The Evolutionary Proof of the Value of Beauty’s Pleasure

Let’s take pleasure in pleasure.  In case you’re feeling a bit hesitant about this, take a look at evolutionary theories to give you some extra ammo.

We’ve all learned the appeal and surprising evolutionary success of the peacock with it’s heavy but beautiful wings in middle school science class.  According to evolutionary theory, the strongest survive which explains why certain traits have lasted the test of time.   And this theory is also used to explain why the seemingly unfit species, like the peacock that can’t fly, still survives.  The theory is that the female assumes the peacock must be super strong in order to carry around his massive, gorgeous wings, and, thus, a superior mate.

Well, the recent book by Richard Prum, The Evolution of Beauty, challenges the notion that beautiful features in us, animals, MUST  surely be some health indicator.  Instead he says that certain species thrived in spite of being less fit because they inspired pleasure in others.  In an interview for the “Verge,” Prum refers to the Club-Winged Manakin that “actually evolved to become cooler but less fit.”  In order to attract its mate, the bird’s wings adapted to become more beautiful for the purposes of dance but actually less efficient in terms of flying — it’s main role!   In other words, the pleasurable beauty of the winged manakin attracted mates even if it meant the risk of less healthy offspring.  Prum asks if sexual pleasure in certain species is only to ensure reproduction, why do animals endure elaborate dance or singing rituals to attract the other.  Couldn’t one round of two-stepping or a few chords have done the trick?  Nope.  His explanation is that many species, including us, human beings, desire pleasure.  And we desire this not just to ensure survival of the next generation but because it has value in and of itself.

So how come it took so long for someone recognize this?  Plum’s explanation:

“I think evolutionary biology has a ‘pleasure problem’ going all the way back to the Victorians who were very unsettled to the idea that animals, including people, might be motivated by pleasure. It might be anxiety about the power of passion, and so we’ve been going on a long time ignoring subjective experience.”

Let’s face it, so many of us in our culture are downright uncomfortable with notions of pleasure.  So we either explain it way as something that leads productive or reproductive ends, or we ignore it all together.  I confess, I’m sometimes guilty of the former.  I rationalize pampering my skin or wearing fashionable clothes as way for me look more professional or give me the confidence I need to take on a big career challenge.  Why can’t I just enjoy the pleasure of beauty without tying it tie to something purposeful.  I loved how Prum answered a recent question posed by Dr. Prakashin in the New York Times article by James Gorman, “Challenging Mainstream’s  Though on Beauty’s Big Hand in Evolution:” “Why are birds beautiful?” “Birds are beautiful because they’re beautiful to themselves.”  Full stop.

For those of us who eschew pleasure all together, we may be pushing against our nature.  I’m not saying “natural” behaviors are good.  Some are downright horrible, like murder or child pornography.  And I’m not saying all pleasurable activities/things should be embraced, example opiates.   But if we are built to seek pleasure — within reason — shouldn’t we be more comfortable with it?  Even better, shouldn’t we embrace it?  There are so many wonderful pursuits of pleasure.  Enjoying art, wonderful food, beautiful scenery, gorgeous music, and the list goes on.  If it makes us happier, isn’t that a good thing?  Maybe if we just let ourselves appreciate pleasure more we wouldn’t be sublimating our natural desires, and potentially channeling them into not so great behaviors.  As we all know, curbing natural desires has a way of leading us to harmful pursuits.

If we have the capacity to create pleasure for ourselves and others, I think we should see it not only as our privilege, but also as our responsibility to foster it, welcome it, and share it.  Let’s seek out pleasure!

Are We Hard-Wired to Be Attracted to the Beauty of Our Elders?

Untitled-3.0Untitled-4.0

Is it me or are we finally looking at our elder beauties in a new light?  Every where I look I feel like people are starting to pay attention to the beauty of the older women and men in our society in a different, progressive and admirable way.  Or perhaps it’s because my birthday is coming up that I look at aging with a fresh eye.  Whatever the reason, I feel like we are finally starting to see aging beauty for all the glamour, wisdom and experience it offers.

