Saturday, November 19, 2022

Looking Good: The Darwinian Ethics of Beauty in the Human Body as an Evolved Natural Desire

In Darwinian Natural Right, I said that if the good is the desirable, then human ethics is natural insofar as it satisfies natural human desires that naturally win social approval as useful or agreeable to oneself or to others.  There are at least twenty natural desires that are manifested in diverse ways in all human societies throughout history, because they belong to that universal human nature that evolved on Earth at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, from 250,000 to 11,000 years ago.

The satisfaction of these natural desires constitutes a natural standard for judging social and political life as either fulfilling or frustrating human nature, although prudence is required in judging what is best for particular people in particular social circumstances.  Insofar as a liberal social order allows for the fullest satisfaction of the natural human desires for most people, it can be recognized as the best regime.

One of the twenty natural desires is the desire for 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 find women physically attractive when their physical appearance shows signs of youthful nubility. Women tend to find men physically attractive when their physical appearance show signs of formidibility, muscularity, and high status.  Almost all human beings spend a substantial amount of time every day of their lives engaging in activities that will enhance their bodily attractiveness.

Being a beautiful human being has many benefits.  Beautiful people are perceived to be desirable as sexual mates.  They tend to have more friends.  They are judged to be more trustworthy than people who are not so beautiful.  Beautiful people are more likely to be hired for a job.  And they are more likely to be elected to public office.

In Darwinian Natural Right, I surveyed some of the evidence and arguments supporting this understanding of the natural human desire for beauty.  But in the 25 years since the publication of that book, there has been a lot of new empirical and theoretical research that has deepened the evolutionary account of this natural desire for beauty.  

The latest issue of Evolution and Human Behavior has an article that surveys much of this research: Marta Kowal et al., "Predictors of Enhancing Human Physical Attractiveness: Data from 93 Countries," EHB 43 (2022): 455-474.  With over 200 references, it is a good bibliographic essay on the relevant research over the past 25 years, as well as a report of a new research project.  


This article reports online survey data (collected through the Qualtrics website) from 93,158 participants across 93 countries.  Participants were asked about their behaviors that might enhance their physical attractiveness--such as using cosmetics, grooming their hair, wearing clothing, caring for bodily hygiene, and exercising or following a diet that might improve their physical appearance.  Almost all of the participants (99%) reported spending over 10 minutes a day engaged in such activities.  Women spent on average almost 4 hours a day enhancing their beauty, while men spent on average about 3.6 hours a day.  Younger people (ages 18-30) and older people (over 50) spend more time in such beauty-enhancing activities than do middle-aged people (30-50).  People who are dating spend much more time in these activities than do people who are in a committed relationship, married, or single.

I have written about the pitfalls in online survey research, which can be seen in this article.  The most obvious problem is that survey research relies on the self-reporting of participants, which often is not completely accurate or honest.  But the survey for this article does avoid one of the common problems for online surveys in that most of the participants (about 95%) were not compensated for their participation.  Moreover, the participants were screened by an "attention check" to make sure they were careful in their reading and answering of the questions.  And unlike many other such survey research projects, this one is distinctive in two ways--the large scale of the cross-cultural data and the fact that it is not limited to just one theoretical framework.

Of course, the data for this research is historically limited to the contemporary world, but the article does begin with a one-paragraph survey of the deep historical and prehistorical evidence for the natural human desire for beauty and enhancement of one's bodily appearance.  There is archaeological evidence for the ornamental use of red ochre by Neanderthals and our hominid ancestors as early as 250,000 to 150,000 years ago.  There is evidence for marine shell bead ornaments from 120,000 years ago.  Later, burials from around 25,000 years ago show grave goods that were probably bodily ornaments--such as bone beads, bracelets, fox pendants, stone pendants, and shells.  Ancient Egyptian archaeology shows evidence for cosmetics, skin oils, and dyes for facial adornment.

