But that's intellectual beauty. What of human physical beauty? This is something that interests me greatly. I'm not interested in the general aesthetic question here, but ourselves. Some people say that beauty is uninteresting and that it's just a matter of taste. I don't think so. I would say, and there are others who would certainly agree with me, that we have a general psychological program from which stems a universal notion of beauty. Incidentally, this idea that we all perceive certain features to be beautiful is one that Darwin would have disagreed with. Darwin believed that the perception of beauty was particular to particular peoples in particular times and places. He was probably wrong, or at least he was only partly right. I won't attempt to justify that answer, but I think it to be true. These days, the general thinking tends to be that there's a universal notion of beauty which is true for people around the world. And the question is, what is that and what drives it?
Many people think that beauty is a certificate of health; this is an idea that comes out of sociobiology. But it is more obvious than than that. It's simply the idea that beautiful people are healthy people and we search for healthy mates. And that's probably true. Or at least it was. But is it still? In the past, health was primarily a matter of environmental conditions—your exposure to contagious diseases and the amount of food that you had when you were growing up. Rich people had better environments, hence the positive association between beauty and wealth. But what of modern economically egalitarian societies such as Holland? In such societies, does the ancient association still obtain? If the variance in beauty is due to the variance in the quality of the rearing environment then it must be the case that the Dutch — who all eat much the same good food, live in much the same well-designed houses, and have access to much the same excellent health-care — must all be equivalently beautiful. But is this so? The answer is, of course, no. Among the Dutch you can find good-looking and not so good-looking people. And the question is then, why?
I would argue that the reason for this is that there is and will always be variance in beauty is because there is variance in mutational load. What is beauty fundamentally about? I would argue — and this is really just a postulate at this time, but it is one that interests me a great deal — that the fundamental reason why some of us are more beautiful than others is because of those deleterious mutations that we all carry We may carry 300 deleterious mutations on average, but there is of course a variance associated with that. Not everybody has 300. Some people have more, some people have fewer. If this is true—and statistically it must be true — then someone in the world has the fewest mutations of all. Someone in the world is the least mutant human of all. Indeed, we can actually calculate, making some assumptions about the shape of the distribution, how many mutations that person has — and it turns out to be 191 versus the average of 300. This, to my mind, is surprisingly many. I would suggest that if we could find that person, he or she would be a good candidate for being the most beautiful person in the world. At least she would be, assuming she did not grow up in some impoverished underdeveloped nation. Which, statistically, she will have done since most people do.
March 26, 2005
Armand Leroi on Beauty
In the following excerpt, Armand Marie Leroi talks about beauty. Dr. Leroi is the author of Mutants : On Genetic Variety and the Human Body, a very fascinating (and slightly disturbing) book on mutant organisms. He has also written an interesting op-ed on race titled A Family Tree in Every Gene