Op-ed / Debate

The Sexual Allure of Simplicity

Is the return to a simple life a “new” way to advertise our good qualities? An evolutionary perspective says yes.
A gray ocean fades into a gray sky, with a few swimmers barely visible in the distance.

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This article contributes to the debate, “Why We Yearn for the Simple Life

You have probably seen them at your local bar: the man with a beard, plaid shirt, and wool hat; the woman with an unbuttoned flannel over a T-shirt, hair tied back in a tousled bun. They are well-groomed and probably have good jobs, but also look like they could survive in the wilderness, build their own log cabin, and hunt for food. They represent the new sexy.

In the market for life partners, explicit wealth used to be a great way to show off desirability: Men in expensive suits flashed cash; women wore diamonds and Gucci. Living in a big house, driving an expensive car, and talking about exotic vacations signaled that you’d be a quality partner.

Things, for some people at least, have changed.

From an evolutionary perspective, the most important—really, the only—goal for any living thing is to reproduce itself. Since finding a sexual partner is key to this process for humans, we should anticipate strong pressure on mate-selection strategies. Specifically, evolutionists predict that we should be attracted to “honest” signals of mate quality—properties that take a lot of effort to maintain and so aren’t easily faked. Honest signals may vary from one generation to the next.

Until recently, people who were conspicuous about their consumerism reliably signaled better access to health care, food, and education, as well as a greater overall ability to provide for future offspring. But today it has become the norm to live off loans and credit. Someone’s outward display of wealth, especially a single purchase, may no longer be an honest signal of their value as a potential mate. Instead it may actually signal debt or a willingness to spend disproportionate amounts of money on superficial things.

Exaggerated displays of wealth have lost their authenticity as signals of a good-quality mate. So mating strategies have switched accordingly.

The simple living philosophy can be seen as a recalibration of quality signaling in the dating arena. In today’s world, only certain privileged groups can afford to live “simply,” as defined by popular notions of the movement. It takes money and networks to live well in a small house, eat organic produce, use eco-friendly products, and follow sustainable practices. Living a simple life might be a better signal of true, meaningful wealth and values than displaying flashy gold jewelry and shiny new shoes.

Evolutionary biologists have demonstrated that the shift in honest signals plays a fundamental role in the mating systems of many species, from birds with colorful plumage to deer with large antlers. Humans are no exception. Evolutionary theory doesn’t just apply to long-term genetic processes; it can also be used to understand contemporary cultural shifts.

The concept of simple living now thriving in the West can be seen as a culturally specific expression of the qualities and values that make for a “fit” mate. Lithe organic farmers dressed in reclaimed clothing and living in tiny houses have reconsidered the traits they wish to show off in order to attract potential mates. Basic plaid is now sexy.

Angela Garcia is a Ph.D. candidate and graduate researcher in biological anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). She holds a B.A. in sociology from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and an M.A. in biological anthropology from UCSB. Her research uses evolutionary and biocultural approaches to explain social disparities in health. Her dissertation looks at the interplay of social and biological factors on disease risk among immigrants on the island of Utila, Honduras. She is the author of a manuscript (in press) that focuses on the relationship between perceived socioeconomic status and diurnal cortisol levels in people who live on Utila.

Elizabeth Weigler is a Ph.D. candidate and graduate researcher in cultural anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). For her B.A., she double majored in anthropology and history at Ripon College. She also holds an M.A. in cultural anthropology from UCSB. Her dissertation fieldwork focuses on the public heritage projects of Sikhs living in the United Kingdom. She has published with community-based endeavors, including Sikh Foundation International in 2012, and she has two forthcoming articles in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Sikhism. Follow her on Twitter @ea_weigler.


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