Marta Kowal and her colleagues use their analysis of their survey data as a way of testing hypotheses about the desire for beauty suggested by five theoretical frameworks: the mating market perspective, the pathogen prevalence theory, the biosocial role theory, the cultural media perspective, and the individualism-collectivism continuum.  Although Kowal and her colleagues clearly favor the mating market perspective, they do indicate that these five frameworks are compatible with one another, and that there is some support in the data for all five.

The mating market perspective starts from the assumption that the desire for sexual mating is one of the primary drives of our evolved human nature.  (Sexual mating is on my list of the twenty natural desires.)  The desire for bodily beauty can then be explained as rooted in the desire for mating.  When people seek mates on the "mating market," physical attractiveness is one of the traits that is in high demand.  When David Buss and his colleagues surveyed the mating preferences of more than ten thousand people in thirty-seven countries on six continents and five islands, they found that, contrary to a common view that mating preferences vary arbitrarily across cultures, there was a universal pattern of mating desires that conforms to the Darwinian theory of human mating strategies.  And part of that universal pattern is that both men and women rank "good looks" as one of the top ten traits they value in a mating partner.  (Buss's research was prominent in my account of the mating desire in Darwinian Natural Right, 132-37.)

In all thirty-seven countries, Buss found that men prefer to mate with women who are young and physically attractive, while women prefer to mate with men who have economic resources and high social status.  Since the reproductive success of a man depends predominantly on the fertility of his mate, Darwinian theory correctly predicts that the physical cues to fertility in women--such as youth, smooth skin, regular facial features, and good body tone--are sexually attractive to men around the world.  Since the reproductive success of a woman depends predominantly on the ability and willingness of her mate to invest resources in her and her children, Darwinian theory correctly predicts that the social cues to such resources in men--such as wealth, status, older age, and ambition--are sexually attractive to women around the world; and women who appear young and physically attractive will be more successful in mating with men who have the most desirable traits.

The pathogen prevalence theory of the desire for beauty is also rooted in Darwinian theory.  Assuming that the need for protection from infectious diseases has been important in human evolution, as it has been for other mammals, we can imagine that natural selection has favored human preferences for cues of health and absence of pathogens; so that "good looks" or physical attractiveness could be a proxy or indicator of a healthy absence of pathogens.  And, indeed, some studies have shown that cues of pathogenic infection reduce attractiveness.  So, for example, this might explain why women with imperfections in their skin want to conceal them with cosmetics.

The biosocial role theory explains the desire for beauty as emerging from the interaction of the sexually dimorphic biological traits and the cultural norms for gender roles in a society.  Biological differences between women and men--such as women's childbearing and nursing of infants and men's greater strength and physical robustness--create a sexual division of labor.  But these biologically based gender differences can be either accentuated or moderated by culturally learned norms.  So that the more patriarchal cultures will promote stereotypical gender roles, while the more egalitarian cultures will soften the gender/sex differences.  So while the mating market perspective emphasizes the universality of the gender/sex differences, the biosocial role theory emphasizes the importance of culture in either promoting or downplaying those differences, although the differences can never be totally eliminated.

The cultural media perspective sees the desire for beauty as largely shaped by the influence of mass media.  Social media presents us with ideal images of male and female beauty, and we then try to conform to those feminine and masculine standards of beauty, even though they might be unattainable for most of us.

Finally, the individualism-collectivism continuum explains our conceptions of beauty as deeply influenced by whether our attitudes are more individualistic or more collectivist.  A collectivist attitude favors group interests over individual interests.  An individualist attitude elevates self-interest over group interests.  We might predict that individuals and countries with more individualist attitudes will promote the idea that individuals should spend a lot of time enhancing their beauty.

From these five intellectual frameworks, Kowal and her colleagues generated eleven hypotheses to be tested against the data from their survey.  Here is how they frame those hypotheses in Figure 1 of their article:

Mating Market Perspective:

H1:  Women spend more time enhancing their beauty than do men.

H2:  Individuals of reproductive age spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals not of a reproductive age.

