Taking Beauty Off the Gold Standard

(Bloomberg View) -- In his book “The Evolution of Beauty,” biologist Richard Prum quotes former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to illustrate what he considers an erroneous view of life. “Physical beauty is evolution’s way of assuring us that the other person doesn’t have too many intestinal parasites,” Bernanke told Princeton’s graduating class of 2013. 

Prum sees this statement as a relic of a 20th-century worship of utility. People, including scientists, believed that beauty in nature must be backed by some bedrock of objective quality or value. The belief plays out in economics in the gold standard, he said, and in the theory of a rational market. In biology, it plays out as the assumption that beauty in humans and other animals is a proxy for health and fertility. Prum makes a case that nature isn’t always so practical. Sometimes it can be downright frivolous.

While much of his book deals with love among the birds, it ends with a Valentine’s message to our species: Those lacking whatever passes for perfect body proportions or facial symmetry aren’t lower-quality humans. And not fitting societal standards of beauty doesn’t mean you have more parasites than the next person.

The idea that beauty may be disconnected from survival goes back to Charles Darwin. Soon after “On the Origin of Species” was published in 1859, Darwin famously wrote that he was made sick by the sight of a peacock’s exuberantly beautiful tail, because it was so poorly explained by his theory of natural selection. Those tails were a hindrance, and an advertisement to predators.

Darwin eventually came up with another theory, sexual selection, which posited that a trait that didn’t help an organism’s ability to survive might still spread if the opposite sex preferred it. Once a preference, for, say, an elaborate tail gets widespread enough, then it’s not only a disadvantage to have an ordinary tail, it’s also a disadvantage for you to prefer one -- since the resulting offspring will be unpopular and not propagate your genes.

But in subsequent years, scientists, in their quest for streamlining and unification, treated sexual selection as a form of natural selection, which they considered to be the primary driving force in biology. Survival was key, the thinking went, and ornaments or bright colors or beautiful songs evolved as ways to advertise that an animal or person had genes that were good for survival.

That idea eventually seeped into the popular culture, said Prum. Evolutionary psychologists have promoted the idea that for women, facial symmetry and the ratio of waistline to hips are indicators of health and fertility. Prum is not convinced there’s enough evidence to tie these traits to fertility or health. They might be indicators of youth, he said, but the evidence of a connection to “good” genes is weak.

If in fact Darwin was right all along and evolution is shaped by different forces, then wildly impractical traits can propagate for no particular reason beyond their perceived desirability.

To illustrate the capricious nature of human desires, Prum’s book resurrects an infamous 2010 incident in which the website Gawker published the account of an anonymous source’s alleged encounter with an unmarried female politician. The source objected to her body hair, saying, “Obviously that was a big turnoff, and I quickly lost interest.”

To Prum, the relevant part that the anonymous person was so sure his taste in body hair was something that others would “obviously” share. Though beauty standards vary by time and place, the certainty that one’s own standards are “correct” is pretty constant. He cites examples of cultures in Suriname and Mauritania where obese women are considered far sexier than those in the healthy range (as defined by doctors). Donald Trump, on the other extreme, has bragged that his wife is 5’11” and 125 pounds, which he and Howard Stern agreed was “perfect” -- though that is considered underweight by medical standards.

Scientists have traditionally believed that human beings are uniquely intelligent, discerning, and sensitive to beauty. When naturalist William Beebe, for example, observed the mating dance in a type of pheasant called the great argus, he thought he had a better eye for bird beauty than the birds did.

During the dance the male displays elaborately patterned tail feathers. Beebe suggested the female was a little dumb for not reacting with wonder, the way he did. But as Prum points out, such a tail would not exist without generations of cool, careful discernment on the part of female connoisseurs, who essentially created the tail’s beauty through their own mating preferences.

The fact that these birds move and inspire humans speaks more to our connection to animals than to our separateness. People often try to define art as something that sets humans apart from other creatures, or from nature, said David Rothenberg, a philosopher who studies aesthetics at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. But that’s starting to change as people realize our aesthetic sense is, like everything else, a product of evolution, and the fact that we share common ancestry and common brain structures with other animals means we can derive profound joy from the sight and sounds of other living things. Focusing on what makes us unique can be limiting.

Beauty, in his view, isn’t completely arbitrary, but it may be a quality in itself, rather than a signifier for some more practical form of quality. Nature, he said, “sometimes creates weird, cool, beautiful stuff for no reason other than that it’s weird or cool or beautiful.” 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg View columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science, New Scientist and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology, and has been a Knight-Wallace fellow at the University of Michigan.

To contact the author of this story: Faye Flam at fflam1@bloomberg.net.

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