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Ciba Found Symp. 1997;208:71-82; discussion 82-7.

Mate choice: from sexual cues to cognitive adaptations.

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  • 1Research Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution, University College London, UK.


Evolutionary psychologists have successfully combined sexual selection theory and empirical research to compile lists of sexual attractiveness cues used in human mate choice. But a list of inputs is not the same as a normative or descriptive model of a psychological adaptation. We need to shift from cataloguing sexual cues to modelling cognitive adaptations for mate choice. This theoretical chapter addresses how to make this transition in three parts. The introduction discusses four general problems with cue cataloguing as an evolutionary psychology research strategy: animals' promiscuous flexibility of cue use; cue use being marginal to cognition; cue use being marginal to the hard game-theoretical aspects of mate choice; and cue use being uninformative about the exact adaptive functions of mate choice. The middle section develops six critiques of current mate choice research: the obsession with sex difference; the over-emphasis on physical rather than behavioural cues; the assumption of weighted linear models of cue integration; the avoidance of game-theoretical problems of mutual choice and assortative mating; the neglect of co-evolution between mate choice heuristics and the cues that they select; and the failure to understand that mate choice is only worth doing if potential mates show significant genetic variance. The conclusion outlines a new normative and descriptive framework for mate choice, centred on the use of brutally efficient search heuristics that exploit the informational structure of human genotypes, phenotypes and populations to make good mate choices.

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