Abandon Hope, All Ye With Zits

The information that an animal call carries about the quality of the genetic material he is offering can be very precise. The rock hyrax, for example, in different parts of his song provides potential mates with information about his body weight, size, health, social status and hormone levels. Really, after that, what else is to know about him? Human beings put out the same vital statistics, and then everyone pretends it is about character.

A person’s exterior is, if not the mirror of the soul, then a reliable guide to practically everything that should matter to a prospective mate. The face in particular is the most information-dense part of our bodily display. Evolution has hardwired both sexes for instant and ruthless “sizing-up” of the other as potential partners. Immense quantities of information are conveyed instantly. By the time any information about “inner” qualities is obtained, the deal has already been done – at least in terms of creating a shortlist. This shortlist may, it is true, be further refined by examination of qualities that were not apparent in the initial split-second appraisal. But anyone who never made that instantaneous shortlist gets no second chance.

All the components of beauty carry particular messages. Big eyes say, “I’m young and vulnerable, protect me”. Facial symmetry says, “Look, I have good genes”. Smooth skin says, “I don’t have to work and am too clever to have accidents”. The skin and hair also say, “See, no parasites! I won’t make you sick”. Since bad skin is a sign of a poorly functioning immune system, the Torah’s rules for avoidance of what is generally mistranslated as “leprosy” make perfect sense. Such people might bring all sorts of other diseases into the community; better to be on the safe side and exclude them.

In other words, the Torah is not interested in the “inner beauty” of those with bad skin – unhealthy people had no business in the community, end of story. Similarly, the notion of picking a mate for his or her “inner qualities” or “spiritual virtues” is wholly without foundation in biology. The interesting question is just how this extraordinary idea arose, that people should be considered equally valuable even when biology was busy signalling that they were unwanted in the gene pool?

Since we call the furtherance of life “Good”, and life is by definition all about replication, and since beauty is conducive to replication, the identification of Goodness with Beauty follows directly from biology. In fact, the whole Keatsian schtick is just the noise of poets repeating what the whole species knows in its marrow, namely that the main measure of a human being is his or her reproductive success. “Inner beauty” is not a heritable fitness trait, so the pursuit of physical beauty can reasonably be opposed only by ugly philosophers who hope to get laid for their learning instead. Dream on.

Posted on August 8, 2009 at 10:26 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, The Myth Of "Inner Beauty"

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