Concerning the female ankle and… the rise of a new species of man

[an essay on ankles, part 3 of 3]

The chief breakthrough of evolutionary psychology in the field of aesthetics is the concept of inherited taste preference. This is the idea that a preference is to some extent inborn: which you know from first hand experience: there are some preferences that you just can’t do anything about. I happen not to like guys – and no amount of persuasion has been able to change that in the past. I also don’t like konyaku and although through adventurous experimentation I have been able to overcome initial resistance to many other unfamiliar foods, no amount of experimentation has been able to change the fact that the very sight of konyaku makes me retch. The truth is that when you really don’t like something, sometimes you just cannot change your mind about it no matter how hard you try.

Ev-psychs explain that the way such a fixed taste arises is this: first, a totally random mutation (basically, copying mistake) in the DNA of a new fetus allows a new structure to arise in the brain of the child and thereby creates a new, previously unheard of taste preference; and then, selection (i.e. the vicissitudes of subsequent life) makes sure that if the mutation is beneficial (e.g. preference for some kind of safe food), it gets passed on to the offspring (because its owner lives long and prospers eating that food); but if the mutation is harmful (e.g. preference for red, white-spotted mushrooms), it does not (i.e. the person with the preference dies without issue).

The two corollaries of this theory are 1) that mutation has not stopped happening: our reproductive system has not changed in millennia and it still makes mistakes as it always has; and therefore people with odd preferences continue to be born everyday (you might know some of them personally: think of all those Bon Jovi fans); and 2) that the complexity of the human environment and its frequent change allow for a number of different life-strategies to function side by side (and therefore a number of different preferences); hence some like it hot and others cold. (And each can thrive: one in the tropics, the other in the Arctic).

And this is fine: we live in a world in which different folks like different things and that only makes the world more interesting (and my favorite sections of the museum uncrowded).

The situation gets complicated when the preference in question has to do with what ev-psychs call “mate selection” (“love”). The ankle is the case in point: a lot of people with an anke-hang up (like yours truly) actually have a good ankle themselves. They don’t like a good ankle because they have it; rather, they like a good ankle because their ancestors have liked a good ankle and have passed on the preference to them; and they have a good ankle because their ancestors, liking a good ankle, have been able to “acquire it” through breeding. In other words: the ancestors passed on the preference (taste) along with the feature (ankle). (Spare a thought for those of us who inherit a preference but not the corresponding feature and have to look in the mirror every day when they shave).

This phenomenon – that preference for a feature leads to its acquisition – is the source of a lot of “speciation”. A species is defined as category of animals (or plants) who are able to breed with each other (i.e. produce viable offspring) and “speciation” is the process by which a new species appears.  Horses and donkeys can breed but the resulting cross, the mule, is sexually inert, so horses and donkeys are different species.

But some animal species turn out not to be species at all: all North American songbirds are perfectly capable of breeding with each other and producing perfectly viable offspring. Such birds (say a gold-finch/nut-hatch cross) have been produced by mad/evil scientists. But they do not happen in nature. Why? Because the preference for a gold breast is passed on along with the feature: a gold-finch female looks at a house-finch male and simply does not see him. Or perhaps, like you and me, she does see him and thinks that his chest is a pretty good shade of red. But she just will not “do” him. So gold-finches and house-finches are still a single “species” in fact, but not in practice. Which means that mutations might appear and spread in the gold-finch which will never “transfer” to house-finches and vice-versa; give it a few hundred thousand – or perhaps a million – years and enough such mutations can arise and spread to actually create two different species: two types of song-birds which can no longer mate with each other to produce viable offspring.

What happens here is that at first you have a preference; then the preference and the feature begin to correspond; then they become a kind of barrier to breeding outside of the feature; and eventually, they become a basis for the rise of a new species.

Think about it next time someone whose ankle you don’t like all that much is trying to sleep with you.

More concering the female ankle — or what Evolutionary Psychologists and Aesthetic Theorists could learn from Marketing Research

Part 2 of 3

[With Sir C’s forebearance]

This research paper says ankles are among the body features least paid attention to by potential sexual partners. Like all such papers by evolutionary psychologists, it fails to address the question no marketing researcher would ever overlook: does the aggregate data in fact obstruct the structure of the phenomenon (“market”)? That is to say, does aesthetic interest in ankles define a certain population — one among whom the ankle is a significant item? (Perhaps even “the most significant”?).

This writer’s self-observation suggests: yes.

If so, then comes the crunch question: if so, then what else is unique about this sub-group? Surely, they are not all balding six-foot-five, paper-skinned descendants of East European gentry with a strong interest in martial arts, European opera, glazed pottery, and Japanese classics? And if not — are there any features they share? And significantly: not just taste features — i.e. “all ankle lovers prefer blonds” (clearly not true)– but “do all ankle-lovers have ankles themselves?” or: “do all ankle-lovers happen to have an extra-long middle finger in the right hand?”) The marketer will also want to know — I should say chiefly want to know — how to reach them — what media they watch, what magazines they read, etc.

