It has come to my attention that this blog is not the first result to come up when you Google ‘beautiful in theory’. While this displeases me, I can accept losing out to a TED talk, and a good one at that, by Denis Dutton:
However, the fact that his talk is on evolutionary theories of beauty is annoying, because this is a subject I go out of my way to avoid.
But if Google insists, I will face it.
I’m not sure why Darwinian theories of beauty wind me up so much. It’s not that I want to cling to some mysterious essence of Beauty that would be destroyed by the admission that beauty is just about big boobs being sexy because they signal fertility. Sure, fine, I can get behind that. It just seems a very partial theory, that doesn’t account for the huge variety of things we find beautiful, the ways in which we experience that beauty, and the social conditioning that influences both of those.
Yes, I am a member of the social conditioning school of thought. I am not denying our DNA, but it is difficult to justify a genetically hardwired preference for detailed ideals of human beauty, which fluctuate over time and place and often include features that clearly do not promote our survival. For instance, pale Victorian beauty or 21st-century tanned beauty: paleness is associated with illness even within the Victorian ideal (you know, sexy tuberculosis), and a tan does not necessarily indicate health. It could indicate a propensity for skin cancer. Both have been linked to status – the privilege of not doing manual labour out in the sun; the money to go on holiday to Tenerife. Both inconclusive, neither related to human evolution (I sincerely hope). It is not, however, difficult to trace the social influences behind such changing ideals of beauty. The intrinsic racism of both white-centred ideals has nothing to do with natural selection.
But Denis Dutton has comebacks for these points. His talk makes clear the role of status in sexual choices, and interestingly this is how he explains the beauty of art from a Darwinian standpoint. That is, a work of art is a “fitness signal” demonstrating the artist’s skill. And skill equals sexiness.
Does that include skill with makeup? And do all our gamut of beauty ideals come down to a combination of status and fertility signals? To an extent I could say yes, the importance of both those factors is clear. This evolution argument offers a reasonable explanation for the origins of beauty’s foundations, and perhaps also the origins of the social conditioning that drives our understanding of beauty today. But the interesting discussion is about that social conditioning, not the cavemen who may have unwittingly started it all.
On a simple level, it works quite well. Prof Dutton entices us in with the pithy statement, “Beauty is nature’s way of acting at a distance.” Beauty arouses and sustains our interest in something that is beneficial to us in a more sophisticated version of beneficial food tasting good. So, when we see a strong, clear-skinned, sexually developed person with good teeth and regular features, we have evolved to find them beautiful because that causes us to pursue them. The infatuation such beauty creates makes us chase after the person with the best, healthiest genes to combine with our own. OK, fine. But boring. And where does that leave Botticelli’s Venus, the fascination and disgust with cosmetic surgery, and the racism surrounding the first Indian-American Miss America?
The reason I shy away from evolutionary theories of beauty is that they seem to reduce some of the best things in life to a single, dull motive. Have sex, stay alive. And when it comes to human beauty, evolution seems inadequate to explain the complexities of the ideas and problems, art and argument, of the last thousand or so years. If all of that was about having sex and staying alive, what’s the point of it all? This blog would be out of business.
Evolution? So yesterday.