[Paleopsych] Newsweek: The biology of beauty (fwd)

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Thu Jan 27 18:59:40 UTC 2005

The biology of beauty. (Cover Story) Geoffrey Cowley. 
Newsweek, June 3, 1996 v127 n23 p60(7) (note date)

Abstract: Recent research correlates physical attraction between human 
females and males to certain physical features regardless of culture. Men 
and women are naturally drawn to symmetry in face a nd body. Men innately 
prefer women with a small waist-to-hip ratio, a physical indicator of 
child-bearing ability.

fall f or the first creep who pulls up and honks. She holds out for the 
fittest suitor available--which in Antarctica means one chubby enough to 
spend several weeks sitting on newly hatched eggs without starving to 
death. The Asi an jungle bird Gallus gallus is just as choosy.

Males in that species sport gaily colored head combs and feathers, which 
lose their luster if the bird is invaded by parasites. By favoring males 
with bright ornaments, a hen improves her odds of securing a mate (and 
bearing offspring) with strong resistance to disease. For female scorpion 
flies, beauty is less about size or color than about symmetry. Females 
favor suitors who have well-matched wings--and with good reason. Studies 
show they're the most adept at killing prey and at defending their catch 
from competitors. There's no reason to think that any of these creatures 
under stands its motivations, but there's a clear pattern to their 
preferences. "Throughout the animal world," says University of New Mexico 
ecologist Randy Thornhill, "attractiveness certifies biological quality."

Is our corner of the animal world different? That looks count in human 
affairs is beyond dispute. Studies have shown that people considered 
attractive fare better with parents and teachers, make more friends and 
more money, and have better sex with more (and more beautiful) partners. 
Every year, 400,000 Americans, including 48,000 men, flock to cosmetic 
surgeons. In other lands, people bedeck themselves with scars, lip plugs 
or bright feathers. "Every culture is a `beauty culture'," says Nancy 
Etcoff, a neuroscientist who is studying human attraction at the MIT Media 
Lab and writing a book on the subject. "I defy anyone to point to a 
society, any time in history or any place in the world, that wasn't 
preoccupied with beauty." The high-minded may dismiss our preening and 
ogling as distractions from things th at matter, but the stakes can be 
enormous. "Judging beauty involves looking at another person," says 
University of Texas psychologist Devendra Singh, "and figuring out whether 
you want your children to carry that person's genes."

It's widely assumed that ideals of beauty vary from era to era and from 
culture to culture. But a harvest of new research is confounding that 
idea. Studies have established that people everywhere--regard less of 
race, class or age--share a sense of what's attractive. And though no one 
knows just how our minds translate the sight of a face or a body into 
rapture, new studies suggest that we judge each other by rules we're not 
even aware of. We may consciously admire Kate Moss's legs or Arnold's 
biceps, but we're also viscerally attuned to small variations in the size 
and symmetry of facial bones and the placement of weight on the body.

   This isn't to say that our preferences are purely innate--or that beauty is al
l that matters in life. Most of us manage to find jobs,
   attract mates and bear offspring despite our physical imperfections. Nor shoul
d anyone assume that the new beauty research
   justifies the biases it illuminates. Our beautylust is often better suited to 
the Stone Age than to the Information Age; the qualities
   we find alluring may be powerful emblems of health, fertility and resistance t
o disease, but they say nothing about people's
   moral worth. The human weakness for what Thornhill calls "biological quality" 
causes no end of pain and injustice.
   Unfortunately, that doesn't make it any less real.


   One key to physical attractiveness is symmetry; humans, like other species, sh
ow a strong preference for individuals whose
   right and left sides are well matched. Denzel Washington's face, below, is alm
ost completely symmetrical. Lyle Lovett's, on the
   right, is not--as revealed by a computerized image made up of his left side re
peated on the right.

