Hot or Not?: Genes vs. Culture & Taste

Culture and individual taste do not play large roles in who people consider attractive.

[update added]

At least according to Nancy Etcoff in her book . Here’s a portion of the sub-chapter entitled Universal Beauty:

Despite racism, misperceptions, and misunderstandings, people have always been attracted to people of other races. Today the world is a global community where international beauty competitions have enormous followings (although many complain that these contests favor Western ideals of beauty). There must be some general understanding of beauty, however vaguely defined, since even three-month-old infants prefer to gaze at faces that adults find attractive, including faces of people from races they had not previously been exposed to. In recent years scientists have taken a deep interest in the universality of beauty.

It turns out that people in the same culture agree strongly about who is beautiful and who is not. In 1960 a London newspaper published pictures of twelve young women’s faces and asked its readers to rate their prettiness. There were over four thousand responses from all over Britain, from all social classes and from ages eight to eighty. This diverse group sent in remarkably consistent ratings. A similar study done five years later in the United States had ten thousand respondents who also showed a great deal of agreement in their ratings. The same result has emerged under more controlled conditions in psychologists’ laboratories. People firmly believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and then they jot down very similar judgments.

Our age and sex have little influence on our beauty judgments. As we have seen, three-month-old babies gaze longer at faces that adults find attractive. Seven-year-olds, twelve-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, and adults do not differ significantly in their ratings of the attractiveness of the faces of children and adults. Women agree with men about which women are beautiful. Although men think they cannot judge another man’s beauty, they agree among themselves and with women about which men are the handsomest.

Although the high level of agreement within cultures may simply reflect the success of Western media in disseminating particular ideals of beauty, cross-cultural research suggests that shared ideals of beauty are not dependent on media images. Perhaps the most far-reaching study on the influence of race and culture on judgements of beauty was conducted by anthropologists Douglas Jones and Kim Hill, who visited two relatively isolated tribes, the Hiwi Indians of Venezuela and the Ache Indians of Paraguay, as well as people in three Western cultures. The Ache and the Hiwi lived as hunters and gatherers until the 1960s and have met only a few Western missionaries and anthropologists. Neither tribe watches television, and they do not have contact with eachother: the two cultures have been developing independently for thousands of years. Jones and Hill found that all five cultures had easily tapped local beauty standards. A Hiwi tribesman was as likely to agree with another tribesman about beauty as one American college student was with another. Whatever process leads to a consensus within a culture does not depend on dissemination of media images.

Cross-cultural studies have been done with people in Australia, Austria, England, China, India, Japan, Korea, Scotland, and the United States. All show that there is significant agreement among people of different races and different cultures about which faces they consider beautiful, although agreement is stronger for faces of the same race as the perceiver.

In the Jones and Hill study, people in Brazil, the United States, and Russia, as well as the Hiwi and Ache Indians, were presented a multiracial, multicultural set of faces (Indian, African-American, Asian-American, Caucasians, mixed-race Brazilian, and others). There was significant agreement among the five cultures in their beauty ratings and some differences. For example the Hiwi and the Ache agreed more with each other than they did with people in Western cultures. This is not because they share a culture – they don’t – but because they have similar facial features, and they are sensitive to the degree of similarity between their facial features and the features of the people in the photographs. For example, although the Ache had never met an Asian person, they were curious about the Asian-American faces, attracted to them, and aware of a similarity between these faces and their own. The Ache gave less favorable ratings overall to African-American faces, and they called the Caucasian anthropologists “pyta puku”, meaning longnose, behind their backs. One Caucasian anthropologist was given the nickname “anteater”.

Since the Hiwi and the Ache had never encountered Asians and Africans, had met only a few Caucasians, and were not accustomed to using the scientists rating scales, any level of agreement with the Western cultures is intriguing. Jones found a number of points of agreement. People in all five cultures were attracted to similar geometric proportions in the face. They liked female faces with small lower faces (delicate jaws and relatively small chins) and eyes that were large in relation to the length of the face. Jones called these “exaggerated markers of youthfulness”, and they are similar to the features mentioned in other cross-cultural studies of beauty. For example psychologist Michael Cunningham found that beautiful Asian, Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean, and Caucasian women had large, widely spaced eyes, high cheekbones, small chins and full lips.