Can you see what I am driving at? Taste as a hidden structure of humanity!

In my view, Evolutionary Psychologists, like aestheticists (and all academics in general), would benefit greatly from a course or two in marketing research. For instance, publications of the World Coffee Council would teach them that:

a) the entire coffee-drinker population in the world can be divided into several very specific groups (fewer than ten) — with respect to the particular coffee flavor each group prefers;

b) that members of those groups are found all over the world — but not evenly; they are in fact spread lumpily: for instance, the preference for a coffee taste described by professional tasters as “burnt rubber” shows up all over the globe, even in (still) mostly coffee-less China, but is a significant plurality in only two nations on earth: Poland and the UK (strong stuff, eh?); not the majority, mind you, as in “50% +1”; but significant plurality, meaning the largest of the many minorities, one usually large enough to dictate its tastes to others (it determines what gets put on supermarket shelves);

c) each such group consists, in different proportions, of a hard-core (can’t sell them a milky cappucino if their life depended on it) ; and hangers on (can drink any coffee, generally prefer burnt rubber, but happy to try whatever everyone else is having at the moment); the hangers on can be sold a different product, the hard-core — only once;

d) the special gifts required to make a coffee-taster (a natural gift is required followed by intensive training) disqualify a person from telling you what they like: people who have tasted a great deal of coffee often can’t make up their mind and, in private, actually turn out to be tea- or juice-drinkers; or else consume such a wide variety of coffees that they do not fall into any of the broad categories themselves; in other words, the process of training an expert, both sharpens ones taste and, in a sense, ruins it.

It is my hunch, based on years of conducting marketing research, that not only does the taste in ankles, but the tastes in opera and painting and architecture run the same way: many islands of mutually incompatible, probably hard-wired taste-preferences (“Ankles!” “Boobs!”); and between them a sea of hangers on, who happen to say they like X because their mother did, or their girlfriend does, and have some familiarity with it and some sentiment for it, but who really don’t have anything that could be called taste of their own (“I used to like candy but now like booze”); and swimming within this sea: “experts” — near-omnivores, seeing everything, baffled by it all, and never understood by anyone else who cannot imagine what it is like to know more than they do.

The remarkable disappearance of the female ankle

Part 1 of 3

[Once again, we interrupt the usual programming, to bring you our recent reflections of the Sir-C-hates-to-read’em variety]

The sudden arrival of summer has caused the fair sex to drop excess clothing and appear before us (nearly) as nature has made them. And nature has made them, it would appear — incredibly! — without the — talocrural joint — sans the synovial hinge — sine angulus, in short — nature has made them — ankleless!

The aesthete’s eye is amazed to see that by and large the human female leg does not, after all, appear to sport the narrow waist of his imagination — as the divinely-shaped, and heavenly-delicious porcine trotter does; but instead the female foot appears to connect directly to the calf, without any attempt at defined ligature, or modulation; in the style of the Doric column, the Egyptian pylon, the pachyderm leg, or the modern parking-lot carrying support-column. Can this be possible? To explain his misconception, the aesthete has gone back to search the various Roman and Renaissance Venuses and to his surprise has discovered that among them, too, the ankle is — notably missing. (Unbelievable, but true).  (See above).

Now, the aesthete knows form personal experience — observation of several significant others — that, in principle, the female ankle does exist; but he is now compelled to admit that it would appear to be a commodity in severe shortage.

His fetish — if that’s what it is — the aesthete does not spend excessive amounts of time slobbering over his significant other’s ankles; but he will generally and instantly lose interest in anyone shown to lack a well-turned one — isn’t his alone: he remembers others commenting on women’s ankles — fine-ankled Rajasthani upper-class women; deftly-brushed Edo-era floating-world habitues — and wonders why such an interest should exist. Clearly, fine ankles are far more rare than agreeable faces — could it be that a good ankle is harder to make? Is a fine ankle and indication of good carpentry — a better tool for running and jumping? (Desirable for one’s offspring). Or is it the opposite — that an unsightly ankle is an indication of bad health? (A swollen ankle is the one most obvious indication of circulation problems).

As many aesthetic preferences do, the ankle-interest appears to have speciating effects: those who pay attention to ankles appear to have good ankles themselves!


[Incidentally, while looking for an illustration for this post I discovered that the category of photo which could be described as “a female ankle unuglified by some sort of an ill-conceived tattoo” appears to have gone extinct; closer inspection revealed that all those photos sported non-ankles; presumably the tattoo was there as a form of disguise].


