Scientific study of physical beauty

Another example of the silliness and naivete of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, etc: “Physical beauty involves more than good looks,” according to a recent study.
Now, this is a revisionist study. Previous surveys have used the methodology of showing male undergraduates pictures of various women (and occasionally the reverse), asking them which ones they found the most attractive, measuring various body ratios of the objects deemed most attractive, and concluding that “physically attractive traits include high degrees of bilateral facial symmetries, such as eyes that are identical in shape and size, and waist-to-hip ratios of 0.7 for women and 0.9 for men.” From these findings it is further extrapolated that these ratios must be universally preferred in all human beings, regardless of cultural and individual differences, and therefore must be genetically hardwired for good adaptive reasons (which usually go back to saying that these ratios are indications of the most fertile mates).
The present study determines that this is wrong, or at least that it is not the entire picture:
“There is more to beauty than meets the stranger’s eye, according to results from three studies examining the influence of non-physical traits on people’s perception of physical attractiveness. The results, which show that people perceive physical appeal differently when they look at those they know versus strangers, are published in the recently released March issue of Evolution and Human Behavior.”
What this really means, of course, is that people judge people they know well differently from how they judge complete strangers whom they have not even met, but only encountered through photos that have been shown to them for a few seconds. Scarcely a startling finding.
What the researchers conclude, however, is that:
“the fitness value of potential social partners depends at least as much on non-physical traits — whether they are cooperative, dependable, brave, hardworking, intelligent and so on — as physical factors, such as smooth skin and symmetrical features,…It follows that non-physical factors should be included in the subconscious assessment of beauty.”
This illustrates the solipsistic and self-confirming nature of the whole research project. It is assumed a priori that whatever a study uncovers about human “preferences” or ideas or behavior must be adaptive, i.e. a direct product of natural selection. The “subconscious assessment of beauty” must correspond to what is actually (i.e. statistically) most advantageous to reproduction.
With these assumptions, it doesn’t matter how shoddy the methodology is, nor what is “discovered” (whether it is something banal and obvious, or something totally counter-intuitive); in any case, the results will be explained in terms of selective advantage; and at the same time, the theory of selective advantage will be taken to be strengthened by these “results.” The circularity is perfect: nothing can disconfirm the founding assumptions, and the most simplistic and/or inane “findings” can be validated as significant research.

One Response to “Scientific study of physical beauty”

  1. linkage says:

    The Pinocchio Theory: Scientific study of physical beauty…