Re: the beauty myth

Gerold Firl (
24 Apr 1995 17:37:46 -0700

In article <3mv8jh$> (Bryant) writes:
>In article <>,
>Christine Malcom <> wrote:

>>Well, depends on what you mean by beauty. From a population genetics
>> the desire to mate with 'the beautiful' is thought to be based on an
>>attraction to the phenotypically similar other (i.e. Positive Assortive
>>Mating). PAM goes
>>on in lots of places in the animal kingdom, so that would be the biological
>>component. Of course, that's a really incomplete answer, as all must be.

I've observed the social dynamics of mallard ducks, and it appears quite
clear that female ducks have a strong preference for drakes with bright
green heads. Is this considered PAM? You equate PAM with phenotypic
similarity, which seems somewhat orthogonal to the idea of sex-specific
markers. Ducks appear to have a specific, instinctive model of sexual
attractiveness, relating to both physiological and behavior factors.

>In studies conducted here at UNM, male assessment of female
>attractiveness had no significant relationship to race. None. It did,
>however, have much to do with facial and body symmetry, small chins, and
>high cheekbones. The latter two characteristics are markers of high
>estrogen to androgen ratios, and hence, female fertility.

Interesting. I've never heard that before. When you say "high" cheekbones,
are you referring to the width of the face at the level of the cheekbones
with respect to the length, or to the local facial topology; convexity of
the facial surface? Any idea why the estrogen/androgen ratio might
influence facial structure?

Regarding the negative results with respect to racial variation, the tests
clearly did not have representative samples. Races such as australian or
new guinea natives are perceived as less attractive than others by virtue
of their wide, flat noses. It would be interesting to know how they
perceive narrow-nosed races.

Here are some references for articles relating to experiments on the
learned vs. instinctive perception of human beauty. Unfortunately I've
never had the opportunity to look these up, but they were listed in an
earlier discussion of this topic:

Bernstein I, Lin T, McClellan P 1982, "Cross- and Within-Racial Judgements
of Attractiveness", Perception and Psychophysics 32: 495-503

Cunningham et. al. 1990 "What do Women Want?" (perception of male facial
physical attractiveness) J. Personality and Social Psychology 50: 925-935

Maret S, Harling G, 1985 "Cross-cultural Perception of Physical
Attractiveness" Perceptual and Motor Skills 60: 163-166

Thanaker J, Iwakaw S, 1979 "Cross-cultural Comparisons in Interpersonal
Attraction of Females Toward Males" J. Social Psychology 108: 121-122

As I have argued here before, the human concept of beauty is derived from
our instinctive attraction toward potential sex partners with superior
fitness. Of course, much of our judgement of what constitutes a superior
phenotype is learned, which does make the whole question a good deal more
interesting and complicated.

>This (it seems to me) speaks more directly to questions of preference
>amongst the vast variety of phenotypes than do speculations about
>attraction to the phenotypically similar.

Fitness, or more precisely, perception of fitness, must of course be the
final arbiter in the biological origin of beauty. Phenotypic similarity is
the first criterion, since a prospective mate must be of the proper
species. But beyond that lies the realm of beauty, where the relative
merits of different individuals are evaluated. Overall health is
significant, and beyond that specific sexual characteristics which are seen
as desirable. Thus a drake with a glossy, iridescent, flawless green head
is seen as "beautiful" by female ducks, but he also needs to win his
battles with other drakes to complete the picture. I suspect that the two
are actually linked, and that a drake who loses his fights will tend to
lose his green head, probably due to a decrease in androgens.

Disclaimer claims dat de claims claimed in dis are de claims of meself,
me, and me alone, so sue us god. I won't tell Bill & Dave if you won't.
=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=---- Gerold Firl @ ..hplabs!hp-sdd!geroldf