University of São Paulo: Artistic and athletic abilities may be evolving through sexual selection, cross-cultural study suggests


A study by researchers from USP, Charles University (Czechia) and Saint Mary’s University (Canada) suggests that the processes of choosing sexual and romantic partners and of competition between men and women may be influencing the evolution of artistic and athletic abilities. human beings, confirming what the biologist, naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) postulated.

In his theorizing on the evolution of species, Darwin showed that, in addition to natural selection, animals have “ornaments” used to attract the opposite sex (such as the colored feathers of the peacock) and “weapons” to face individuals of the same sex in search of of a sexual partner (like the horns of oxen). After gathering evidence in humans and other lineages, Darwin concluded in 1871 that sexual selection may have influenced the improvement of human artistic abilities, among other abilities. In a similar way to animals, humans use different strategies to attract mates and intimidate competitors and some of them can be their artistic and athletic skills, such as resourcefulness on the guitar or performance in soccer.

The study is part of the current postdoctoral project by researcher Marco Antonio Corrêa Varella, from the Institute of Psychology (IP) at USP. This stage of the work had the collaboration of researchers Zuzana Štěrbová and Klára Bártová, from Charles University; Maryanne L. Fisher of Saint Mary’s University; and Jaroslava V. Valentova, from IP. The aim of the study was to investigate the relationships between the components of sexual selection and the artistic and athletic inclinations of men and women.

Brazilians and Czechs of both sexes, all heterosexual, answered online questionnaires anonymously. The sample size obtained with non-heterosexual participants was not sufficient to conduct the statistical analyses.First, the volunteers indicated their own level of talent and experience in each artistic or sport modality. Skills in literary, visual, musical and circus arts, as well as general, individual and collective sports were considered. Then, the participants gave answers related to aspects of partner choice. These questions asked about physical attractiveness, the number of romantic partners and the tendency for casual sex or for more lasting and committed relationships. At the same stage, people were also asked about competition for love partners and their degree of aggression.

The analyzes were based on the correlations of these responses from both stages: from the indicators of the processes of search and competition for partners with the artistic and athletic level of each one .

The data were published in the article Evolution of artistic and athletic propensities: Testing of intersexual selection and intrasexual competition and are available in the special issue of the international journal Frontiers of Psychology, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the book The descent of Man and the selection in relation to sex , published by Darwin in 1871. In that book, the thinker proposed that human musicality evolves through sexual selection.

According to the researcher, Darwin proposed in that book that the capacities for music and dance in humans would have followed the same pattern as other species and evolved by sexual selection. Since then, science has confirmed this hypothesis. The novelty of this research was to investigate a total of 16 artistic modalities. Some of them, such as crafts, whistling and circus arts, had never been included in empirical studies. Furthermore, previous studies were much more focused on mate preference and choice than on competition between men and women for love partners. This also occurs in the literature on sports practices, although the notion of sport, more than the notion of art, is more debated as an evolutionary weapon.

However, Varella cautions that this study is not experimental, so causes and effects cannot be directly inferred. Although there are other characteristics that can create the relationship between these interests and love life, such as personality, the study indicates that the artistic and athletic propensities of men and women are, at least indirectly, related to both components of sexual selection in humans.

Overall, the study found slightly different dynamics in each sport and for each sex. Women may be using their artistic gifts as ornaments to attract mates a little more than men, who have the arts more as a weapon in the competition for mates. On the other hand, women may be using their sports skills to compete with each other, and men too, but they can still use their athletic skills to attract the opposite sex. With the exception of the musical and visual arts for men and sports for women, artistic and athletic abilities can function as both ornament and weaponry for both.

According to Marco Varella, previous literature points out that all human beings have the capacity to develop artistic and athletic skills, although not all develop them to the same level. This potential would not be unique to people who would have been born with a special gift. “What people call a gift is high performance, which is the result of the combination of a specific family genetic inheritance and a lot of training in a favorable social context”, he emphasizes. The fact is that these abilities may have contributed to the evolution of our species and are part of human nature.

Both athletic and artistic abilities contribute to physical and psychological well-being and need to be encouraged, especially in Brazil, which is one of the countries with the most cases of anxiety and depression. To reinforce this point, the researcher quotes an excerpt from Charles Darwin’s autobiography: “If I had to live my life over again, I would make it a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps these now atrophied parts of my brain would then be kept active through use. The loss of those likes is the loss of happiness .”

For Varella, understanding artistic skills from an evolutionary point of view can bring several benefits in terms of applications, helping the introduction of arts in treatments, hospitals, schools, the media, work, commerce and social life as one all. In addition, studies like this can eventually also impact on how artistic and physical activities will be used in the online environment, helping users in the search for partners.

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Knowing the cognitive precursors, origins, specializations and adaptive values ​​of our artistic and athletic abilities helps us to understand why they are the way they are, and helps to integrate aspects of their development and functioning. This allows a certain conceptual integration to the human and social sciences, without, therefore, falling into an exaggerated reductionism or a loss of explanatory autonomy of each discipline.

Traditionally, psychology and anthropology investigate how the human mind develops from birth and how human societies and populations function, with their particularities and regional and global generalizations. The modern evolutionary approach, in turn, adds questions that enrich the traditional explanatory structures of the human sciences, making us have a broader view of human beings.

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