First, I was struck by the amazing comments I received in one of my recent Linkedin posts: Age and Decay: A Twist on What We Actually Crave.  The fact that we instinctively need to experience the aging process in others is what makes vinyl records, dilapidated buildings and older women so beautiful.  And then I came across a scientific study claiming that women don’t want beauty companies to offer them “anti-aging” products, but rather products that make them look and feel awesome as they are now. (Science Daily)  Finally, when I came across this story in Los Angeles Racked: “Fashion and Beauty Secerets form L.A’s Most Stylish Older Women,” I knew I must be on to something.  The article shares images of gorgeous older women, strutting their stuff, donning eclectic outfits, and displaying amazing hair and make-up (see pics above & below).  And what’s even cooler about them?  They are all active members of society — working in film, non-for-profits or even modeling!

But why try to stay beautiful?  For younger people it promises a mate and eventual propagation of the species.  But who needs it as we age?

But maybe there’s another way to think about people’s beauty.  Beauty — both inner and outer (frankly, I can’t separate the two) forces us to take notice.  It mesmerizes us.  It stops us in our tracks and draws like a magnet.  Nature has hard-wired us to react this way.  For the youth it may have one reason for it’s existence, but for others, another.  By admiring and being attracted to an older person’s beauty we can’t help but learn their stories, adopt some of their joie de vivre and hopefully take on their desire to keep building in this world vs let it all go and wait for the end to come.  When we see it in the best possible light, beauty’s allure can help us learn something, build for a better future, and see the opportunities before us.  We need the beauty of youth AND the beauty of old age.

Nature has made us beautiful creatures at EVERY stage so that we all strive to build a better world — whether that means more babies, more equality, better forms of entertainment, more happiness — and the list goes on.  Let’s hope I can adopt some of this lesson for myself as the big day rolls around :).



Untitled-67.0

Untitled-6.0

What Do Beauty & Cannibalism Have in Common?

cannibalismart

The title isn’t a tease.  I’m going to give you the answer but I need to back track a bit.

Beauty can now be judged by artificial intelligence.  Yep, there is going to be a beauty contest using robots to judge people’s appearances.  The reason for the new type of contest?  According the recent article about this contest, Beauty Contest Features Algorithmic Judges, human judges are too biased to judge beauty fairly.

As a tech-lover and someone fascinated with A.I., I wanted to appreciate this new type of contest, but the idea is all wrong.  I’m sure many of you would begin by protesting the whole concept of a beauty contest.  I have mixed feelings about the benefit of these contests, and I’ve written about the pros and cons of them in many past posts.  But, for today, I’m actually going leave that argument alone.

What I will challenge instead is the idea that a robot can truly detect beauty.  This isn’t an argument for embracing inner beauty (though I appreciate that too).  Rather it’s argument against the idea that our definition of beauty is only measurable.  I agree that we are attracted to symmetry and a certain ratio of eyes to chin to forehead, etc. as a survival mechanism from our ancient pasts.  The thinking here is the more symmetrical our features, the healthier we are, and the healthier our offspring would be.  Of course a digital device would better discern these measurements.  I also agree with the story that human judges can be biased due to cultural norms.

My issue with such a contest is that what we perceive as beautiful is strongly associated with a person’s “essence.”  I’ve written about this concept in an earlier post, the Pleasure of Beauty.  According to author and Yale psychology professor, Paul Bloom, in his book How Pleasure Works: The New Science of What We Like What We Like, we derive pleasure from things like art, sports and beauty.  But this pleasure doesn’t just come from the rational combination of factors (think technical skills like amazing batting speed or the perfect pirouette) but from the ESSENCE of things and people.  The essence is that which lies beneath the surface –the history, background, personality, you get the picture.  As Bloom writes: “things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.”  This is why we pay tons of money for an original painting versus a counterfeit.  It also explains, not to gross you out, why some people are cannibals…they want to connect with the “inner-ness” of the person.  Net net, we seek the essence to truly get pleasure from things.

This goes for physical beauty too.  We all have an essence that comes forth to make us more or less beautiful.  Maybe you call that our “stories”, a certain depth, or our many sides.  And this essence shapes our perceptions of others’ beauty.

Bloom cites an experiment with college students in which classmates were asked to rate people’s looks.  The participants weren’t acquainted with the classmates beyond sitting with them in the same lectures.  Interestingly, attractiveness ratings went up when classmates saw people more often.  It’s not that now they had a better view of the people they were rating.  The point here is that more exposure to who a person is — their ESSENCE — the greater the appreciation of even his/her physical attractiveness.   In fact, what I think is even more interesting is that the subjects (i.e. the people assessing others’ beauty) didn’t even interact with their classmates!  They didn’t form their opinions because one was nice or the other was obnoxious.  It was merely the closeness that developed over time, and the greater recognition of the others as human beings, that affected their views.

