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Wednesday, April 06, 2005
HariWatch IV

Those who know Johann Hari best for his vocal support for the Iraq War may be inclined to see him as something of a moderate left-winger. I have highlighted in this series in the past just how extreme some of his views are, and his piece in last week's Independent allows me to show this radicalism again.

Two posts down I touched on obesity. Johann's column looks at the other end of the scale.

The fashion industry feeds off bulimia and starvation.

...the norm of female beauty promoted by the fashion world - and internalised by almost every woman in Britain - requires women to make themselves ill.

... But it's important to understand that no particular type of beauty is programmed into our brains at birth. Your attraction to one type over another - anorexic women over normal women, say - is a complex product of advertising, culture and social conditions. The beauties of Rubens' paintings would be considered grade-A mingers today.

Beauty is an elastic concept; it is vulnerable to being hijacked by (in the 17th century) great artists, or (today) by particular industries with creepy agendas and massive marketing budgets. Men do not "naturally" fancy anorexic women; they are made to.

Just think about how radical and far-reaching are the implications of these words. The argument is not that people obviously display some degree of variability in what they find attractive. Nor is he merely saying that fashion has important implications and influences on what one may find attractive. He actually argues that "no particular type of beauty is programmed into our brains at birth".

It is not an attitude unique to Johann. This is a view famously promoted by the feminist Noami Wolf in a book called 'The Beauty Myth', and accepted widely by fringe figures across the intellectual left who see admitting any role for nature itself in human behaviour as a triumph for the reactionary white patriarchy and an obstacle to their planned social engineering. Homosexual activists also often sympathise with this view because it suggests that there are no natural standards of male or female attractions from which they are diverging - merely a set of covergirls they are able in their wisdom to shun.

And it is a view refuted by all known science.

The quoted passage above is quite typical of a Johann Hari piece: make a bold, ahistorical assertion that strikes at the heart of even the more sympathetic reader's common sense and then pick a trivial historical example for shaky support. What science and history in fact demonstrate is a common set of standards of beauty, which changing fashions build upon but have never - can never - reverse. Nancy Etcoff has written in frankly excessive detail on just how rooted in biology our sexual preferences are. We find attractive those qualities that in combination with our own will produce a healthy baby (one can see again why the Peter Tatchells of this world find this science offensive), because those humans who did not care about such things did not leave enough children to have any descendants today. We are evolved from their more discriminating counterparts.

It is certainly true that if one examines erotic paintings of centuries ago, one will often find unusually large women. But Johann Hari's observation is merely a very small part of a larger evolutionary picture. For while fashions have influenced the size of women men prefered from one time to the next, biology has always dictated the deeper preferences. For obese or anorexic, fat or thin, what the ideal women in ancient erotic art and their modern equivalents all have in common is a hip-to-waist ratio of about 1 to 0.7. What shines through all these fashions is an overarching biological preference for a waist 70% as wide as the hips, because these proportions demonstrate first that she is not already pregnant, and second that she has hips wide enough to bear the human baby's abnormally large head. Men long ago who didn't find these proportions attractive either ended up as cuckolds to those who did, or grieving would-be parents. What they didn't do is leave descendants who survive today.

Could it be that even so sexual and beauty preferences are learned, are social rather than hormonal? No.

British scientists have discovered that human infants are born with an innate concept of what makes an attractive face.

Research at Exeter University has found that newborn babies show a marked preference for people with features that are conventionally judged as handsome by adults.

The findings suggest that ideals of facial beauty are not determined by culture alone, but also rely on universal standards that have been hard-wired, or imprinted, in our genes.

... "This view contradicts views arguing that the newborn infant enters the world as a tabula rasa — a blank slate on which experience will write."

Though infants cannot tell scientists that they prefer this face or that, a large volume of research has shown that their attention is much more easily captured by images they find pleasing or interesting.

In the new study, Dr Slater's team used this effect to test whether newborns with little or no experience of the world shared their elders' assumptions about facial beauty. The researchers took hundreds of pictures of female members of the public, and asked adult volunteers to rate their attractiveness on a scale of one to five.

Dr Slater then paired particularly beautiful faces, with an average score of close to five, with particularly unattractive ones scoring close to one. Care was taken to match qualities such as hair colour and length that might otherwise interfere with the experiment. Almost 100 newborn babies, with an average age of two days, were then shown these paired images.

About 80per cent of the time the babies looked exclusively or mainly at the face judged "prettier". The effect was also seen when the experiment was repeated with male faces and faces from many different ethnic groups.

Dr Slater said: "A lot of it is hard-wired, and you can't get away from that hard-wiring."

As Anders Pape Moller explains:

Human beauty standards reflect our evolutionary distant and recent past and emphasize the role of health assessment in mate choice. Given these findings, it is extremely unlikely that human sexual behavior or mate preferences will change to any significant degree during the future, even in the presence of totalitarian measures.

The only 'Beauty Myth' is the left's attachment to blank slate ideology when so much evolutionary science testifies to the heritable sexual and beauty preferences that are beyond the control of even the most ambitious of liberal social engineers.

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