Thursday, February 15, 2007


From an article by Virginia Postrel in the Atlantic Monthly.

In Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, Nancy Etcoff, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, reported on experiments that let people rate faces and digitally “breed” ever-more- attractive composite generations. The results for female faces look a lot like the finished product in the Dove video: “thinner jaws, larger eyes relative to the size of their faces, and shorter distances between their mouths and chins” in one case, and “fuller lips, a less robust jaw, a smaller nose and smaller chin than the population average” in another. These features, wrote Etcoff, “exaggerate the ways that adult female faces differ from adult male faces. They also exaggerate the youthfulness of the face.” More than youth, the full lips and small jaws of beautiful women reflect relatively high levels of female hormones and low levels of male hormones—indicating greater fertility—according to psychologist Victor Johnston, who did some of these experiments.

More generally, evolutionary psychologists suggest that the features we see as beautiful—including indicators of good health like smooth skin and symmetry—have been rewarded through countless generations of competition for mates. The same evolutionary pressures, this research suggests, have biologically programmed human minds to perceive these features as beautiful. “Some scientists believe that our beauty detectors are really detectors for the combination of youth and femininity,” wrote Etcoff. Whether the beauty we detect arises from nature or artifice doesn’t change that visceral reflex.
I accept the conclusion of the evolutionary psychologists. It makes sense. Our first instinct is to survive; our second, actually springing from the first, is to reproduce. Our senses must lead us towards those ends. But since when?

I remember many, many years ago walking around the museum on the Acropolis looking dutifully at one statue after another of kourai, maidens who accompanied the annual procession of Pallas Athena to her temple. All the same. Stiff, unrelenting Egyptian proportions that made them look terribly important in an official way, but little else. Another koure. Yet another bloody koure.

Then I felt the top of my cranium lift off. The changes were so, so slight. Was it the angle of her head, the curve of her hips? Now, I can't remember. But it was as if, all of a sudden, I was looking at a human face, one with thoughts that I could not be privy to. Melodramatically, I described it in my diary as 'the birth of human consciousness'.

Which, obviously, it wasn't. I have looked to see this magic moment recreated in a book with photos, but have yet to come across it. However, people say similar things about the Kritian Boy supposedly dated to 480BC and attributed to Kritios.

Kritian Boy
I do wonder why it was the Greeks who first 'noticed' what we call beauty, or at least, first made an image of that beauty. Presumably, people had been choosing their mates on the principles described above for quite some time. And why did it take them another hundred years to start creating images of women, again, presumably, the main objects of senses primed for reproduction?

Aphrodite, attributed to Praxiteles
Go on, then. Answer that.

No comments: