Human Beauty

by Michael Sones

Appearance matters. What our ancestors have endowed to us through their genes does matter. Beauty does matter. It is a noble idealism which says that it should not. The evidence overwhelmingly is, in many walks of life, that our relative attractiveness influences what others think of us.

For example, some of the benefits to attractive looking people are:

1). Their partners tend to be more attractive;

2). They are thought to be more intelligent and sociable by their teachers who tend to give them better grades in school;

3). The courts tend to treat them more leniently.

It is said that you cannot judge a book solely by its cover. This, of course, is true. However, basic human psychology has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and is an adaptation to a hunter-gatherer way of life. Civilization is a recent innovation. For over 99% of the time that humans and their hominid ancestors have been evolving on this planet we were nomadic scavengers, hunters, and gatherers of wild fruits, nuts, and vegetables. “Looks” are important to survival in that way of life. Looks helped ancestral man, and us still, judge what fruit and vegetables are ripe to eat and what bits are bad, brown and need to be removed.

Looks are obviously not reliable in the sense of judging a person’s character but they go a long way in helping us to judge how old someone is (at least until recently) and how healthy someone is. Both age and health are important in terms of sexual reproduction so an ancestral man who was going to invest his resources in an ancestral woman and their joint offspring would be attracted to a healthy woman. An ancestral woman would be primarily attracted to a healthy, strong man who would be able to obtain the resources to provide for and protect her and her offspring. However, looks both in Nature and in man can deceive and anxiety about being deceived by the beautiful is rife in human cultures.

The primary biological purpose of beauty is to attract attention and give pleasure for purposes of sex. The primary biological purpose of sex is reproduction both in the animal and human worlds. Evolution has so shaped our brains and minds that we find most beautiful those faces and bodies or aspects of bodies which are most suggestive of being suitably fit for healthy reproduction.

Good looks were a sign of being healthy and relatively disease free. A cross-cultural study by the psychologist David Buss revealed that in the cultures which most prized attractive, healthy looks there was a connection with the prevalence of parasitic diseases. In other words, where there are a lot of parasitic diseases in a culture there is a greater emphasis on the importance of physical appearance. This makes sense in that a physically, healthy, attractive body would be a sign of freedom from or strong resistance to the parasites. The same parallel has been noted among many songbird species. The most colourful come from the most heavily parasitized species-a very colourful display is an indication of their health.

Research shows that even three month old babies stare at photos of the faces of attractive people longer than at photos of unattractive people. The human face and eyes are innately very attractive to babies and hold a baby’s attention. This attraction to human faces and, particularly, the attraction to attractive human faces, seems to be built into our psychology. It does not depend upon the culture we grow up in.

There seem to be cross-cultural ideas of facial beauty: preferred features in females are small lower faces with smallish chins, delicate jaws, high cheekbones, full lips, wide smiles and large eyes which are large in proportion to the length of the face.

The most attractive male faces seem to be those that, while emphasizing masculine features such as a strong chin and prominent brow which are suggestive of dominance and strength, also combined these with more feminine, softer features. This may be attractive to women because while it offers typical male characteristics it also suggests a man with nurturing qualities who may be interested in children. According to some research women are most attracted to stereotypically masculine hard facial features during the time in their menstrual cycle when they are most likely to conceive.

The rest of the time they prefer men with more feminine facial features. It is suggested that this is because the ‘hardness’ suggests toughness and survival capability while the attraction to feminine features in men at other times of the cycle suggests an attraction to more nurturing men who would be more likely to assist in child rearing.

Tallness in men is attractive-it suggests dominance, status, and power and therefore the possibility of resources. Masculine dominance and power are epitomized in the giant stone heads of the ancient Olmecs of MesoAmerica. These are thought to be representations of their rulers.

Generally, and probably fortunately, we innately also find babies irresistibly beautiful and cute, beautiful babies even more beautiful. Psychologists have found that the mothers of the most beautiful babies talk to them more and look into their eyes more than mothers of less attractive babies who pay more attention to the baby’s physical needs. Why might this be? Well, the more physically attractive baby might appear to be the healthier baby and, in the harsh but beautiful world in which we evolved, it would have made more sense to dedicate resources of time, energy and food, to the infant who had the greater chance of survival. Ill or unattractive infants are at more risk of abuse.

However, interestingly those faces considered to be the most beautiful are typically those which have the greatest number of facial features average to any particular culture/race. It is thought that the typically average is attractive because the average suggests something which has adapted to its environment and is healthy. Of course, as the racial mix of a culture changes so might then the ideal of a beautiful face.

Symmetrical bodies and facial features in both sexes are found to be attractive probably because symmetry is an indication both of health and youth. Facial asymmetry tends to increase with age.

Human beauty is a double-edge sword. Many beautiful teen-age girls feel that their relationships with both sexes are full of tension-men just want them for their bodies as if they did not have anything else of interest about them and other women are jealous that they will take their men away. Very attractive women often have trouble keeping their female friends.


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