People tend to agree about which faces are beautiful, and to find similar features attractive across ethnically diverse faces. The role of individual taste is far more insignificant than folk wisdom would have us believe.

Pages 137-139. Inspired by a conversation in this thread.

Update: These evo psych primers for male and female mate preferences are two of my favorite research summaries on the web (from this worthwhile lecture series). The former one adds:

Within and between cultures, individuals may display variance in response to specific features, but will respond in a similar manner to the features as a whole. We should thus expect similar judgements in response to attractive/unattractive faces. They presented males from 4 ethnic-cultural groups in 13 countries with Asian, black, Hispanic, and white female faces. The average correlation between racial groups in their rating of attractiveness was r = .93, exposure to Western media had no influence on the ratings. Males in all cultures were attracted to female faces displaying large eyes, small noses, high cheekbones, small chin and a large smile; body shape preferences did differ though with black males preferring ‘heavier’ bodies.

Previous related discussions (that may return some day): Mirror, Mirror . . . , Who is the fairest of them all?, Black Beauty, “Black” chicks, Blondes do have more fun, Blondes & babies , Eurasians.

Posted by Jason Malloy at 04:20 PM

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I'm not well read

Abiola points me to the list below of “Great Books.” Not surprisingly, I’ve hardly read any of them (the ones I have are in bold), and most of that is due to high school English teachers. When I read fiction, I read genre “literature” (to my girlfriends’ chagrin), and Cosma summarizes my reasoning well….

Also, how come Beowulf, The Iliad Homer and The Odyssey are on the list, but the King James Bible isn’t?

Update: Check out Michael Blowhard’s list.

Author – Title

Achebe, Chinua – Things Fall Apart
Agee, James – A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane – Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James – Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel – Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul – The Adventures of Augie March
Brontë, Charlotte – Jane Eyre
Brontë, Emily – Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert – The Stranger
Cather, Willa – Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey – The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton – The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate – The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph – Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore – The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen – The Red Badge of Courage
Dante – Inferno
de Cervantes, Miguel – Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel – Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles – A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor – Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore – An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre – The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George – The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph – Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo – Selected Essays
Faulkner, William – As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William – The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry – Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott – The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave – Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox – The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von – Faust
Golding, William – Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas – Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel – The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph – Catch 22
Hemingway, Ernest – A Farewell to Arms
Homer – The Iliad
Homer – The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor – The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale – Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous – Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik – A Doll’s House
James, Henry – The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry – The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz – The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong – The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair – Babbitt
London, Jack – The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas – The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel García – One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman – Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman – Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur – The Crucible
Morrison, Toni – Beloved
O’Connor, Flannery – A Good Man is Hard to Find
O’Neill, Imbler – Long Day’s Journey into Night
Orwell, George – Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris – Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia – The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan – Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel – Swann’s Way
Pynchon, Thomas – The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria – All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond – Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry – Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. – The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William – Hamlet
Shakespeare, William – Macbeth
Shakespeare, William – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare, William – Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard – Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary – Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon – Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles – Antigone
Sophocles – Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John – The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis – Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher – Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Swift, Jonathan – Gulliver’s Travels
Thackeray, William – Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David – Walden
Tolstoy, Leo – War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan – Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire – Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. – Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice – The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith – The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora – Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt – Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee – The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia – To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard – Native Son

Posted by razib at 12:33 PM

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"Hard Seculars" vs. "Cultural Creatives"

A few quick off-the-cuff observations to follow-up on my post The “Secular” Party. As I note, outright god(s)-deniers/doubters are a small minority within the liberal/Left/non-traditional/non-religious sector of the American demographic. Socializing with people on the Left part of the political spectrum, Blue America that is, you can discern some of the divisions if you look for them.

