What is it about beauty? You can’t eat it. You can’t spend it. You can’t get agreement on it. Yes, what is beauty, anyway?
Some would say it depends on whom you ask — that is, that beauty lies, well, not in the holder but in the beholder, a projection, in effect. Others would espouse a version of that in which the beholder is an entire culture and beauty is a matter of group-think. Still others go even wider, making beauty a phenom of nature, which is more or less to say that beauty is an objective reality at least in the biosphere.
It’s this last view that interests me today. What is nature doing with beauty — if, indeed, it’s doing anything at all with it? Well, assuming for the moment that nature is implicated, the answer would be “using it,” because nature, disciplined by simply everything including its own self, does not have the resources to mess about for no reason at all.
There are scientists looking into this. The science of beauty sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? Makes you want to say something like, “Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!“. The ducks probably feel that way about Richard Prum. He’s an evolutionary ornithologist (see why science is cool? I mean, what are you? a lawyer — plonk). And he’s into duck sex. The study thereof. He’s got a piece on Edge called Duck Sex, Aesthetic Evolution, and the Origin of Beauty. (As with most Edge material, you’ll find a video and an audio recording as well via that link.) His thesis, broadly put is:
The world looks the way it does and is the way it is because of their vital importance as sources of selection in organic diversity, and as a result we need to structure evolutionary biology to recognize the aesthetic, recognize the subjective experience [of beauty].
He’s tackling the matter of beauty and ornamentation in the business of sexual selection, which is not the same as natural selection. The latter has you surviving (or not) long enough to get to the dance; sexual selection has you going home (or not) with someone, whether or not you brung them to it. Prum wants to re-invigorate Darwin’s original position with regard to sexual selection, his “broader aesthetic perspective that recognizes that sensory delight, attraction.” At the moment it seems that most biologists favour Wallace’s notion of ornament: that it serves to advertise reproductive fitness in some important respect, and that a mate’s response is largely unconscious, indeed, determined by biology.
I won’t rehearse his piece here, of course: this is only a fillip. But I do want to note the presence of a crack in the “advertisement of fitness” approach to beauty. Because another niggle of doubt has recently appeared in the annals of science as well, which might — just might — signal the need for a makeover.
A team of scientists has investigated a large cohort of British children to see to what extent symmetrical faces in human beings implies better health; they have published their findings at the Royal Society. (The story is here and the article itself is here.) The answer is: facial symmetry doesn’t mean better health.
Facial symmetry is an issue because it has long been supposed to be a significant component of human (facial) beauty; and, of course, it is a discernible feature in another, enabling, it is supposed, a person seeking a mate to perform a judgment (likely out of consciousness) about a candidate’s suitability. So if facial symmetry is indeed a marker of the beautiful, it may not have a direct role in natural selection. In which case, the beauty (i.e. the symmetry) acts in other ways to attract a mate.
Me, I’m skeptical about the business of facial symmetry and beauty. I’ve got some photos to show you that take human faces and create perfectly symmetrical versions, duplicating the left side or the right side. My personal response is to feel that these mirror faces are a little creepy, rather than beautiful. See what you think.
First, here’s Wikipedia’s Alex Dodge, not, perhaps, a paragon of beauty, but willing even so to let his face be cleaved and flipped, as it were. The image you’ll get with this link is his full face. If you click on the arrows to the right and left of the image, you’ll see a duplication of those halves of his face and the strange differences it makes to his appearance.
Now here’s a more artful demonstration of the same thing. You’ll see below two images by photographer Alex John Beck, the one on the left is a duplication of the subject’s left side and the one on the right a duplication of the right side of the subject’s face. If you click on this link you’ll be taken to his website where more of these left/right portraits can be found.
In my view, so much for perfect symmetry as a source of beauty. Nature has the charm, I’d suggest, of never being boringly precise, choosing, rather, what we might call “fuzzy” symmetry, an approximation of symmetry that is close but not too close to perfection — rather like her efforts in all other respects.