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The Red Queen and the Beauty Rat Race

Human culture is a product of human nature. The major studies of the evolutionary significance of beauty in human culture almost always begin with natural selection. However, the evolutionary biologist Leigh van Valen claimed that as different species living at each other's expense coevolve, they are engaged in a constant evolutionary struggle for a survival advantage: “for an evolutionary system, continuing development is needed just in order to maintain its fitness relative to the systems it is co-evolving with”. He named this the Red Queen Principle after a character in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass" who has to keep running to stay in the same place (see extract). According to the Red Queen Principle, evolutionary systems need "all the running they can do" because the landscape around them is constantly changing. In terms of beauty, the Red Queen effect suggests that an enhancement that generates success will lose its advantage when too many people use it. New enhancements have to be made and the beauty rat race begins.

Beauty and Evolutionary Psychology

How can a biological basis, from which the Red Queen effect derives, be ascribed to beauty in culture? Darwin expressed natural selection as follows: “As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurrent struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected.” Richard Dawkins argued in the 1970s that the body is merely an evolutionary vehicle for our genes. In other words, genes force the body to do things to perpetuate them, and all human genes must confer reproductive success. An appreciation of attractiveness and beauty in culture is linked to high reproductive potential: women pay attention to cues of wealth and power, men pay attention to cues of health and youth. Harvard Psychologist, Nancy Etcoff argues that theories of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology explain how sexual preference is guided by common construction rules of features, averageness and symmetry that make us most attracted to those with whom we are most likely to reproduce. She suggests, “Beauty is a universal part of human experience that promotes pleasure, rivets attention and impels actions that ensure the survival of our genes. Our extreme sensitivity to beauty is hard-wired and governed by circuits in the brain shaped by natural selection. We love to look at smooth skin, curved waists and symmetrical bodies because in the course of evolution the people who noticed these signals and desired their possessors had more reproductive success”. In this view, beauty is an essential part of human nature that influences our perception, attitudes, and behavior toward others.

The Red Queen Effect in contemporary Western Societies

How then does the Red Queen effect explain aspects of cultural beauty in contemporary Western Societies? The hypothesis describes how, in a dynamically changing environment in which different species are co-evolving, improvement in one species becomes a competitive advantage over another species in its ability to capture the available resources. The only way that a species involved in a competition can maintain its fitness relative to the others is by in turn improving its design. The first important point here is that a race for beauty in terms of genetic variability alone is limited: by evolution, we cannot simply become increasingly beautiful because a high genetic variance is necessary for biological success. Similarly, a woman’s overall attractiveness is likely to be the factor limiting her access to potential mates. A perception of personal beauty then becomes crucial in the process of deciding whom to try to attract (Miller & Todd, 1998). Personal beauty can be enhanced artificially, however. All human cultures have used some form of paints, dyes, bleaches, wigs, body ornamentation or modification in an attempt to meet standards they considered to be beautiful. The Red Queen Principle suggests such artificial body enhancement is an instance of cultural developments outrunning biological adaptations.

Artificial adaptation and cosmetic surgery

The second important point is that the race or quest for more beauty does not stop once its biological limitations have been surpassed. The Red Queen effect states, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”. As new enhancements become commonplace through exposure in the media, it is perhaps unsurprising therefore to find cosmetic surgery and hormonal treatments playing an increasing role in contemporary societies. Surveys suggest that more than 800,000 American women have implants for breast augmentation and 60% of cases in which teenage girls have breast surgery are to remove any asymmetries rather than for medical reasons. The Red Queen effect in beauty both predicts and explains the fact that the field of cosmetic surgery is growing more in popularity and widespread acceptance than most if not all of the many advances made in twentieth century medical science. The frightening thought is that these trends in the beauty rat race are still continuing to co-evolve: will “all the running you can do” lead eventually to artificially adapted plastic people?

The dark side of the Red Queen effect

The third important point is that the Red Queen effect reveals a darker side to accounts of the social pressure on women to be attractive. Feminist approaches link the dissatisfaction of many women with their bodies, their struggle to achieve the slender, toned body shape associated with youth, and the emergence of their dissatisfaction in extreme forms such as anorexia and other eating disorders to the promotion of unrealistic standards of beauty by the beauty industry. They argue that when unreal prototypes of artificial beauty in the media raise cultural beauty standards, a woman’s expectations of her own beauty become similarly unrealistic in terms of what she believes men desire. However, the Red Queen effect instead puts the driving force behind this social pressure firmly at the door of women themselves. As controversial as this may sound, the Red Queen effect concludes that it is neither the desires of men nor the unrealistic beauty standards promoted in the media that really fuel the beauty rat race. The real source of the social pressure to be attractive lies in the rivalries between women themselves as they continue to compete with each other for the available resources in contemporary society.

Extract from Carroll, L., (1872) Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there, London: MacMillan, Chapter 2

Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying `Faster! Faster!' but Alice felt she could not go faster, thought she had not breath left to say so.
The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. `I wonder if all the things move along with us?' thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, `Faster! Don't try to talk!'
Not that Alice had any idea of doing that. She felt as if she would never be able to talk again, she was getting so much out of breath: and still the Queen cried `Faster! Faster!' and dragged her along. `Are we nearly there?' Alice managed to pant out at last.
`Nearly there!' the Queen repeated. `Why, we passed it ten minutes ago! Faster! And they ran on for a time in silence, with the wind whistling in Alice's ears, and almost blowing her hair off her head, she fancied.
`Now! Now!' cried the Queen. `Faster! Faster!' And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.
The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, `You may rest a little now.'
Alice looked round her in great surprise. `Why, I do believe we've been under this tree the whole time! Everything's just as it was!'
`Of course it is,' said the Queen, `what would you have it?'
`Well, in our country,' said Alice, still panting a little, `you'd generally get to somewhere else -- if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing.'
`A slow sort of country!' said the Queen. `Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!'

References and Links

  • Carroll, L., (1872) Through the Looking Glass and what Alice found there, London: MacMillan.

  • Darwin, C., (1859) On the Origin of Species, London: John Murray.

  • Dawkins, R., (1976), The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Etcoff, N., (1999) Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, New York: Doubleday.

  • Miller, G.F. & Todd, P.M., (1998) Mate choice turns cognitive, Trends in Cognitive Science, Vol. 2, No. 5.

  • van Valen, L., (1973), ‘A New Evolutionary Law’, Evolutionary Theory, 1: 1-30.

  • Read this detailed article about Sexual Selection and the Biology of Beauty.

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