I suspect that a large number of the people who would be characterized as part of the “Secular” coalition are the , in other words, the descendants of the 1960s counter-culture. Many of these people would disavow the appellation “religious,” but would embrace “spiritual.” From my own personal experience those who identify as atheists or agnostics avoid the term “spiritual,” and though there exists a modus vivendi with the “Cultural Creatives,” we (atheists & agnostics) tend to look at them much as the coporate elite of the Republican party might look at the social conservative foot-soldiers-political allies, but not totally all there.

The chasm between “Cultural Creatives” and genuine seculars, who I will call “Hard Seculars,” is more salient than conservatives might imagine. For example:

The majority of “Hard Seculars” are male, while the majority of “Cultural Creatives” are female. This impacts the general tenor of both cultures, the former will debate, the latter will dialogue, the former will breakdown and analyze, the latter will want a “holistic” or “synoptic” impression.
“Hard Seculars” have no respect for “the sacred,” no cows are holy. In contrast, “Cultural Creatives” have a tendency to sacralize everything around them, leading to a thorough environmentalism. While “Hard Seculars” might be environmentalists from a hard-headed cost vs. benefit angle, “Cultural Creative” ecological awareness is rooted in spiritual values.
“Hard Seculars” have explicit values, axioms and enjoy propositional logic, and this results in a lot of clash with other groups. “Cultural Creatives” are in many ways counter-cultural traditionalists who prefer intuition and implicit truths. In other words, “Cultural Creatives” want the “simple life” without its hangups (patriarchy and puritanism).

All of the above are fuzzy on the edges, but I think people can recognize the generalities of which I speak. In the final analysis, I think “Cultural Creatives,” or the broad spiritual majority of the “Secular Coalition,” are a genuine cultural force with their own internal system of values and ways of interacting and speaking. They are a feminist-liberal counterpoint to evangelical/traditional Christians in the United States. On the other hand, “Hard Seculars” are peculiar oddballs, and don’t really have numbers to create a mass movement, rather, they are the aggregate of individuals one end of the bell curve of “spirituality” who act as an annoying reality-check on flights of fancy.

There are few specific issues that I think that “Cultural Creative” and “Hard Secular” values clash. For example, biotechnology. Here the “Cultural Creatives” are Rifkinesque and have a Romantic aversion to tampering with Nature, while “Hard Seculars” are strictly consequentialist. While reason guides the “Hard Seculars,” the heart is the compass of the “Cultural Creatives.”

Some of these issues are pre-figured in The Politics of Architecture, a piece that points to peculiar socio-political confluences in American life.

Posted by razib at 03:12 AM

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Scholarship competitions & cymru genes

Check out Global Beauties, some sort of pan-pageant site. Lots of “news” and of course pictures, pictures, pictures….

Here is a fluffy piece about Welsh beauty genes. I remember the first time I saw Catherine Zeta-Jones, it was the summer of 1998, and was walking through the living room of my apartment in college, and my doped out roommate was passed out on the floor. Then I saw a T.V. advert. for The Mask of Zorro, and wondered who that Mexican chick that put Salma Hayek to shame was (that is, C.Z.J.).

Update: Poll below on who is hotter, Salma Hayek or Catherine Zeta-Jones….

Image comparison: C.Z.J. Salma Hayek (highly recommended for an informed decision!).

Who is Hotter? Salma Hayek vs. Catherine Zeta-Jones!
Salma Hayek
Catherine Zeta-Jones
Too hot to tell
Free polls from

Posted by razib at 01:03 PM

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Italian "Creationists"

A press article on the “ban” on teaching evolution to primary & secondary school kids. Though I think it’s good to get the general paradigm in your head, it seems some people who oppose the ban are being a little over-dramatic (Italians, over-dramatic, no!), for instance, one scientist asserted “…that waiting until high school to teach the concepts of evolutionary theory could be too late” (evolution will continue be taught in high school). This isn’t like learning a language.

