The words “attractiveness” and “attraction” are routinely applied to an array of pleasurable stimuli with different properties, of which there are at least three obvious types: the erotic, the romantic, and the aesthetic. The erotic is the oldest of these, since erotic attraction facilitates gene replication in sexually reproducing species, reproduction being perhaps the only motive which unifies all life. The latter two are newer, require greater cognitive sophistication, their adaptive value is less clear, and it is not known how common they are.
Romantic attraction, in which I implicate everything that is usually semantically bound to that phrase; passionate infatuation, pair-bonding, attachment, etc, makes little adaptive sense except in monogamous social structures, which are rare in mammals1 and nearly non-existent in reptiles beyond a few obscure lizards.2 Only in birds do such social systems predominate. Moreover, it is by no means established that such faculties are even universal in humans: in sub-Saharan African cultures, short-term mating and polygyny (both serial and simultaneous) dominate.3 These social norms do not create evolutionary incentives for men to become infatuated or form permanent attachments to women, nor do they give women much incentive to cultivate forms of beauty which elicit such attachments from men. This is why so many African women are said to look masculine, particularly those of west African descent. Thus, “femininity” should not be thought of as a device to elicit male sexual arousal. Indeed, that in isolation seems almost comically easy to do, which is why men’s sexual interests are so vast and disparate. These distinctions are sometimes lost when discussing the makeup of variance in physical attractiveness.
It is not uncommon to hear the sentiment that Europeans are the most attractive race – it is a sentiment that is older than European colonialism, and so precludes narratives about white hegemony and privilege, and it is easily as common, probably more common these days, coming from non-whites as opposed to whites.4 Why, though? Pale skin and neoteny are part of it; these traits are considered desirable across the vast majority of cultures, especially in women.5 Neotenous facial features, i.e. paedomorphic or “juvenile-like” features, are basically synonymous with “feminine” facial features, and they are associated with numerous positive personality traits such as trust and high affective empathy. They are attractive in both sexes, too; masculine or “teleomorphic” (adult-like) features are mostly considered desirable by women looking for one-night stands,6 and women tend to rate feminine (=neotenous) faces as more subjectively pleasant to look at than masculine faces until they are asked to categorise them as either male or female, at which point there is a kind of mental dissonance induced by excessively feminine male faces, a sort of “uncanny valley” effect.7 Notwithstanding this bias, it is clear that masculine faces did not evolve for their visual appeal per se, nor did feminine faces evolve to be sexually alluring. The most likely explanation is that they are an adaptation for fighting, and human faces obviously are not masculine enough to be just for fighting – otherwise our faces would look like male gorillas’. Gorillas, incidentally, are not monogamous. Pale skin is desirable in females because it represents a “super-stimulus”: female skin is naturally paler than males’ after puberty across all human races and clades,8 so the paler a woman’s skin is, the more feminine she is, and thus, the more memorable she is to prospective male suitors.
Nevertheless, these characteristics are not unique to Europeans. East Asians have both pale skin and neoteny in spades. What is unique to Europeans, naturally, is colour polymorphism of the hair and eyes, which vary in a frequency-dependent fashion across populations: more unusual colours are more memorable, for their unusualness, and thus have an adaptive advantage. Thus, brunettes are apparently more popular in Britain, where naturally blond hair is relatively common,9 and the same principle applies to eye colours. These characteristics seem to have evolved in Europe during the Ice Ages,10 during which permanent monogamous attachments were somewhat essential to women’s survival because they relied on men’s labour for the acquisition of food and provision of their children, whereas this is less necessary in tropical climes where sustenance abounds. Sex ratios were female-skewed in the Ice Ages too, with men frequently dying from hunting and the elements, which will have strengthened female intrasexual competition. It is not clear why these features were favoured in Europe but not elsewhere, e.g. in the Inuits or north-east Asians – they seem to have put all their eggs in the neoteny basket, so to speak. Coloured eyes are also correlated with perceived facial femininity, surprise surprise.11 Since males are motivated by visual cues of attraction to a far higher degree than females, and since the visual system is probably the most important for the excitation of particular emotions – yes, people like music, but they will typically take being deaf over being blind any day if given the choice – it is not surprising that attractive features which procure emotional attachments begin and are more common in females.
Thus, it seems Schopenhauer was wrong when he claimed that women’s visual appeal relies purely on the male sex drive.12 To the contrary: even men with the most crazed sex drives know when they are having sex with an ugly woman as opposed to a beautiful one, and even a 95-year-old man with near-zero testosterone is capable of making the same distinctions.
