I have a very raw understanding of sexual selection:

Say a group of females of a certain species "like" some feature of a certain groups of males; by "like" I mean some behaviour that makes this group of females tend to mate with males having this feature, then the females are selecting their genes which make them feel appealed to males with the feature, and then this process becomes exponent since the group of females becomes bigger and forces the population of males to have this feauture, until an equilibrium is reached. I know this also happens with the roles interchanged.

My first question is, why do females tend to like males that have high amounts of these features, more than the average in the population?

My second question is, why do the end products of these selections are such beautiful features? Perhaps this may sound a little arrogant but I don't understand how an animal can appreciate this beauty, I suppose this is to make some sort of selection of healthy males.


  • $\begingroup$ I think this may answer part of your question: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$
    – blep
    Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 4:36
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    $\begingroup$ Hey! Welcome to Bio.SE :) This is certainly a good question. However, it requires a very broad explanation of how sexual selection works, so it seems unlikely that you will get a full answer that clears all of this up. It would probably be a good idea to read the Wikipedia article and see if that makes the issue more understandable to you. If you have any more specific question then, pleasea do ask here! $\endgroup$
    – Armatus
    Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ In regards to the "beautiful features" part, your Q2, Dan Dennett explains the issue well here: ted.com/talks/dan_dennett_cute_sexy_sweet_funny.html $\endgroup$
    – Armatus
    Commented Mar 19, 2013 at 9:53
  • $\begingroup$ I don't mean to be rude, but yes your second question is very arrogant and anthopocentric. Why would you think humans have a monopoly on beauty appreciation and emotion? The tails of peacocks just happen to coincide with human aesthetics, but a proboscis monkey's nose or elephan seal's blubber are just as beautiful to the right set of eyes. $\endgroup$
    – DaleyPaley
    Commented Apr 22, 2013 at 6:35

2 Answers 2


I think I can expand on the answer by @boo2060.

The evolution of female mate choice depends on females achieving higher fitness by choosing certain males over others. At the broadest scale, there are two mechanisms by which this can occur, direct benefits, and indirect benefits.

Direct benefits These are material things that (surprise) directly benefit the female. This might be the provision of food by the preferred male, access to a good territory or shelter that is under the control of the preferred male, protection by the preferred male, that sort of thing. Females will accordingly favour male traits that advertise potential direct benefits. These might include male size/condition/colouration, or even built structures like those of the bowerbirds. Basically, these traits show that the male knows how to look after himself, and by extension, he knows how to look after her (as males in good condition generally inhabit the best habitats and will offer the best protection and parenting).

Indirect benefits These don't do much for the female, but they increase the genetic quality (and thus potential fitness) of her offspring. This is a much more complicated area of mate choice, and can be split into a bunch of (non-exclusive) hypotheses (below). And of course, attractive males may well offer both direct and indirect benefits.

Sensory bias: Males may, by chance, possess a trait that holds intrinsic appeal for a female. The best explanation might be that it mimics the colour or shape of a food source (e.g. fruit) that the animal eats, and thus the animal has pre-evolved preference for that colour or shape (e.g. red patches). From that point, males with more of that trait, whatever it is, will tend to be more attractive, for no rational reason. This hypothesis is sound, but is currently lacking good empirical evidence.

Fisherian sexy sons: This can in fact lead on from an initial sensory bias. Females may choose males that they find 'sexy', because their offspring will also be sexy, and thus be successfull in reproduction. This can lead to 'runaway' selection for sexier and sexier sons, at considerable survival cost for males. In this case, natural selection and sexual selection work in opposing directions.

Indicator mechanisms: This is the handicap principle or 'good genes' principle. If a structure is costly to produce or maintain, or increases the risk of predation, and yet the male possessing it is still alive, he must have good genes to have withstood such a handicap. It may also advertise that the male is not infested with parasites. The extravagant plumes of birds may be largely explained by this one, but also sexy sons and sensory bias.

Genetic compatibility: Individuals seek partners that are genetically compatible. A certain proportion of the fitness of the offspring depends on the specific combination of genes (i.e. it's not additive), and individuals that can signal or detect signals in such a way that they can choose compatible partners will have an evolutionary advantage. The best example is scent (e.g. preference for dissimilar MHC immune genes - see the human t-shirt experiment).

These mechanisms are well known in theory, but not always well-supported by evidence (yet). This is probably the best reference.

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    $\begingroup$ Of course 'beautiful' is a subjective, human concept. But we probably appreciate a lot of 'beautiful' things (like a male bird of paradise) for the same reasons as other species. We like shiny things, colourful things, delicate things. These also happen to be the best indicators of health, and are most likely to exploit existing sensory biases. Fascinating topic. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 14:57
  • $\begingroup$ Hello @atrichornis, thanks for your answer. As you can see in my question I have a "Fisherian" view of sexual selection, this seemed a little arbitrary, as almost any feature could be seen as "selectable", and with your explanation of sensory bias I get a better understanding of why beautiful features end up being selected. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 27, 2013 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ Yep, the current consensus is that for the evolution of a sexual signal (e.g. ornamentation) to occur in the first place, it should exploit sensory biases, AND/OR be costly for the male to maintain and so serve as an indicator of health. Mathematical theory suggests that either one can be enough, provided that there is some mechanism (i.e. cost) that prevents low-quality males from 'cheating' by pretending to be healthy. If males can cheat, the system breaks down, because females can no longer use it as a basis for choosing, and males possessing this trait no longer have an advantage. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 28, 2013 at 4:21
  • $\begingroup$ Nice highlighting of indicator mechanisms. That seems to be the best match with the "beauty" term used in the question. $\endgroup$
    – A.M.
    Commented Jul 31, 2013 at 16:56

I'm not completely certain about the vocabulary used in this context so let me know if you wish clarification

There are a few hypothesis why females care about the sexual features of males, the two most prominent are:

  • The sexy son hypothesis states that a sexually attractive male will have sexually attractive offspring which, in turn, is also more likely to mate. This way a female choses to maximize the chance to pass on it's genes to next generations.
  • The good genes hypothesis says that males who can afford to develop features that do not benefit their survival but are only for the purpose of sexual selection are healthy, strong and fit. If not, they would not spend resources on sexual attractiveness.

But why are all these features beautiful? Well, the purpose here is that they are beautiful, in terms of attractive, to the recipient of the message: the potential partner. We as humans may find these features also beautiful, as is most likely the case with the colourful feathers of the peafowl. But what about the antlers of deer? Beautiful, dangerous? This is subjective for us ..

  • $\begingroup$ Have you got any sources? $\endgroup$
    – blep
    Commented Mar 22, 2013 at 0:40
  • $\begingroup$ I was rather thinking of how many attractive features convey a sense of fertility and lack of genetic abberations. $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Commented Mar 22, 2013 at 1:25
  • $\begingroup$ I thought I had my books at hand before I wrote the answer but in the end I didn't find them .. so apart from my experience and a quick verification on the Internet the sources are still to add. $\endgroup$
    – Stockfisch
    Commented Mar 22, 2013 at 2:52
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not aware of a study quantifying features that are considered being subdue to sexual selection. I think that rather the potency of one feature communicates fertility, health etc - I'm not an expert on evolution though .. your thought is interesting. $\endgroup$
    – Stockfisch
    Commented Mar 22, 2013 at 3:00

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