Posted by razib at 07:50 PM

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Fellow Travellers

Over at VDARE The Derb asks:

Why is a Second Amendment supporter much more likely than not to favor restrictions on abortion, when guns and fetuses are completely different things? The answer, of course, is that both opinions have a common source in the psyche. They are both particular expressions of a general cast of mind.

Well, Robert Caldiani has done a lot of work on “persuasion,” and one thing that is important is that if you like someone that wants to convince you about something, the sell is a lot easier (duh!?!?), so no matter the rational and intuitional correlates that Derb refers to, the fact that person X & Y are friends, and X & Y agree on Z, means that Y is much more likely to go along with X on position point A if X is hard-core about it. More starkly stated, a Blue State American will be more easily convinced about the non-looniness of immigration reform by Roy Beck than Sam Francis. A Red State American is going to be less hostile to an illegal alien amnesty coming from G. W. Bush than if Bill Clinton tried to sell them on it. As they say, Nixon could make peace with China because he had the Cold War bonafides.

(the reverse principle works, which is why Frontpage Mazine enjoys trying to connect The Left to Nazism)

Posted by razib at 12:42 PM

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DNA: another twist

In my post DNA: a new twist? I mentioned that forensic science services in Britain were extending their techniques for DNA ‘fingerprinting’.

The London Daily Telegraph today (28 April) mentions another new development under the headline ‘Serial rapist’s DNA is traced to West Indies’. A serial burglar and rapist has been operating in the London area for about 12 years, breaking into the homes of elderly women, robbing them, and sometimes raping or assaulting them. As he wears a mask and attacks in the dark, the victims have been unable to describe him.

However, DNA samples have now been identified as of West Indian (Caribbean) origin, using markers of genetic ancestry. (The press report doesn’t give details, but presumably this uses mito or Y-chromosome DNA.)

Well, at least that narrows the suspects down to about 250,000 people…

Posted by David B at 03:21 AM

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Evolutionary psychology at work

A few months ago I put in a plug for Scott Atran’s new book, [1], but I didn’t realize that he has tried to get some of his ideas applied. Here is an abstract of an op-ed that he wrote after the Madrid bombings where he argues that we are not facing an ideological superstructure, but a de-centralized movement that taps into normal psychological needs. The idea that Al Qaeda isn’t centralized isn’t new, but Atran has a background in suicide bomber psychology research, and he argues that the phenomena isn’t manifestation of socio or psycho pathology, but rather, it is drawing upon banal but evolutionarily derived needs (for instance, community). These conclusions are unoriginal, but they now stand on many pillars (that is, from sociology, anthropology, historiography, etc.).

[1] For other perspectives on religion, I suggest (dry, rational choice) and l (tenditious group selectionism + functionalism, but interesting).

Posted by razib at 03:16 PM

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The "Secular Party"

First Things has an article up that argues that the Democratic is informed by a “Secular” paradigm, just as the Republicans are now the party of traditional Christians. Two points:

1) There’s “Secular,” and then there is secular. I’ve never seen a survey that indicates more than 5% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, usually only 1-2% will identify with those labels. So the “Secular” term is actually a larger catchall, and as the authors of the First Things article state, seculars have “overarching religious worldview of their own.” Rather than defining them in terms of a negation of a “religious” worldview (that is, traditional Christianity), perhaps it would be better to reconceptualize the “secular” outlook as a liberal neo-pagan[1] spiritual sensibility (most Americans who say they have “no religion” do believe in God or some “Higher Power”).

2) The Beliefnet blog points out that they neglect African-American Christians, who are the large evangelical block in the Democratic Party.

[1] I say “pagan” because in a Christian monotheistic culture, many of the spiritual values espoused by non-trads, pluralism, syncretism, immanent theism and nature worship, superficially resemble ancient pre-Christian European paganism.

Posted by razib at 01:32 PM

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