on who someone will have as a mate.

Another piece of evidence that culture can dictate mate preferences is differences in attractiveness. Yes, in the evolution section there was discussion about certain physical traits that are found to be universally attractive but there are also physical traits that are found to not be universally beautiful. For example, body type attractiveness can vary from culture to culture. A study was conducted in Britain and Malaysia in order to test this (Swami & Tovee, 2005). Participants from both countries were asked to rate the attractiveness level of images of females. The waist-to-hip ratio of all of the females was recorded in order to compare countries to see if the idea of hip-to-waist ratio is universally attractive. The results had shown that it was not. Britain preferred a larger hip-to-waist ratio relative to Malaysia who were more attracted to slender bodies. In the same study, there was also evidence to show that there is a difference in desired body mass index (BMI) depending on the culture. Industrialized societies seem to want a lower BMI while lesser-industrialized societies seem to want a higher BMI. This is often attributed to the ideal health of that society. In industrialized societies where food is abundant, a smaller BMI is often an indicator of health because obesity is often at a higher rate. In contrast, in a less-industrialized country, a higher BMI is an indicator of health because there is more likelihood of starvation and the higher BMI shows that someone has the financial resources to avoid starvation. This concept reinforces the idea that health is considered universally attractive, yet health standards are dictated by the environment which changes the concept of beauty from culture to culture.

Culture between countries and regions often influence attractive attributes but time also has this same ability. The 20th century has added variables in ways that we interact and communicated that can have effects on our mate selection (Buss, Shackelford, Kirkpatrick, & Larson, 2001). New inventions and thought processes like increased transportation, the internet, more women in the workforce, and an increased awareness of sexual assault have changed the way that people have dated and selected a mate. For example, historically, women were much more likely to marry up in the social and economic status. Men, historically, had been the primary provider for resources so they mated with someone who they found attractive while women found ambition attractive because it often led to a large amount of resources. Now that there is more opportunity for women in the workforce, it means that ambition could be much less of a quality that is sought after. The idea of the ideal attractiveness is changing as well. Television, advertisements, and the internet tricks humans into having a specific ideal of beauty. Humans are constantly exposed to media that is abundant with a certain standard of beauty. This tricks humans into thinking that society is full of other humans who have this similar beauty which is false but it can lead people to believe there is another higher quality mate out there.

A study was conducted to test how these 20th century phenomena has effected mating preferences over time (Buss, Shackelford, Kirkpatrick, & Larson, 2001). It took place in the United States over a span of 57 years. There was a survey that was taken during in 1945 and tested to see what qualities were found important at that time. Some of these qualities included chastity, good cook, similar educational background, and other variables. This was then given to undergraduates in 1985 and the results of both surveys were compared to see how some qualities had stayed the same and how some had changed over time. There were several main findings. Some differences were shown depending on the region in which the participant lived. For example, chastity and social status differed in different regions in the United States. They found that some qualities had changed over time. There seemed to be less seeking for partners who had traits of neatness, refinement, and chastity. There was an increase in attractiveness for traits like mutual attraction, love, education, intelligence and sociability. Not only were there changes in attractive qualities but some sought after partner attributes had remained the same over time. Men continued to look for physical attractiveness and physical health in women. Women continued to seek after a male who had traits of ambition, industriousness, and good financial prospect. Both sexes continued to look for someone with dependable character, emotional stability, and a pleasing disposition. This study is interesting because it shows how culture and evolution interact. It demonstrates that certain desirable mate qualities can change with time and how some will remain the same even with changing culture.

Homosexual Relationships

A topic that seems to be relevant to this paper is homosexuality because it has no reproductive fitness. Because of the fact that two same sex people cannot produce a child, the biological trait of homosexual attraction should have died off. However, there seems to be a case against this. Homosexuality could have been an evolutionarily adaptive behavior (Kirkpatrick et al., 2000). Homosexuality and homosexual behavior seems to have been used for sexual alliances and social bonding. This is a practice that is commonly used in human’s close relatives, the bonobo. Rather than using physical aggressive over conflicts, mates, and resources, the bonobos will commit homosexual acts as a way to reduce tension and create a better social bond. These acts would then be saving many lives that would have been lost to interspecies fighting which makes it a fit trait. So individuals who had the traits of being attracted to the same sex could have been passed on when that person did have sex with someone of the opposite sex.

The way that culture interacts with homosexuality and homosexual behavior is that the action and openness becomes either expanded or suppressed depending on the views of that specific culture. In other words, if a culture seems more accepting of homosexuality and homosexual behavior then there is more openness, yet if the culture is not accepting then the rates go down. For example, Hawaii had a large population of homosexual sexual orientation before western culture had taken it over. When the United States took over the territory and claimed it the rates had fallen because it was a time that homosexuality was considered immoral. Now that homosexuality has less of a stigma and it is legalized to have homosexual marriage, rates of openness have risen to similar levels as before. This has the implication that homosexuality and homosexual behavior can be biological and inherent in human nature, yet all culture does is either allow it or suppress it.


This paper has discussed evidence into two sides of a debate. The debate of whether mating preferences is based off evolution or if they are dictated by cultural standards. The point that this paper is ultimately trying to make is that it is a combination of the two. The debate is not black and white. There are traits based off of evolution that humans find attractive and yet cultures can often times interpret them differently. We have a genetic predisposition to find certain qualities attractive based off of resources but we are also a social species and are susceptible to outside influence. A really interesting part about studying mating preferences is that many of these studies are based off of statistical norms and averages. People can have their own individual preferences that do not follow the average of biological or cultural norms. This is explained through the common phrase of “love is in the eye of the beholder.” More research needs to be conducted in order to increase literature of the field, especially in preferences that are not of the norm.


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Culture Versus Evolution: Mating Preferences. (2021, Apr 03). Retrieved from