   NO ONE SUGGESTS THAT points of attraction never vary. Rolls of fat can signal 
high status in a poor society or low status
   in a rich one, and lip plugs go over better in the Kalahari than they do in Ka
nsas. But local fashions seem to rest on a bedrock
   of shared preferences. You don't have to be Italian to find Michelangelo's Dav
id better looking than, say, Alfonse D'Amato.
   When British researchers asked women from England, China and India to rate pic
tures of Greek men, the women responded
   as if working from the same crib sheet. And when researchers at the University
   of Louisville showed a diverse collection of
   faces to whites, Asians and Latinos from 13 countries, the subjects' ethnic ba
ckground scarcely affected their preferences.

   To a skeptic, those findings suggest only that Western movies and magazines ha
ve overrun the world. But scientists have found
   at least one group that hasn't been exposed to this bias. In a series of groun
dbreaking experiments, psychologist Judith Langlois
   of the University of Texas, Austin, has shown that even infants share a sense 
of what's attractive. In the late '80s, Langlois
   started placing 3- and 6-month-old babies in front of a screen and showing the
m pairs of facial photographs. Each pair
   included one considered attractive by adult judges and one considered unattrac
tive. In the first study, she found that the infants
   gazed significantly longer at "attractive" white female faces than at "unattra
ctive" ones. Since then, she has repeated the drill
   using white male faces, black female faces, even the faces of other babies, an
d the same pattern always emerges. "These kids
   don't read Vogue or watch TV," Langlois says. "They haven't been touched by th
e media. Yet they make the same judgments
   as adults."

   What, then, is beauty made of? What are the innate rules we follow in sizing e
ach other up? We're obviously wired to find
   robust health a prettier sight than infirmity, "All animals are attracted to o
ther animals that are healthy, that are clean by their
   standards and that show signs of competence," says Rutgers University anthropo
logist Helen Fisher. As far as anyone knows,
   there isn't a village on earth where skin lesions, head lice and rotting teeth
   count as beauty aids. But the rules get subtler than
   that. Like scorpion flies, we love symmetry. And though we generally favor ave
rage features over unusual ones, the people we
   find extremely beautiful share certain exceptional qualities.

   WHEN RANDY THORNhill started measuring the wings of Japanese scorpion flies si
x years ago, he wasn't much concerned
   with the orgasms and infidelities of college students. But sometimes one thing
   leads to another. Biologists have long used
   bilateral symmetry--the extent to which a creature's right and left sides matc
h--to gauge what's known as developmental
   stability. Given ideal growing conditions, paired features such as wings, ears
, eyes and feet would come out matching perfectly.
   But pollution, disease and other hazards can disrupt development. As a result,
   the least resilient individuals tend to be the most
   lopsided. In chronicling the scorpion flies' daily struggles, Thornhill found 
that the bugs with the most symmetrical wings fared
   best in the competition for food and mates. To his amazement, females preferre
d symmetrical males even when they were
   hidden from view; evidently, their smells are more attractive. And when resear
chers started noting similar trends in other
   species, Thornhill turned his attention to our own.

   Working with psychologist Steven Gangestad, he set about measuring the body sy
mmetry of hundreds of college-age men and
   women. By adding up right-left disparities in seven measurements--the breadth 
of the feet, ankles, hands, wrists and elbows, as
   well as the breadth and length of the ears--the researchers scored each subjec
t's overall body asymmetry. Then they had the
   person fill out a confidential questionnaire covering everything from temperam
ent to sexual behavior, and set about looking for
   connections. They weren't disappointed. In a 1994 study, they found that the m
ost symmetrical males had started having sex
   three to four years earlier than their most lopsided brethren. For both men an
d women, greater symmetry predicted a larger
   number of past sex partners.

   That was just the beginning. From what they knew about other species, Thornhil
l and Gangestad predicted that women would
   be more sexually responsive to symmetrical men, and that men would exploit tha
t advantage. To date, their findings support
   both suspicions. Last year they surveyed 86 couples and found that women with 
highly symmetrical partners were more than
   twice as likely to climax during intercourse (an event that may foster concept
ion by ushering sperm into the uterus) than those
   with low-symmetry partners. And in separate surveys, Gangestad and Thornhill h
ave found that, compared with regular Joes,
   extremely symmetrical men are less attentive to their partners and more likely
   to cheat on them. Women showed no such