H3:  Single individuals spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals in romantic relationships.

Pathogen Prevalence:

H4:  Individuals from countries with higher pathogen prevalence spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals from countries with lower pathogen prevalence.

H5:  Individuals with a more severe history of pathogenic diseases spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals with a less severe history of pathogens.

Biosocial Role Theory:

H6:  Women from countries with higher gender inequality spend more time enhancing their beauty than do women from countries with lower gender inequality.

H7:  Women conforming to traditional gender roles spend more time enhancing their beauty than do women who conform less to traditional gender roles.

Cultural Media Perspective:

H8:  Individuals who spend more time on social media spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals who spend less time on social media.

H9:  Individuals spend more time watching television spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals who spend less time watching television.

Individualism-Collectivism Continuum:

H10:  Individuals from more i8ndividualistic countries spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals from more collectivist countries.

H11:  Individuals with more individualistic attitudes spend more time enhancing their beauty than do individuals with more collectivist attitudes.

The survey data gathered by Kowal and her colleagues support Hypothesis 1, because on average women report that they do spend more time enhancing beauty than do men.  It's the difference between about 4 hours a day on average for women as compared with 3.6 hours a day for men.  Remarkably, however, the time is about equal on average for men and women at around age 30.

This data only partly confirms Hypothesis 2, because both the youngest and the oldest individuals spent more time enhancing their physical attractiveness than did middle-age individuals (30-50 years old), and because the oldest women spent more time enhancing their beauty than did the youngest women.  The most dramatic evidence here against the mating market perspective is that postmenopausal women engage in so much activity for enhancing their attractiveness, even though this cannot increase their reproductive fitness.  Could this be explained by the possibility that the average lifespan for women in the Pleistocene Epoch was so short that few women lived past menopause, and thus there was no evolutionary pressure for postmenopausal women to reduce their investment in beauty-enhancing behavior?  Moreover, we might think that older women have to work harder than do younger women in trying to preserve the appearance of youthful female beauty.

The data do not support Hypothesis 3--that single people spend more time enhancing beauty than do those who are not single--because people who were dating spent more time enhancing beauty than did single people (on average 24 minutes more a day), married people (26 minutes more), and people in committed relationships (29 minutes more).  This could be seen as consistent with the mating market perspective, if we say that some single individuals are people who are not pursuing a mate, and therefore they feel less need to look good for the sake of attracting a mate.

Thus, the survey by Kowal and her colleagues provides some confirmation for the mating market perspective. 

The survey data do not show that in countries with high pathogen stress, people spend more time enhancing beauty than do people in countries with low pathogen stress, which denies Hypothesis 4.  The survey data do show, however, that individuals with high pathogen stress spend more time enhancing beauty than individuals with low pathogen stress, which confirms Hypothesis 5.

In this way, this survey research provides only slight confirmation for the pathogen prevalence theory.

This research strongly confirms the biosocial role theory by showing that women in countries with higher gender inequality tend to spend more time enhancing their beauty than do women in countries with lower gender inequality (Hypothesis 6), and by also showing that women who conform to traditional gender roles tend to spend more time enhancing their beauty than do women less inclined to conform to traditional gender roles (Hypothesis 7).

This research also strongly confirms the cultural media perspective by showing that people who spend more time on social media and watching television tend to spend more time improving their appearance (Hypotheses 8 and 9).

By contrast, this research provides little support for the individualism-collectivism continuum, because highly individualistic countries do not show greater time spent on enhancing beauty than in highly collectivistic countries, and because highly individualistic individuals show only slightly more time spent on enhancing beauty than highly collectivist individuals.


I see this research by Kowal and her colleagues as supporting my project in Darwinian Natural Right by showing empirical evidence that the desire for beauty is indeed one of the twenty natural desires that constitute the ethical life of evolved human nature.  But as is often characteristic of the evolutionary psychologists who want to be "value-free" in their research, Kowal and her colleagues do not recognize the implications of their work for the sort of Darwinian ethics that I defend.  As I have indicated in various posts, the evolutionary psychologists have been slow to accept the idea of evolutionary ethics, although in recent years, evolutionary explanations of ethics have become a vibrant field of study.

