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Darwin, sexual selection, and the brain

OPEN Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America | 18 Feb 2021

MJ Ryan
Abstract
One hundred fifty years ago Darwin published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, in which he presented his theory of sexual selection with its emphasis on sexual beauty. However, it was not until 50 y ago that there was a renewed interest in Darwin’s theory in general, and specifically the potency of mate choice. Darwin suggested that in many cases female preferences for elaborately ornamented males derived from a female’s taste for the beautiful, the notion that females were attracted to sexual beauty for its own sake. Initially, female mate choice attracted the interest of behavioral ecologists focusing on the fitness advantages accrued through mate choice. Subsequent studies focused on sensory ecology and signal design, often showing how sensory end organs influenced the types of traits females found attractive. Eventually, investigations of neural circuits, neurogenetics, and neurochemistry uncovered a more complete scaffolding underlying sexual attraction. More recently, research inspired by human studies in psychophysics, behavioral economics, and neuroaesthetics have provided some notion of its higher-order mechanisms. In this paper, I review progress in our understanding of Darwin’s conjecture of “a taste for the beautiful” by considering research from these diverse fields that have conspired to provide unparalleled insight into the chooser’s mate choices.
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