[It is hard to suspect Greek sculptors and Italian Renaissance painters of not having liked a good ankle; and therefore its general absence from the European cannon must be explained by the Annibale Carracci Phenomenon (ACP):  among his early paintings there is an early ugly, chunky nymph, the sort amateur-porn websites call “amateur BBW” (big-beautiful-woman); “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” crowed one of the well-known art theorists about it – I can’t be bothered to remember which; and wrongly:  the story of the painting, it turns out, was that young Annibale had neither the money nor the  fame with which to attract a proper model; and the model for the painting was one of his cousins who agreed, reluctantly, to bare for free; in short, the artists do not paint what they think is beautiful; they paint what they can].

Understanding Nagai Kafu

I have been reading Nagai Kafu’s diaries with the disconcerting sensation that I am reading myself:  every thought and reaction he describes I understand instantly and fully, and to most I subscribe with both hands.

Incredibly, most writings on Nagai Kafu suggest that no one else understands him — certainly no one who writes about him does.  How else to explain a dull, dull book like Snyder’s? He certainly did not read the diaries, for if he did, he would have known that Nagai read much French literature in the original and therefore did not need to “learn” French modernism from Ogai as he suggests.  But it’s hard to blame Snyder:  the diaries, unlike the novels, are written in bungo, an old sinicized form of Japanese — this can be hard to read; and they are long:  mine — an abridged version — comes to two thousand pages.  Scholars in a hurry to publish — “publish or perish” — don’t have that kind of time, do they?  So Snyder has not read the diaries — and therefore is unaware of the central fact about Nagai Kafu.

Let me try to explain what I think is the central fact about Nagai Kafu.

The central fact about Nagai Kafu is that he was a typical scion of an upper-class feudal household living in a rapidly modernizing world in which the old way of living was at first haltingly and then ever more decisively pushed aside.  He had grown up in a well-to do house, in a family with sufficient means to dedicate themselves to the task of living a beautiful life.  In modern times people rarely have the money (our middle classes are much poorer relative to the society than the middle classes of the nineteenth century were) and almost never have the time to dedicate themselves to beautiful living:  to house decoration (say, changing the house decor to correspond to changing seasons), to clothing (such as changing several times a day), to ceremonies (meaning both large and small ceremonies, including things like paying calls or receiving guests or sending new year’s post cards), to manners, to cultivating friends, to correspondence, to eating properly, to literature or music-making or art-appreciation; with their 50+ hour work-weeks plus three-hour daily commutes they find such a life not only impossible but mainly — unimaginable. 

Yet this is the kind of life Nagai was bred into.  That life is best described, in my opinion, as aesthetic; its goal is to produce a beautiful work of art which is the person living the life.  Nagai’s most important artwork — indeed, as he grew older, his only important work of art — was his character and his life.

Economic and political changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have meant that upper class men (and women) of the old feudal system, bred to beautiful living and attempting to continue to live it, discovered that the world around them was changing in ways which they found not merely incomprehensible but downright abrasive.  Nagai discovers with shock that he no longer wishes to participate in Japan’s literary life as it becomes dominated by writers who do not know the classics (never mind actually like them!) and whose principal motivation for writing is self-promotion; he describes how his neighbors’ estates are subdivided and developed to make room for uncouth, pushy new men from the provinces and their rude children; how the old refined Floating World — staffed by classically trained geisha — gradually gives ground to grubby prostitution.  When the Great Kanto Earthquake levels the city around him, he actually rejoices that it has driven his neighbors away and sadly reflects:  “probably not for long”.  When the war with America breaks out he comments that he understand why Americans hate modern Japan because he does, too, and expresses the hope that Americans might bomb Japan’s new ugliness and vulgarity into oblivion.

I am sensitive to Nagai’s experience for two reasons:  first because it was the experience of my own grandparents to whom I was very close as I grew up. My maternal grandmother, a daughter of a very rich landowning family in the Ukraine, was driven out by the Russian Revolution, rendered penniless and forced into a social milieu in which suddenly she met as her equals people she’d never even known existed before:  the mechanical classes; yet, despite her reduced financial circumstances she strove to live the old way, to maintain the old standards of politeness and gracious living, refusing to adopt the lowlife lifestyle which she was suddenly forced to notice all around her.  I grew up watching her efforts and found them touchingly noble.

I am also sensitive to Nagai’s experience because my own experience of the reality outside my door is quite similar to his:  I have taken early retirement from my professional career because I found the people I met in its course too disagreeable to bear; I have suspended my former (“successful”) blog because I discovered that I was largely put off by the sorts of reflections great art inspired in the majority of my readers.

