Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

gè huā rù gè yǎn

The previous chapter explained the importance of physical attractiveness in mate selec­tion.[1] It argued that men were seeking beauty for purely reproductive reasons, as it consti­tutes the strongest and most obvious visual markers of fecundity. Hence, the male brain is pro­gram­med to recognise and pick out the healthiest and most fertile mates, those most like­ly to produce the fittest children. As such, this preference for pretty women is the result of thou­sands of years of evolution and therefore should be considered as innate to all humans. According to this explanation, shapes, faces, smells, and ages of the mates people choose are apparently influenced by patterns set millennia ago, which makes them much more pre­dicta­ble than one would think.[2] Now, this represents quite a contradiction to the truism that beauty is an entirely subjective concept. Thus, the purpose of this chapter is to question the common view that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and to introduce the notion that beauty is not as arbitrary as it seems. It also explores whether there might be some objective criteria with which beauty can be measured, or least made explicit. Stated differently, the next few pages will attempt to elucidate why we find some physical charac­teristics graceful and others ugly.

When looking at the idea of “physical attractiveness”, one notices that it also includes a strong sexual component, i.e., that it is a lot about oomph and desirability. For Allan and Barbara Pease, beauty and sex appeal are basically the same, with the word beautiful signifying “sexually stimulating”. Beauty has the simple purpose of ensuring that people (possibly of opposite sexes) are attracted to one another so that they can procreate. So if somebody finds a person pretty, it means nothing else than that he wants to have sex with her, of course only from a biological perspective. A man will then consider a woman as attractive if she displays a number of qualities indicating that she will help him to success­fully pass his chromosomes to the next generation. Similarly, a man will be deemed attractive to a woman if his looks suggest that he can provide food and safety for herself and her chil­dren.[3] By the way, this does not only apply to animals but also to other living organisms. In particular, flowers are beautiful because they have to stand out in the meadow. Through their appearance, they communicate information about themselves to insects and animals around them, disclosing their growth stage and what kind of nutrition they can offer.[4]

One would be tempted to think that uniquely beautiful people have more chances to be cho­sen as mates because their extraordinary, or rare, features make them more attractive. Preci­sely not. When sexual creatures are looking for a partner, they actually prefer that mate not to sport any unusual, peculiar or otherwise deviant attributes, for fear that these could be due to mutations – thereby proving that humans are not the only ones to be scared of X-Men or of X-Beings in general. In fact, they are rather drawn to those individuals possessing predominantly com­mon or conventional features.[5] This strategy, called “koinophilia” (a com­bi­nation of the Greek terms koinos, i.e., “the usual” or “common”, and philos, i.e., “fondness” or “love”), allows organisms to ensure that their offspring will inherit a set of exhaustively tried and tested characteristics, and will, therefore, be right more often than it will be wrong. “Averageness” as an indicator of physical of beauty was originally disco­vered by Francis Galton in the 1870s, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, who while trying to generate a prototypical criminal face, came across the idea to overlay photographic images of several faces. He then found out that the composite portrait became increasingly attrac­tive with the addition of each new face, getting closer and closer to the “ideal” image. More than 100 years later, Judith Langlois and her colleagues came to the same conclusion using computer generated face averaging tests: Not only is the average of two human faces rated more favourably than either of the individual faces involved; the more faces (of the same gender and age) are included in the averaging process, the more appealing the resulting average face is perceived.[6] It is also this insight that inspired famed psychologist Robert Sternberg to exquisitely describe attractiveness as “a kind of golden mean of the faces we have seen”.[7]


[1]    See chapter 14 “Fair lady is what gentleman seeks”.

[2]    Brizendine (2006), pp. 59, 63

[3]    See chapter 17 “Finding a good job is nothing compared to finding a good husband”.

[4]    Pease / Pease (2002). pp. 195-196



[7]    Sternberg (1998), p. 107

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