This is not a call for eschewing physical beauty in favor of inner beauty.  And I’m not saying inner beauty determines our assessments of who is beautiful.  Rather, what I take from Bloom’s analysis is that beauty is a combination of physical characteristics and one’s essence.   Our sense of attraction can’t be deconstructed to include ONLY physical characteristics.  We just aren’t wired to see the world this way.

Yes, a bizarro beauty contest can turn beauty into something scientific and objective.  But, and what we all probably know at some level and what Bloom confirms, our physical attractiveness is actually quite deep.  We are beautiful because we are not just perfect, symmetrical robots, but because we are human beings.

 

What is the Definition of Beauty Anyway?

ON-BEAUTY-poster-SARAH-web

This question has been asked for eons.  One of the most accepted answers for what we deem beautiful is a scientific or evolutionary one.  We are attracted to certain people, especially faces, that seem, well, normal, i.e., symmetrical and free of abnormalities. The simple reason?  To survive as a species, we seek indicators of health in our mates.  The thinking is if our mates look healthy then they ARE healthy.  And this would mean our offspring would be too.

Of course cultural norms play role too.  And our feelings about people can affect our perception of their beauty.  But so much of our instinctual reaction to people has a lot to do with the ingrained need to procreate.

But photographer Rick Guidotti is flipping our beauty definitions on their head.  Based on this CNN story, Guidotti, a man who used to snap shots of high fashion and beauty icons, was inspired by a girl with albinism that he saw at a bus stop. While most of would probably NOT consider her beautiful, he did.  At that moment he decided to totally change his career.  He left his glam world and dedicated himself to understanding, embracing and capturing physical, genetic differences.  Guidotti recently launched his documentary “On Beauty” which shares the many beautiful faces with such differences e.g., birth marks and albinism.

No question, the open-mindedness of this project offers a wonderful perspective for society.  Who is to say what is beauty?  Can’t we all be beautiful?

But can our hard-wiring change?  Can we believe deep down that these physical differences can be a thing of beauty vs a sign of health concerns?

If you take a step back, however, so many of us hook up with our mates, DESPITE, their health risks.  Someone may carry a recessive gene for Tay Sachs or she may marry into a family with a history of depression.  Do we ignore these concerns, of course not.  But the beauty we find in one another helps us overcome these concerns and find a way to thrive.

So Guidotti isn’t celebrating something that defies nature.  Just the opposite. He’s showcasing something that’s also quite primal: the instinct to empathize, cherish and love others…no matter what.  So maybe we ARE hard-wired to love ALL sorts of beauty!

 

Weekend Observations: What Compels Us To Judge Beauty?

Screen Shot 2013-08-04 at 6.54.20 PM
On any given day, I receive at least 1 or 2 articles in my feed about some beauty pageant going on somewhere in the world.  Because I’m traveling today, I have a bit of time to look over all the articles that I’ve catalogued for “later,” many of which are about pageants, of course.  And then I saw this new concept of the beauty pageant.  A TV show has hit the airwaves called: “Gusto Kong Maging Beauty Queen.”  It is essentially a show in which not-so-pretty gals compete (after major instruction and help) over their physical beauty.
I’m not judging whether this show is good for man(or woman)kind or not.  It just intrigues me HOW MUCH we feel compelled to judge whether something/someone is beautiful, or whether something/someone is more beautiful than the next thing/person.
What gives?
We know there are tons of academic/scientific studies on why we’re attracted to things of beauty.  But what drives us to want to evaluate one’s beauty vs another’s?
Then I started thinking, so much of our attraction to beauty hearkens back to caveman days.  Perhaps we’re dealing with same thing here. Maybe we hardwired to seriously evaluate mates before launching into procreation, and it’s this wiring that compels us to do it with all things/people of beauty today?
Ok, so if you buy my argument, then you’d think once we’ve determined our mates, we would no longer need to engage in these beauty evaluations.  Of course we don’t lose our appreciation for beauty once we get hitched.  But this compulsion to evaluate beauty is going a number of levels deeper.  To expend effort evaluating people’s beauty — — whether its watching a beauty pageant or reading about it, seems pretty wasteful.  And yet, societies around the world ALL do it — A LOT.
Hmm….I’m stumped.
If you have any ideas, lob ’em over!