This is one reason I would not mourn the loss of the sex drive were it to become optional with future technologies. It is likely that one day, perhaps quite soon, sex and reproduction will be doubly dissociated: it will be just as possible to reproduce without having sex as to have sex without reproducing. Whenever that day comes, the lifelong gambit of sexual desire becomes akin to a drug addiction. I think people should have the choice to become addicted to drugs if they want to and support a complete free market with respect to their use. However, one begins with a clear-headed, non-addicted state. Equally, perhaps sexual desire should be opt-in rather than opt-out, especially given all the frustration, and occasionally violence, it elicits? But, I digress. There is no reason to think that an appreciation for beauty would disappear were we to dampen or quash the human sex drive. Nor is there any reason to think that romantic attachments would disappear, at least in those populations that have some susceptibility to it in the first place, as the asexual community (few in number as they are) can attest to.13
Our appreciation for the artistic aesthetic, painting and so on, would still be with us. The neurological bases of aesthetic experience are only incompletely understood, but several core factors have been proposed. One of them is the preference for symmetry, a property of some objects that remain invariant through a variety of transformations (e.g. mirroring). Some of the most blissful experiences on psychedelic drugs involve the transformation of natural environments into elaborate super-symmetrical formations: seeing tessellating patterns in grass or floor tiles, etc.14 The drugs seem to trip the brain into opening up this “pleasure pathway” which is far less salient during normal (non-altered) states of consciousness, probably because the visual system has a much longer period of “pre-processing” than others such as the auditory system. Indeed, it has been hypothesised by some that the aesthetically pleasurable properties of music, harmony and consonance, represent “symmetry over time” as an analogue to the symmetry processed by the visual system.15 It certainly makes more sense than the “natural sounds” interpretation of the evolution of music, since one is not likely to have heard electronic synthesisers on the African savannah a million years ago, yet many people do find listening to them enjoyable.
Perhaps “naturalistic” explanations do have some merit, though. People tend to rate curved shapes as more aesthetic than angular shapes, all else being equal, and the former is evidently more common in nature.16 Equally, there is a theory called the “processing fluency” theory of aesthetic pleasure, which postulates that aesthetic experience is rooted in the ease and speed with which the brain is able to process the information it absorbs.17 This applies in the domain of human interpersonal relations, too: why else would it be that people refer to attractive persons as “easy on the eyes”? This coheres with recent work done on visual “sparseness” as a component of facial attractiveness.18 Note also that curves and smooth textures, which are symmetrical and do not break up the field of vision, feature more prominently on women’s bodies than men’s. The cues of male physical attractiveness tend to be performative signals, e.g. muscle mass which is a cue of strength, and facial angularity and size of fighting ability, whereas the cues of female physical attractiveness are cues to elicit performative actions from others (males): provision, protection, mindless adoration, etc. This might also go some way to explaining why homosexual men, at least in popular culture, are associated with a high degree of facial neoteny, and also why male homosexuality seems to require a novel form of neural processing: their brains have structural differences which distinguish them from both women and heterosexual men.19
Given all this, what would an aesthetically optimised humanity look like? Ceteris paribus, it seems they would look more like women both facially and bodily. There may also be ethical reasons to promote greater facial neoteny (femininity) in humans. It is generally well known, for example, that it is harder to hold those of highly neotenised features to account for crimes because they are perceived as inherently unthreatening.20 One possible way to remedy this inequality would be to make everyone look hyper-masculine, but unfortunately, this would be tantamount to making everyone physically hideous. Neoteny is the safer and more peaceable option anyway, given its associations with prosociality, pair-bonding, parenting, and less violent forms of conflict resolution. In fact, it is already established that men’s craniofacial masculinity has declined over the aeons as a result of powerful selection in advanced societies against what we now call antisocial behaviour and reactive aggression.21 If we continue to do this, craniofacial masculinity will decline yet further. Making everyone neotenous and “pretty,” in combination with other genetic tweaks, will probably render us more monogamous and bird-like in our mating behaviour, especially when corrective surgery and genetic engineering get to the stage where literally every person can be physically beautiful. Law enforcement entities will presumably have to get wise to the psychological biases of neoteny lest they end up with an essentially lawless population, although that will also be less of a problem if selection against genetic antisociality goes ahead.
Some might worry that high muscle mass is essential to keeping things like standing armies, but I would not worry too much about that either: gene doping, once it becomes a reality, should allow persons to decide their level of physical strength (or potentiality thereto) situationally and at their whim.22 And if reproduction takes place primarily in extra-uterine environments, one imagines that sexual characteristics such as the genitalia, or female breasts, will become basically ornamental and optional.
Future humans may have good reason to desire more masculine or male-typical features as well, especially in the brain. Low(er) neuroticism would probably be helpful to modern humans, since not even the most physically vulnerable members of our species, infants, are in much danger these days. Also, I suspect that the so-called “systemising and empathising” continuum between male and female brains is nothing of the sort. The psychological construct “empathising” is just a rhetorical analogue of the already established personality trait “agreeableness,” known to be higher in women, and high-IQ women are interested in systems, just different ones from those which men like.23 Namely, intelligent men tend to go into physics, mathematics, and engineering, because they are more likely to be math-tilted in their ability profiles, whereas the fields of science for which most hypotheses are essentially verbal in nature, psychology and biology, appeal more to high-verbal or high-math-and-verbal women.24 The “hyper-focus” of some males which enables them to spend decades plugging away all day every day on the same mathematical problem is almost certainly a function of wiring differences between the sexes in the mesolimbic dopamine system, the seat of desire. All these disparities are amenable to change with genes, electrodes, or drugs, if one so desires it.
The prosocial and other glowing moral qualities that people more readily attribute to beautiful faces than ugly faces will be less deceptive by far once humanity is aesthetically, intellectually, and morally optimised – if it is. The logical trend is towards a neo-humanity of “Corvus Axolotlus,” the “Crow-Axolotl,” crows being a monogamous pair-bonding bird species, and axolotls being hyper-neotenised amphibians. At least, it is one respectable vision of our “transhuman” future.
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