This sensitivity has allowed me to see people of Nagai’s sort everywhere in the world — worldwide de-feudalization means that there are Nagais everywhere if you know what to look for.  Perhaps their lot was described to me best by an elderly grand dame in New Delhi about ten years ago:  “We’re not Indians, Gauvain”, she said referring to herself and her husband, “we’re pakka sahibs” (“proper masters”).  Her new country, the one in which she had grown up and lived all her life and whose passport she was carrying no longer seemed to her like her own.  She would not admit to having any part in it.

As feudalism recedes into the past, there are ever fewer Nagais to be seen; and the younger men who grow up with the new reality do not see it — in the same manner in which fish do not see the water they swim in.  They read Nagai and miss the most important fact about him and write some excrementum bovis on sex industry as a metaphor for capitalist exploitation or sexual love as metaphor for writing.

Breeding the upper classes: why aristocrats are so prettily fine featured

Good breeding in action

Aesthetic theorists of the cultural constructivist bent have long argued that the striking similarities between the physical features of the upper classes of a nation („fine features”, „aristocratic noses”, etc.) and the „established cannons of beauty” (i.e. the way beautiful men and women are portrayed in the art of the same nation) are a result of the upper classes setting themselves up as the object of worship and imposing themselves upon their peons as the aesthetic standard de rigeur. (E.g. “I have red hair therefore red hair is beautiful”).

The theory feels intuitively correct (after all, the ruling classes do a fair bit of imposing on their peons in all sorts of other ways); as well as fair (it generously refuses to accept the possibility that the upper classes could indeed be more beautiful than their peons on average; or even appreciably different — we’re all human beings, the same, created-equal, etc.).  For both reasons, and out of plain decency, self-conscious scions of the upper classes tend to embrace it.  (E.g. Eco).

Yet, the theory has one major failing: it fails to explain why in many societies across the world the upper classes do tend to look appreciably different from the rest of their nation – and why various members of the upper class of a nation often share physical features to the extent of being able to recognize each other on sight.

The explanation for this phenomenon is as risible / outrageous as it is obvious to any animal or plant breeder: however the cultural standard of beauty may arise (perhaps they are culturally constructed; or, yet differently, simply reflect the physical appearance of the founder), once the upper class adopts that standard, it is free to pursue it.  Which it does by breeding itself in its imageupper class men marry down; since they control all power and all means of production, their only interest in females is physical attractiveness; if the upper-class men of a nation accept a standard of beauty whereby gray eyes are good, it will take only three to four generations of selective breeding (whereby they will select gray-eyed milk-maids for their breeding stock) to establish gray eyes as a prevalent physical characteristic of the upper class.  QED. 1


A corollary of this theory helps explain why many upper class members so readily and uniformly recognize/ stigmatize/ reject nouveaux riches and why they claim to be able to recognize them just by looking. Haselhuhn and Wong report2 that broad-faced men are more likely to lie and more likely to resort to violence : many nouveaux riches are in the words of the upper classes “crudely made” (by which they mean “thick-set”, “thick featured”, “roughly hewn”); their broad faces betray a tendency to aggressive self-assertion and readiness to violate established principles of social cohesion. Such features are a readily perceptible warning of danger.

If the opposite is true – that narrow faces indicate lower likelihood of resorting to lies or violence – and therefore a higher tendency to play by group rules – then it is understandable why the upper classes – whose survival rests entirely on class solidarity – would prefer such features and would actively seek to acquire / breed them into their children. It is entirely possible that the founding members of many – perhaps all – aristocratic families were broad-faced Chingiz-khans – reflecting (betraying?) their readiness to resort to lies and violence as they “pushed up”; but their descendants speedily bred that look out. Everywhere in the world the aristocrats – meaning those of old upper class stock – are described as fine featured, elongated and narrow-faced (relative to their nation).

1 My research suggests that upper-class in-breeding is relatively rare.  Rajputs — royalty of a caste and ritual-purity obsessed nation, who today marry exclusively within their caste (as did much European aristocracy by late 18th century), as recently as early 1800’s married women of all castes, including untouchables and non-Hindus.  Polish noblemen consistently married non-noble women as recently as 1750.  Endogamy appears to be an exception rather than the rule in aristocratic societies; its rise might perhaps foretells the aristocracy’s imminent downfall (or even arise as a consequence of it).

2 “Dr Haselhuhn and Dr Wong found this was the case. In both a staged negotiation using MBA students and a separate experiment in which ordinary undergraduates were given an opportunity to earn more money if they misreported the results of a series of die rolls, the two researchers found that the wider a man’s face was, compared with its height, the more likely he was to lie about his intentions (in the case of the negotiations) or cheat (in the case of the die rolls).”  Interestingly, they found no detectable width of face/ proclivity to lying correlation among women. See the original article here, or its brief summary here.