Courtship is the demonstration of one's genetic quality to the opposite sex in order to be selected for reproduction. It primarily involves the display of traits that are under runaway sexual selection such as beauty and intelligence. In humans, male courtship additionally consists in signaling their willingness and ability to provide resources as women heavily depend on them.
In many species the females are more coy because they have more parental investment, hence the males need to compete more, e.g. by courtship. This also applies to humans, in fact, ethnologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt observed that courtship (flirting) is prevalent and pretty much the same the world over. Using his charm, he was able to elicit the "coy glance" in girls around the world (see figure). Human females engage in courtship display to lesser extent in shape of presenting their curves, nubility, neoteny enhanced by fakeup and related means of arousing attention.
Courtship can be seen as a kind of intrasexual competition as it involves outcompeting other men interested in the same woman. But rather than competing directly e.g. by physical violence and intimidation, gossip or bullying, it consists in impressing the opposite sex, by eliciting super stimuli in their brains.
Courtship among humans is special due to the disproportionally large amount of resources that males provide, which is, in fact, unique among primates and also extreme compared to animals overall (see hypergamy). For this reason, human males not only engage in display of their ornament, but also their wealth, e.g. by buying an expensive ring.
Humans are less ornamented than other animals like birds, but they do have ornament which mostly consists of smoothness, averageness and symmetry (simplicity). Such ornament and exaggerated sexual attraction to it may have evolved by runaway selection. Courtship of both sexes involves presentation of this ornament, e.g. a male may flex his muscles and the female may present breast and buttocks.
Geoffrey Miller suggested that human intelligence has also been selected by runaway selection and is merely "cognitive ornament", with males eliciting super stimuli in women in order to be selected, e.g. by humour and artistic performances (see Fisherian runaway § Intelligence). In fact, instrument building has been a near exclusively male activity across cultures.
Women are coy not only because they have greater parental investment, but also because they depend on men's resources. Women watch for signals of resource investment (romance) and they wait to evaluate the male and for a potentially better male to show up in the mean while, unless the male is exceptionally good looking (sexy son hypothesis). This way, women trade time for information.
Expensiveness of courtship
By withholding sex, women can exploit men's sexual frustration to get more investment, commitment, and more expensive (e.g. romantic) courtship display. The more the man invests in a woman, the more valuable she will appear. This is essentially the sunk cost fallacy. By playing coy, downplaying their attraction and deferring sex, women can hence trick men into more reliable resource provision.
Courtship vs arranged mating
The modern concept of dating may be fairly evolutionary novel. Historically, most couples were arranged by the parents and community. In fact, in 70% of societies that were analyzed, arranged marriages were the most predominant mating practice and also in medival Europe and the Middle and far East such practices have been very common in the past. This suggests, courtship may have often consisted in impressing not just the female directly, but also their parents and overall community by gaining prestigious social status.
This implies the less religious and traditional structure there is, the more courtship reduces to direct courting, or even more primal, simply physical intimidation between males, which both likely tend to be socially dysfunctional, especially for individuals who are interested in long-term relationships.
- Eibl-Eibesfeldt I. 2017. Pair Formation, Courtship, Sexual Love. In: Human Ethology. Rougtledge. [Excerpt]
- Adolescent Bullying, Dating, and Mating: Testing an Evolutionary Hypothesis, Researchgate
- Wachtmeister, C.A. and Enquist, M., 1999. The evolution of female coyness–trading time for information. [Abstract]
- McNamara, J.M., Fromhage, L., Barta, Z. and Houston, A.I.. 2008. The optimal coyness game. [Abstract]
- Grammer K. 1989. Human courtship behaviour: biological basis and cognitive processing. In: Rasa, A.E., Vogel, C. and Voland,E. (eds.): The Sociobiology of Sexual and Reproductive Strategies Chapmann and Hall,1989, New York. [FullText]