TEDTALK / What is Beauty? I object to this “idea”

Anjan Chatterjee: How your brain decides what is beautiful

TEDTALK August, 12, 2017

It’s 1878. Sir Francis Galton gives a remarkable talk. He’s speaking to the anthropologic institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Known for his pioneering work in human intelligence, Galton is a brilliant polymath. He’s an explorer, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a psychologist and a statistician. He’s also a eugenist. In this talk, he presents a new technique by which he can combine photographs and produce composite portraits. This technique could be used to characterize different types of people. Galton thinks that if he combines photographs of violent criminals, he will discover the face of criminality. But to his surprise, the composite portrait that he produces is beautiful.

Galton’s surprising finding raises deep questions: What is beauty? Why do certain configurations of line and color and form excite us so? For most of human history, these questions have been approached using logic and speculation. But in the last few decades, scientists have addressed the question of beauty using ideas from evolutionary psychology and tools of neuroscience. We’re beginning to glimpse the why and the how of beauty, at least in terms of what it means for the human face and form. And in the process, we’re stumbling upon some surprises.

Galton’s finding that composite or average faces are typically more attractive than each individual face that contributes to the average has been replicated many times. This laboratory finding fits with many people’s intuitions. (preconceived assumptions) Average faces represent the central tendencies of a group. People with mixed features represent different populations, and presumably harbor greater genetic diversity and adaptability to the environment. Many people find mixed-race individuals attractive and inbred families less so.

The second factor that contributes to beauty is symmetry. People generally find symmetric faces more attractive than asymmetric ones. Developmental abnormalities are often associated with asymmetries. And in plants, animals and humans, asymmetries often arise from parasitic infections. Symmetry, it turns out, is also an indicator of health. (not really) In the 1930s, a man named Maksymilian Faktorowicz recognized the importance of symmetry for beauty when he designed the beauty micrometer. With this device, he could measure minor asymmetric flaws which he could then make up for with products he sold from his company, named brilliantly after himself, Max Factor, which, as you know, is one of the world’s most famous brands for “make up.”


This talk by Anjan Chatterjee popped up in the inbox this morning: I confess that something about TED talks feels creepy. I had an argument once with a friend who kept sending me links to “talks” – I signed up for notifications in order to be “open-minded” and tried watching when the topic was of interest. But there’s something about TED that creeps me out.

Coincidentally, I spent some time yesterday looking at “faces” from a collection of Native American period photographs posted on this website:


These are faces created by the life the person lived; not faces made by “shaming” the face one was born to have, and which is a treasure map of the experiences of a single unique human being.

And yet, modern social humans subscribe to a social injustice: your face is not good enough. It must be disguised to be acceptable. It must not reveal your life; your experiences, trials or triumphs. And now, “science” is going to tell you that this “lie that is your made-up face” magically “fools” other humans into believing that you are “genetic perfection” in the flesh; an object of prime real estate for reproducing the species. That you are fertile, healthy, and a preferred choice for having children.

It’s all nonsense. It’s cultural distortion. It’s “psychosocial” Eugenics. It’s a perversion of life processes that have produced millions of “beautiful species” and the individuals of those species and not by the warped dictates of one person or group of modern social humans, but by  incremental changes over unimaginable time; by natural “crisis” engineering when the environment changes radically and quickly. By “optimization” of systems, not by slavish “copying” of ideal forms – especially as “presented by” the cultural imposition of ideas that simply do not pass the scrutiny of “what actually exists” in front of our “noses”.

Case in point: My face. There is no “pride” in stating that my face appears to fulfill the “requirements” that ostensibly advertise “health and good genes” and therefore a slam dunk for “positive” reproduction. I am not: By evolutionary standards, I’m a failure. Non-conforming to “female” design as the “baby-growing” half of the species; the product of a dysfunctional “Asperger, bipolar, schizophrenic” – producing family line – ostensibly caused by “bad genes” And I’m certainly not the only exception to this “eugenic” rule of beauty = healthy genes and reproductive success. I have no children. There are millions of “beautiful criminals” and “ugly saints”. No one can predict which individual humans will contribute the genetic diversity which must be available to a species in order to adapt to changeit is in the genetic “fringes” of a population where adaptation occurs, and not within the typical or average bulk of the species.

Beauty is: the universe is beautiful, but mostly in ways that we don’t understand. The face of an individual is beautiful – not unlike a weathered and broken outcrop of rock, a cobble shaped in a turbulent river, a fossil trace of a fragile bit of life that existed  millions of years ago.

From the soft unformed face of a baby to the “being” who is sculpted by the forces of nature and culture and by the inborn will to grow and to become – that is always a surprise.

I would say that I have outgrown my face and my “genetic destiny”. That process is beautiful.




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