July 5, 2007

Is beauty just genetic health?

As self-appointed defenders of female beauty, it falls on us to stick up for it whenever it's attacked by the beauty-hating intelligentsia of the modern world. (Which is damn often.) And so we fulfill our obligation diligently, if sometimes dispassionately (due to the ease with which any thinking person can disprove the rather simplistic attacks against female beauty being offered in today's media and culture).

Thus we will proceed with today's perfunctory - but ever so necessary - bit of 'fly-swatting'.

Today we want to respond to a very silly idea about beauty propounded by certain anthropologists-turned-media darlings, an idea which has permeated almost every thoughtful discussion on the subject and has taken on the impressive eminence of a proper premise despite the fact that it's flat out wrong. (Being untrue, unfortunately, has never stopped mankind from embracing any idea; indeed aliens, after studying mankind's history, might be entirely forgiven for sincerely concluding that it is in fact a prerequisite.)

It's the idea that female beauty is nothing more profound than health. It's the idea that males of the human species are attracted to those qualities in the female that represent the physical health of that female simply because we want similarly healthy children. It's the idea that we find symmetry of facial features, long lustrous hair, moist lips, clear eyes, etc. attractive because they are the result of 'good genes'.

In answer to this idea we must point out that contrary to what's been said, it doesn't require 'genetic programming' to know that a naturally lustrous shine in a woman's hair might mean she is healthy. And we don't have to isolate the gene for facial symmetry to notice when a woman's face is free of deformity and therefore she might be similarly well-formed in - ahem - other places. Finally, the idea that men want to sleep with beautiful women so they can have lots of children is so obviously wrong it doesn't require refutation.

Diving into the genetic pool is looking way too hard for answers that are standing right in front of us. Beauty is obviously not an indicator of good health. If it was, then we would hardly need doctors would we? The ugly among us would simply check ourselves in for treatment at the nearest medical facility. If beauty was synonymous with health, and since most people are reasonably healthy, then shouldn't we all be beautiful?

But in real life nothing is rarer in human beings than beauty, and nothing more common than health. In fact, genes are so delicately interwoven with each other that anyone with genes that could be even remotely considered 'bad' is either dead, or dying from some horrible disease. Genes either work, or they don't. That's what makes evolution possible. If any jumble of genes worked as well as any other then there would be no such thing as species and every creature could mate with any other.

The only role genetics play in mating choices is that we are generally attracted to other humans who are living. The fact that they are living means they have a viable genetic code. But to extend that principle to include beauty is pure fancy. Science cannot predict from looking at genes who will be attractive and who won't. There is absolutely no evidence at all that ugly peoples' genes are any different than anyone else's. And most of us don't choose mates by their beauty alone. So how could human beings evolve any kind of 'genetic disposition' towards beauty?

The answer is, we couldn't. Yes we find health beautiful, but not because it pleases our genes, but because it agrees with our values. If we value life then we find healthy people attractive because health is conducive to life. It's not our genes that tell us this, it's our common sense that does.

Beauty is not the result of genetic programming or a genetic code. It's the result of how we program our value structure - our moral code. Whatever we choose to value, whatever we reason out that we want in life, whatever we call important, we find it beautiful when we see it in people.

That is where beauty comes from and why we find certain people beautiful. It's because they represent to us the things we value in life: health, wealth, sex, status, romance, etc. It's not simply because they have 'good' genes, although genes are certainly involved. For example, when we are attracted to someone, if all goes well, socially and genetically - meaning, both partners fulfill each others' values, spiritually and physically - then perhaps - and only perhaps - will beautiful children be the result, children with the same characteristics that made our mate attractive to us. But notice, that it's our beauty choices that dictate our genetic mix, not the other way around. And since our beauty choices change with the fashions or with our maturing values, our genetic make-up would have no time and no way to evolve a standard set of 'beauty genes'. Evolution takes millennia, not moments.

Socially, the genes that make people beautiful might get replicated through eugenics (beautiful people reproducing only with beautiful people). However, the genes that make people healthy cannot be seen, and therefore, cannot visually influence our sexual choices. Beauty is not why most of us choose a reproductive mate anyway. And it's even more doubtful that health is.

For all these reasons we can conclude there is no connection whatever between genetic health and physical beauty. Anyone who espouses human attraction based on good genes will now kindly stop uttering such nonsense!

© 2007 Body in Mind