It turns out that the standards of beauty are not only the same across individuals and cultures, they are also innate. We are born with the notion of who’s beautiful and who’s not.
So begins a blog post by the evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa entitled “All stereotypes are true, except… II: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder””. Evolutionary psychologists take great pains to hammer home this point. Relativism, for the most outspoken evolutionary psychologists, is entirely wrong. We are all the same, the world over. We all like to see the same kinds of things in faces – bilateral symmetry, large jaws on men, full lips on women, etc. Furthermore, we are born this way. Our universal human nature generates similar preferences for facial attractiveness regardless of where we are in the world. “Attractiveness” is not just arbitrary either – it correlates with intelligence and health.
Many controversial claims are being made here, and many of them are so very, very wrong.
In an attempt to shake off the shackles of extreme cultural relativism, evolutionary psychologists have created something equally as flawed: extreme universalism. My PhD thesis will address this general problem in more detail, but for the purposes of this article I just want to make a few points addressing the claims about innate and universal standards of beauty.
Whilst there is an impressive body of evidence suggesting that there is some universality to beauty, there is another body of evidence suggesting exactly the opposite that is simply being ignored by evolutionary psychologists like Kanazawa. For example, the Wodaabe of Nigeria and Niger hold festivals where the young men make themselves up in a way similar to Western females and dance to display energy and vigour. The tallest men with the biggest eyes, whitest teeth and straightest noses are then chosen by the females. This female-choice based sexual selection has lead to many physical changes in Wodaabe males in a few generations. If striking physical changes have occurred, then we should also expect that cognitive changes may also have occurred (i.e. stronger preference for certain kinds of make-up that females prefer). If this kind of divergence can happen this quickly in this particular society (a process called runaway sexual selection) then there is every reason to suspect that it has occurred in other societies across the world.
Facial attractiveness blinds us to physical health
This blog post mentions a study which appears to show that beauty may actually blind us to the real state of physical health, which directly contradicts Kanazawa. As the author states:
S. Michael Kalick, of the University of Massachusetts… asked 32 judges to rate the attractiveness of 333 faces by photograph. Then he compared the ratings with the actual, indisputable health records of the people pictured. Kalick found that the ones judged attractive were no healthier than their homelier peers. Kalick then had a second group look at the photographs, this time to indicate which people they thought were physically healthy. The raters’ guesses were surprisingly accurate—except when the face was especially good-looking or especially ugly… Attractive faces were almost always labeled healthy, while unattractive ones were usually thought to be unhealthy. This was so, even when there seemed to be other, more trustworthy cues to the contrary.
So, whilst the raters were relatively accurate at guessing health, facial attractiveness appeared to hinder their ability to accurately guess health, rather than helping. Facial attractiveness, then, does not correlate with health.
The role of testosterone and oestrogen
Kanazawa claims that secondary sexual characteristics such as large jaws and prominent brow ridges in men and large eyes and full lips in women are caused by large amounts of testosterone and oestrogen respectively. These features apparently make either sex seem more attractive. Whilst there is a literature apparently supporting this idea, there are also studies showing conflicting evidence. In this study the authors found that 1) in the UK and Japan, both men and women prefer somewhat feminised opposite-sex faces, and 2) in Jamaica, both men and women prefer somewhat masculinised opposite-sex faces. In this study it was found that females preferred light stubble for both short and long term partnerships, but that they perceived a full beard as being more masculine. Why did they not choose the most masculine faces for short and long term mating?
The final point I wish to make is a point which strikes at the heart of all these studies, and possibly evolutionary psychology itself. Firstly, some anecdotal evidence: we are all likely to know some people who have different opposite-sex preferences to us. For example, I have male friends who (generally) find unattractive the women I find attractive, and vice versa. I have female friends who frequently argue about whether a man is attractive or not, and never seem to find any common ground. These people aren’t from diverse racial or national backgrounds. They are all white, middle-class British nationals. Maybe my experience is abnormal (my friends and I, in general, identify with underground counter-cultures more than the statistical norm), but I am prepared to bet that most people know at least one or two people who have very different preferences to them in this regard.
It is tempting to write these people off as abnormal and unrepresentative, as some evolutionary psychologists might. Tooby and Cosmides, the founders of modern evolutionary psychology, decry any preferences which deviate from the norm as being unreflective of universal human nature, in other words results at the ends of a bell curve… or, to use a less scientific term, freaks. However, there is every reason to believe that these freaks are an important part of human nature. The popularity of websites such as Suicide Girls implies that there are a large amount of men (and women) who do not find “normal” women attractive. These people are not “noise” amongst the masses. They are part of a large, thriving counter-culture.
“Normal” vs “abnormal”
This distinction of “normal” vs. “abnormal” depends on what Elliot Sober refers to as the “Natural State Model”, which claims that there are a small number of paths of development a genotype can take to develop a phenotype which counts as “natural” for that species. This model, however, has no basis in genetics. One can talk of the “norm of reaction” and statistical regularity, but there is simply no “natural” range of phenotypes for an organism. Furthermore, phenotypic difference is necessitated by evolutionary considerations: how would a species evolve to become the way they currently are without periods of divergence and difference? Species evolve from other species via slight gradients of difference (genetic mutations). The things that define a species, then, are both similarities and differences. Species evolve, they are never stationary in a “natural” state. Fine-grained differences in tastes for facial attractiveness, then, both across and within cultures, are not “abnormal” and are not to be relegated in importance by coarse statistical averages. A true evolutionary account would analyse cognitive difference as thoroughly as coarse cognitive similarities.
Average does not equal “normal”
It seems to me that all these studies on facial attractiveness are methodologically flawed for this very reason. In deciding whether a face is “attractive” or not, an independent panel of researchers is usually called upon to rate the attractiveness of a face. Men usually rate female faces, women rate male faces. Their results are averaged out, and this figure is argued to reflect how “attractive” the face is. However, this kind of coarse averaging simply assumes there is a norm, and this assumption biases the study from the outset. Averaging out the results glosses over any important differences between ascriptions of attractiveness. It is unlikely, for example, that a fan of Suicide Girls would rate a blond Barbie-like woman to be particularly attractive. This kind of averaging would ignore the significance of this result and just place them on one end of the bell curve. There is something very, very wrong with this. Furthermore, it is this which I believe is causing so much inconsistency and confusion amongst different studies of facial attractiveness. People cannot be lumped together in this way, and significant differences of opinion cannot be glossed over with coarse averaging techniques. We need to respect variation, and stop focussing on the “normal”, whatever that may mean.