   It's hard to imagine that we even notice the differences between people's elbo
ws, let alone stake our love lives on them. No
   one carries calipers into a singles bar. So why do these measurements predict 
so much? Because, says Thornhill, people with
   symmetrical elbows tend to have "a whole suite of attractive features." His fi
ndings suggest that besides having attractive (and
   symmetrical) faces, men with symmetrical bodies are typically larger, more mus
cular and more athletic than their peers, and
   more dominant in personality. In a forthcoming study, researchers at the Unive
rsity of Michigan find evidence that facial
   symmetry is also associated with health. In analyzing diaries kept by 100 stud
ents over a two-month period, they found that the
   least symmetrical had the most physical complaints, from insomnia to nasal con
gestion, and reported more anger, jealousy and
   withdrawal. In light of all Thornhill and Gangestad's findings, you can hardly
   blame them.

   IF WE DID GO COURTING WITH calipers, symmetry isn't all we would measure. As w
e study each other in the street, the
   office or the gym, our beauty radars pick up a range of signals. Oddly enough,
   one of the qualities shared by attractive people
   is their averageness. Researchers discovered more than a century ago that if t
hey superimposed photographs of several faces,
   the resulting composite was usually better looking than any of the images that
   went into it. Scientists can now average faces
   digitally, and it's still one of the surest ways to make them more attractive.
   From an evolutionary perspective, a preference for
   extreme normality makes sense. As Langlois has written, "Individuals with aver
age population characteristics should be less
   likely to carry harmful genetic mutations."

   So far, so good. But here's the catch: while we may find average faces attract
ive, the faces we find most beautiful are not
   average. As New Mexico State University psychologist Victor Johnston has shown
, they're extreme. To track people's
   preferences, Johnston uses a computer program called FacePrints. Turn it on, a
nd it generates 30 facial images, all male or all
   female, which you rate on a 1-9 beauty scale. The program then "breeds" the to
p-rated face with one of the others to create
   two digital offspring, which replace the lowest-rated faces in the pool. By ra
ting round after round of new faces, you create an
   ever more beautiful population. The game ends when you award some visage a per
fect 10. (If you have access to the World
   Wide Web, you can take part in a collective face-breeding experiment by visiti
ng http://www-psych.nmsu.edu/^vic/faceprints/.)

   For Johnston, the real fun starts after the judging is finished. By collecting
   people's ideal faces and comparing them to average
   faces, he can measure the distance between fantasy and reality. As a rule, he 
finds that an ideal female has a higher forehead
   than an average one, as well as fuller lips, a shorter jaw and a smaller chin 
and nose. Indeed, the ideal 25-year-old woman, as
   configured by participants in a 1993 study, had a 14-year-old's abundant lips 
and an 11-year-old's delicate jaw. Because her
   lower face was so small, she also had relatively prominent eyes and cheekbones

   The participants in that study were all college kids from New Mexico, but rese
archers have since shown that British and
   Japanese students express the same bias. And if there are lingering doubts abo
ut the depth of that bias, Johnston's latest
   findings should dispel them. In a forthcoming study, he reports that male volu
nteers not only consciously prefer women with
   small lower faces but show marked rises in brain activity when looking at pict
ures of them. And though Johnston has yet to
   publish specs on the ideal male, his unpublished findings suggest that a big j
aw, a strong chin and an imposing brow are as
   prized in a man's face as their opposites are in a woman's.

   Few of us ever develop the heart-melting proportions of a FacePrints fantasy. 
And if it's any consolation, beauty is not an
   all-or-nothing proposition. Madonna became a sex symbol despite her strong nos
e, and Melanie Griffith's strong jaw hasn't
   kept her out of the movies. Still, special things have a way of happening to p
eople who approximate the ideal. We pay them
   huge fees to stand on windblown bluffs and stare into the distance. And past s
tudies have found that square-jawed males not
   only start having sex earlier than their peers but attain higher rank in the m

   None of this surprises evolutionary psychologists. They note that the facial f
eatures we obsess over are precisely the ones that
   diverge in males and females during puberty, as floods of sex hormones wash us
   into adulthood. And they reason that hormonal
   abundance would have been a good clue to mate value in the hunter-gatherer wor
ld where our preferences evolved. The tiny
   jaw that men favor in women is essentially a monument to estrogen--and, obliqu
ely, to fertility. No one claims that jaws reveal a
   woman's odds of getting pregnant. But like breasts, they imply that she could.

