Cosmetics: Art and Evolution



Cosmetics is a term derived from the Greek, kosmos, an idea from which classic Greek concepts of morality and beauty unfolded (1). Like the infinite cosmos, beauty has many layers, two of which are the constructed idea and the physical signals for sex.

In 1859, Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species in which he laid out his Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, natural selection being the process by which individuals who are more suited to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce compared to those less suited to their environment (2). Over generations, groups of organisms became more adapted to their environment i.e. evolution.

Like everything, this relates to sex.

Secondary sexual characteristics, or sexual dimorphisms, are physical differences between females and males that have evolved simply because members of one sex prefered those features (for good reasons). Think of peacocks:


It takes energy and resources for a male peacock to generate such a vibrant array of feathers.

So why does it funnel useful resources into seemingly useless ornamentation? Sex.



Over generations, female peacocks chose male peacocks that were so successful in their environment that they had energy to burn and used that energy to build colorful ornamentation (i.e. to show physically how successful and well adapted they are). In 1930, another white guy, Fisher, explained that these signals are trusted implicitly by females because they cannot be faked; a male can’t conjure up more color when it’s time to mate, he must earn his array of feathers by having excess energy and nutrients (3). Females chose successful males (which they associated with brighter colors and grandous mating showmanship) to have better odds of having successful offspring, thus passing on their genetics at a high rate. Unfortunately, human males are less colorful.

With the benefit of consciousness, humans have generated their own structure of sexual signaling, beyond the capabilities of the natural world.   

When you encounter a potential partner, what do you look at? Eyes, hair, teeth, booty, height? You are scanning for characteristics and ornamentation that make an individual physically attractive to you. Of course, for human beings, constructs like beauty are infinitely complicated and involve myriad moieties such as biological, social, cultural, and personal aspects. Still, for many, cosmetics are a powerful way to influence one’s own signaling. It is a tool in the expression of the human psyche.

Just like the peacocks, we show our appeal as mates. However, the strategy of cosmetics does not rely on biological fitness. This is where I must challenge the idea that makeup is a form of false signaling, a representation of non genuine or fake physical features. Aspects of makeup are intended to highlight features associated with health and youth (i.e. even complexion, rosy cheeks, a soft glow) in order to elicit those same responses as the female peacocks responding to the well-adapted, vibrantly colored males. Like all human signaling related to sex, we want to show how desirable we are as genetic donors.



However, along with humans, makeup itself has evolved. No longer is it an overcoat or mask as it was in the Elizabethan Era. Instead makeup is an art.

Personally, I don’t wear makeup aside from the occasional (daily) concealer. “Full-face” makeup is not false signaling because it is clear that the individual is choosing to wear makeup; therefor, the signal is not false, but different. This is far more intentional signaling that demonstrates style, skill, and attention to detail. Cosmetics provide a conscious form of social signaling, and endows the artist with the blush brush and the eyelid palate with the power to move beyond the animal kingdom.

Through medicine and technology, humans have used their collective intelligence to circumvent natural selection, and we are now capable of adapting to almost any physical environment. Through cosmetics, humans have begun to evolve past the natural selection theory of  “beauty” in terms of secondary sexual characteristics to defining it in terms of deliberate expression.



  1. Power, Camilla. “Cosmetics, Identity and Consciousness.” Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 17, 2010,

  2. “Evolution and Natural Selection.” Evolution and Natural Selection, University of Michigan , 10 Oct. 2010,

  3. Fisher, Ronald Aylmer. The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Dover, 1958.

  4. (image 1) Barnum, J. Charles Darwin II Portrait Illustration. Pintrest.

  5. (image 2)Unknown. Unzipped.