Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Natural Desire for Beauty

                                                    Bust of Queen Nefertiti of Egypt

Number 12 on my list of 20 natural desires is beauty.  Human beings generally desire beauty in the human body.  Everywhere human beings distinguish beauty and ugliness in bodily appearance.  They esteem the bodily signs of health and vigor.  They adorn their bodies for pleasing display.  Men tend to prefer women whose physical appearance shows signs of youthful nobility.  Women tend to prefer men whose physical appearance shows signs of strength and high status.

Number 18 on my list is aesthetic arts. Human beings generally desire aesthetic pleasure through artistic products and natural environments.  In every society, human beings take pleasure in artistic activities such as singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, forming language into poetic patterns, telling stories, carving, painting, and decorating objects.  Human beings also take pleasure in natural landscapes that resemble the savannas where the human species evolved.  Although human beings are flexible enough to live in urban environments, they try to recreate the natural environments of their evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers through park-like landscapes, gardening, and the company of animals.

A recent issue of Nature (October 8, 2015) has a collection of articles on the science of beauty.  This will be free online for six months.  The research surveyed in these articles suggests that the desire for beauty is a natural desire of our evolved human nature, and that our aesthetic judgment is a mixture of genetic, cultural, and objective factors.

People often assert that judgments of beauty are so subjectively and culturally variable that it's impossible to find any natural and universal standards of beauty.  But that's not true.  Studies have shown that judgments of beauty in faces and bodies are remarkably consistent across cultures, races, and history.  The famous bust of Queen Nefertiti is 3,300 years old, and yet she still looks beautiful to us today.  People from South Africa and Austria agree in judging the same Japanese women to be beautiful.

As indicated by Karl Grammer, the scientific research has identified at least eight elements of human bodily beauty: youthfulness, symmetry, averageness, sex-hormone markers, body odor, motion, skin complexion, and hair texture.  These elements of beauty are signals of youth, fertility, and health.  More attractive people are healthier on average than less attractive people.  More attractive women have more offspring on average than less attractive women.

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin elaborated an evolutionary theory of beauty as the product of sexual selection: the more attractive animals find mates more often than the less attractive ones.  What is perceived as attractive for an animals species depends upon the sensory systems of potential mates.  According to the "sexy sons" theory, females might prefer to mate with males who are attractive because their sons are likely to be more attractive and thus more likely to find mates.  According to the "good genes" theory, females might be attracted to males who display signs of health and vigor because their offspring are likely to have the genes favoring health and vigor.

Although I am not sure that I fully understand what he is saying, I am intrigued by David Deutsch's argument that beauty is not just genetic and cultural, but also objective.  In explaining objective beauty, he says:
"The argument I like best is about why flowers are beautiful.  Flowers evolved to attract insects, and insects evolved to be attracted to flower s.  But this explanation leave a massive gap; it only explains why insects like flowers.  So how is it possible that something that evolved to attract insects can be attractive to humans too?  I conclude that there must be objective beauty--aspects of beauty exist outside cultural fads or sexual selection.  And these aesthetic truths are as objective as the laws of physics or mathematics."
There is also a connection between physical beauty and moral beauty.  Studies have shown that beautiful people are more likely to be perceived as trustworthy or virtuous than less attractive people.  Good looking political candidates are more likely to be chosen by voters.  Good looking people are more successful in the workplace.  Good looking defendants might be more likely to win leniency from judges and jurors.

I am reminded of David Hume's idea that aesthetic taste is the source of our judgments of both natural beauty and moral beauty.  We rely on taste, rather than reason, when we judge a work of art to be beautiful or an action to be virtuous.  Taste "gives the sentiments of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue" (Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Appendix 1).  (See also Hume's essay on "Of the Standard of Taste.")

Scholars of Egyptian art believe that the bust of Nefertiti probably does not show what the queen really looked like.  The brain has evolved to make connections between physical beauty and moral beauty.  And so the sculptor Thutmose might have designed the bust of Nefertiti to convey her moral goodness or justice through the beauty of her face.  We might like to think that true beauty is inward rather than outward.  But we also hope that a beautiful face can display a beautiful soul.

1 comment:

Xenophon said...