   Likewise, the heavy lower face that women favor in men is a visible record of 
the surge in androgens (testosterone and other
   male sex hormones) that turns small boys into 200-pound spear-throwers. An ove
rsized jaw is biologically expensive, for the
   androgens required to produce it tend to compromise the immune system. But fro
m a female's perspective, that should make
   jaw size all the more revealing. Evolutionists think of androgen-based feature
s as "honest advertisements" of disease resistance.
   If a male can afford them without falling sick, the thinking goes, he must hav
e a superior immune system in the first place.

   No one has tracked the immune responses of men with different jawlines to see 
if these predictions bear out (Thornhill has
   proposed a study that would involve comparing volunteers' responses to a vacci
ne). Nor is it clear whether penis size figures
   into these equations. Despite what everyone thinks he knows on the subject, sc
ientists haven't determined that women have
   consistent preferences one way or the other.


   When men are asked to rank figures with various weights and waist-hip ratios (
0.7 to 1.0), they favor a pronounced hourglass
   shape. The highest-ranked figures are N7, N8 and U7 (in that order). The lowes
t ranked is O10.

   OUR FACES ARE OUR SIGNATURES, but when it comes to raw sex appeal, a nice chin
   is no match for a perfectly
   sculpted torso--especially from a man's perspective. Studies from around the w
orld have found that while both sexes value
   appearance, men place more stock in it than women. And if there are social rea
sons for that imbalance, there are also
   biological ones. Just about any male over 14 can produce sperm, but a woman's 
ability to bear children depends on her age
   and hormone levels. Female fertility declines by two thirds between the ages o
f 20 and 44, and it's spent by 54. So while both
   sexes may eyeball potential partners, says Donald Symons, an anthropologist at
   the University of California in Santa Barbara,
   "a larger proportion of a woman's mate value can be detected from visual cues.
" Mounting evidence suggests there is no better
   cue than the relative contours of her waist and hips.

   Before puberty and after menopause, females have essentially the same waistlin
es as males. But during puberty, while boys are
   amassing the bone and muscle of paleolithic hunters, a typical girl gains near
ly 35 pounds of so-called reproductive fat around
   the hips and thighs. Those pounds contain roughly the 80,000 calories needed t
o sustain a pregnancy, and the curves they
   create provide a gauge of reproductive potential. "You have to get very close 
to see the details of a woman's face," says
   Devendra Singh, the University of Texas psychologist. "But you can see the sha
pe of her body from 500 feet, and it says more
   about mate value."

   Almost anything that interferes with fertility--obesity, malnutrition, pregnan
cy, meno-pause--changes a woman's shape. Healthy,
   fertile women typically have waist-hip ratios of .6 to .8, meaning their waist
s are 60 to 80 percent the size of their hips,
   whatever their actual weight. To take one familiar example, a 36-25-36 figure 
would have a WHR of .7. Many women outside
   this range are healthy and capable of having children, of course. But as resea
rchers in the Netherlands discovered in a 1993
   study, even a slight increase in waist size relative to hip size can signal re
productive problems. Among 500 women who were
   attempting in vitro fertilization, the odds of conceiving during any given cyc
le declined by 30 percent with every 10 percent
   increase in WHR. In other words, a woman with a WHR of .9 was nearly a third l
ess likely to get pregnant than one with a
   WHR of .8, regardless of her age or weight. From an evolutionary perspective, 
it's hard to imagine men not responding to such
   a revealing signal. And as Singh has shown repeatedly, they do.