Evolutionary scientists often object to the idea of evolutionary ethics by saying that it commits the naturalistic fallacy by falsely inferring a moral ought from a factual is.  So, Kowal and her colleagues might say that from the fact that human beings do desire beauty, we cannot rightly infer that they ought to desire beauty.

But this ignores the fact that human ethics is ultimately based on hypothetical imperatives that are open to scientific study.  In everything we do, we move from "is" to "ought" through some hypothetical imperative in which "ought" means a hypothetical relationship between desires and ends.  For example, "If you desire to be healthy, then you ought to eat nutritious food."  Or, "If you desire safe air travel, you ought to seek out airplanes that are engineered for flying without crashing."  Or, "If you desire the love of friends, you ought to cultivate personal relationships based on mutual respect and affection and shared interests."  Or, "if you desire to look beautiful, you ought to engage in those activities that will enhance your beauty."

Such hypothetical imperatives are based on two kinds of objective facts.  First, human desires are objective facts.  We can empirically discover--through common experience or through scientific investigation--that human beings generally desire self-preservation, health, friendship, and beauty.  Second, the causal connection between behavior and result is an objective fact about the world.  We can empirically discover that through eating good food, flying on safe airplanes, cultivating close personal relationships, and enhancing our beauty, we can achieve the ends that we desire.  For studying these objective facts, the natural sciences of medicine, engineering, and psychology can be instructive.  It is false, therefore, for to say that science cannot tell us anything about the way things ought to be.

Some scientists might respond by saying that even if science can tell us about the ought of a hypothetical imperative, it cannot tell us about the ought of a moral imperative, which must be categorical rather than hypothetical.  But this would ignore the fact that if a categorical imperative is to have any motivating truth, it must become a hypothetical imperative.  So when Kant or some other moral philosopher tells us that we ought to do something, we can always ask, Why?  And ultimately the only final answer to that question of motivation is that obeying this ought is what we most desire to do if we are rational and sufficiently informed.

Even Kant implicitly concedes this.  In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he says that everyone desires to obey his categorical imperatives, because everyone--"even the most hardened scoundrel"--desires the "greater inner worth of his own person" [einen grosseren inneren Wert seiner Person] that comes only from obeying the moral law and thus becoming a "better person" (Ak 4.454).  In this way, Kant's categorical imperatives are reduced to a hypothetical imperative:  If you desire to be a better person with a sense of self-worth, then you ought to obey my categorical imperatives.  This, then, rests on two kinds of empirical claims--that human beings most desire personal self-worth and that obeying Kant's categorical imperatives will achieve that desired end.

Some of my previous posts on hypothetical imperatives and the fallacy of the is/ought dichotomy can be found here, here, herehere., and here.


Roger Sweeny said...

It seems to me that you haven't shown "the fallacy of the is-ought dichotomy". You have shown that "Kant's categorical imperatives are reduced to a hypothetical imperative". Every time a philosopher tells you there is an ought, you can always ask, "Why?" And you don't have to accept the philosopher's answer, because it always (eventually) rests on a personal preference. Some preferences seem obvious and unassailable, but there has probably been some human society or philosopher who disagrees. What would Nietzsche say about "human flourishing" as a basis for morals? I suppose it would depend on how old he was when you asked.

Les Brunswick said...

@Roger Sweeny I think when philosophers disagree about the foundations of ethics, it is usually to a considerable degree because they have different views about human nature, that is human psychology. So for instance you get disagreements as to whether there are in any inborn human motives or they are all socialized, or whether inborn human motives include social and moral ones.

Fortunately these are factual disagreements that can be settled by scientific study, and I would say that what the science has found is a version of the liberal democratic view that our host espouses.