Scientists urged to leave labs in hunt for mates

November 8, 1996

Evolutionary psychologists know that we are all instinctively drawn to people with good looks. But they still have to explain how we sift through the available population to find a spouse, according to an evolutionary psychologist speaking at a Ciba Foundation conference on The Evolutionary Origins of Human Nature last week.

In his presentation on mate choice, Geoffrey Miller, from the Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution at University College London, urged scientists to stop festering in their laboratories and to step into the streets for more meaningful research.

"There is a risk of evolutionary psychologists stagnating with their laboratory studies of isolated cues," he said. "They look for individual features such as health or fertility that might make one mate more attractive than another, but I want to push them to find out why people make decisions in the real world. How do we search through the sequence of people we meet to find a mate for life? How do we decide when to stop looking? When to get engaged? When to get married?" Dr Miller said: "It is easy to focus on physical features but mate choice happens much later on in the courtship game, when people start talking and interacting, after they have started a sexual relationship."

Sara Abdulla, science writer-in-residence for the Ciba Foundation, welcomed the challenges presented at the conference to evolutionary pyschologists specialising in such diverse areas as mate choice, the human genome, the language instinct and personality diversity.

"Meetings like this used to involve a roomful of social biologists patting each other on the back, but the heterogeneous group at this conference shows that evolutionary psychology is no longer a quirky off-shoot of psychology. It is growing up and moving much more in the cognitive and neuroscience direction," she said.

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