   Defining a universal standard of body beauty once seemed a fool's dream; commo
n sense said that if spindly Twiggy and
   Rubens's girthy Three Graces could all excite admiration, then nearly anyone c
ould. But if our ideals of size change from one
   time and place to the next, our taste in shapes is amazingly stable. A low wai
st-hip ratio is one of the few features that a long,
   lean Barbie doll shares with a plump, primitive fertility icon. And Singh's fi
ndings suggest the fashion won't change any time
   soon. In one study, he compiled the measurements of Playboy centerfolds and Mi
ss America winners from 1923 to 1990.
   Their bodies got measurably leaner over the decades, yet their waist-hip ratio
s stayed within the narrow range of .68 to .72.
   (Even Twiggy was no tube; at the peak of her fame in the 1960s, the British mo
del had a WHR of .73.)

   The same pattern holds when Singh generates line drawings of different female 
figures and asks male volunteers to rank them
   for attractiveness, sexiness, health and fertility. He has surveyed men of var
ious backgrounds, nationalities and ages. And
   whether the judges are 8-year-olds or 85-year-olds, their runaway favorite is 
a figure of average weight with a .7 WHR. Small
   wonder that when women were liberated from corsets and bustles, they took up g
irdles, wide belts and other waist-reducing
   contraptions. Last year alone, American women's outlays for shape-enhancing ga
rments topped a half-billion dollars.


   As a rule, average faces are more attractive than unusual ones. But when peopl
e are asked to develop ideal faces on a
   computer, they tend to exaggerate certain qualities.

   TO SOME CRITICS, THE search for a biology of beauty looks like a thinly veiled
   political program. "It's the fantasy life of
   American men being translated into genetics," says poet and social critic Kath
a Pollitt. "You can look at any feature of modern
   life and make up a story about why it's genetic." In truth, says Northwestern 
University anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo,
   attraction is a complicated social phenomenon, not just a hard-wired response.
   If attraction were governed by the dictates of
   baby-making, she says, the men of ancient Greece wouldn't have found young boy
s so alluring, and gay couples wouldn't
   crowd modern sidewalks. "People make decisions about sexual and marital partne
rs inside complex networks of friends and
   relatives," she says. "Human beings cannot be reduced to DNA packets."

   Homosexuality is hard to explain as a biological adaptation. So is stamp colle
cting. But no one claims that human beings are
   mindless automatons, blindly striving to replicate our genes. We pursue countl
ess passions that have no direct bearing on
   survival. If we're sometimes attracted to people who can't help us reproduce, 
that doesn't mean human preferences lack any
   coherent design. A radio used as a doorstop is still a radio. The beauty maven
s' mission--and that of evolutionary psychology in
   general--is not to explain everything people do but to unmask our biases and m
ake sense of them. "Our minds have evolved to
   generate pleasurable experiences in response to some things while ignoring oth
er things," says Johnston. "That's why sugar
   tastes sweet, and that's why we find some people more attractive than others."

   The new beauty research does have troubling implications. First, it suggests t
hat we're designed to care about looks, even
   though looks aren't earned and reveal nothing about character. As writer Ken S
iman observes in his new book, "The Beauty
   Trip," "the kind [of beauty] that inspires awe, lust, and increased jeans sale
s cannot be evenly distributed. In a society where
   everything is supposed to be within reach, this is painful to face." From acne
   to birth defects, we wear our imperfections as
   thorns, for we know the world sees them and takes note.

   A second implication is that sexual stereotypes are not strictly artificial. A
t some level, it seems, women are designed to favor
   dominant males over meek ones, and men are designed to value women for youthfu
l qualities that time quickly steals. Given the
   slow pace of evolutionary change, our innate preferences aren't likely to fade
   in the foreseeable future. And if they exist for
   what were once good biological reasons, that doesn't make them any less nettle
some. "Men often forgo their health, their
   safety, their spare time and their family life in order to get rank," says Hel
en Fisher, the Rutgers anthropologist, "because
   unconsciously, they know that rank wins women." And all too often, those who c
an trade cynically on their rank do.

   But do we have to indulge every appetite that natural selection has preserved 
in us? Of course not. "I don't know any scientist
   who seriously thinks you can look to nature for moral guidance," says Thornhil
l. Even the fashion magazines would provide a
   better compass.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list