[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.
High and mighty
(A spot of talk-talk while I sort out the trouble with the carousel).
Much recent work in evolutionary psychology has been dedicated to heritable aspects of aesthetics. The basic theory is perfectly sensible: a good aesthetic sense allows us to choose wholesome food, safe environment, and good sexual partners. Controlled tests bear the theory out: preferences in the appearance of people, foods and locales are consistent with health and safety (clear skin indicates good health, good hair — good nutrition, resounding voice — few parasites, etc.). The girl above (Cecilia Gallerani, by Leonardo, once owned by family, now normally in a state museum in Kraków, today temporarily in London) ticks off all the boxes. One would expect therefore that pleasing art would share the abstract characteristics of this portrait: that it would be clear like her skin, shiny like her hair, balanced like her facial features, fine like her hands, calm like her mind.
Considered in this light, the aforementioned Warsaw exhibition of really ugly modern painting seems an aesthetic aberration: its images, surfaces and colors are of disease, death, and decay. My own reaction to it — revulsion — is perfectly in line with theory: theoretically speaking, no one should like it. Theoretically, the show is impossible.
But there is a wrinkle: humans are more complex than the theory suggests.
For instance, those knowledgeable in the matter (somehow, they usually happen to be women 50+) will tell you that so-so-looking, trashy-dressed girls have more admirers than well-groomed great beauties, and not because the former seem the more desirable breeding material, or because they seem safer as sexual partners — indeed, controlled tests tell us the opposite is the case — but because… they seem more accessible.
The simple truth is that average guys (and there are a lot of them) are obliged to be realistic and cannot afford to squander their resources on chimeric pursuits for (the very few) fantastic girls whom they can never hope to score. (Indeed, such girls attract verbal hostility, they are said to be “on a pedestal”, “high and mighty”, etc). For this reason, sexually most productive dressing strategy is abnegation: it does not matter whether the low-rider jeans reveal anything pretty, their purpose is to advertise readiness and, since readiness is generally taken to be counter-proportional to looks/worth, it is better if they do not actually reveal anything pretty! Ugly low-rider easily outscores prim beauty 10:1!
In short, evolutionary aesthetics theorists have missed the obvious fact that experimentally isolated aesthetic experiments are one thing, and actual tactical choices another: one’s actual aesthetic inclinations reflect one’s self-perception. Lodovico Sforza (the tyrant of Milan) liked Cecilia Gallerani (of above) because he could. Most men are not in his lucky position; they must like what they can.
I am not sure whether this explains why shows like the aforementioned Warsaw show take place, but it does explain why such shows offend me. And literally, they do: the show’s custodians, in showing me these works and expecting me to like them, make it plain that in their eyes I am not good enough to like/aim higher. They are saying, for the likes of you, this is sufficient. They are slighting me.
As if to illustrate my point about discourse in modern art, last night PR2 broadcast a report on a mammoth show of modern Polish painting in Warsaw. Its curator spoke long, fast, and using a lot of impressive jargon. Among the pearls of her delivery was a – er – defintion? description? – of painting which went:
“Painting is an means of reflecting on life, on materials in our life, substances which accompany our life; it is a way of ordering nature, understanding social interdependencies and personal relationships; it reflects individual consciousness; it is a reflection of self perception, a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it; one can say therefore that as a discipline, painting is communication-oriented, reality-identity-oriented; in fact one can say that painting is a tradition of constant repetition of the world.”
Now: note that – as per my 7th essay on Thai Matmee – among all the things that modern art critics tell us modern painting is, one thing painting is not is applying pigment to a surface in order to elicit aesthetic rapture.
Indeed, within the four lines of her – description? – the speaker, Mrs S (who was apparently quoting from a highly regarded book by a recently deceased leading Polish art critic, Janusz Jaremowicz) illustrated two other points which my 7th essay on Matmee has suggested about modern art discourse: 1) that it does not pick out the activity it pretends to define (painting is no more “ a way of interacting with the world, of being absorbed by it and absorbing it” than eating bananas is); and that 2) it toys with jargon for the sake of toying with it (“painting is reality-identity-oriented” sounds great but means exactly nothing).
A less charitable commentator – say, Jacques Barzun – might make two further observations about Mrs S’s – expose? – : first that if the high-school pupil is not told that his teacher is outraged by nonsense, that pupil’s education will fail; and that (apparently) the best a renowned Polish modern art critic (e.g. the aforementioned Jaremowicz) can do is slavishly imitate the jargon emanating from America. Not only is Polish painting derivative (as the show illustrates), but so is Polish criticism of it.
Another commentator, perhaps one soaring over Poland like a great spy drone at several thousand meters, might comment further that the only valuable and interesting development in Polish cultural life of the moment is the movement to publish at last in the country the literary works of authors who had written in exile between1939 and 1981, men like Miłosz, Herling-Grudziński, Stempowski, Bobkowski: erudite and polished in the old way, eloquent, but above all autonomously, originally, clearly thinking men. The irony of this development is that these men, all of them born before 1920 and all of them now dead, appear to be just about the only original and interesting voices in Poland today. I am not sure what is more responsible for the devastation of Polish intellectual life: the various ethnic, class, Nazi and communist purges and brain washings over the last century; or the post-independence rush to copy wholesale the New Big Brother in all things. But a devastation it is.
Two words about the works displayed at the show: first, they are nearly every one of them depressingly derivative of their American models (it is not the case that, as the curator claims, X was responding to Y in some sort of creative dialogue; rather, the case is that X was simply knocking off American painter A while Y was knocking off American painter B; any apparent dialogue between X and Y is just that: apparent; a mere shadow of the interaction between A and B, if indeed there was any at all); and, second, that they are nearly all relentlessly ugly: they sport unbalanced compositions with scratchy, messy, unfinished surfaces in either depressingly dull or shocking colors intentionally selected to evoke associations of disease and decomposition. Where figurative elements appear, they seem to suggest physical deformity and/or mental disease. But not all: as if to illustrate how open-minded I am, there were two paintings there I was able to like. Not enough to want to hang them in my bedroom; or to make up for the profound psychological disturbance the visit to the show has caused me; but well enough to claim the point. Clearly, I am not disliking things merely because they are modern or because they are part of the show.
This presents me with a huge intellectual dilemma: is it really possible that the people who produce this stuff and the people who avidly collect it and show it in exhibitions actually like it? I suppose they must, because to assume otherwise would be to call them deluded (somewhat along the lines of The Emperor’s New Clothes). Such an interpretation would not necessarily be theoretically impossible (marketing studies of taste show that most consumers are not sufficiently in touch with their own perceptions to be able to say reliably what they like: this fact allows the 500 billion advertising industry to exist in the first place), but it would be… uncharitable. The charitable view, surely, is to assume that the educated and eloquent people who speak with such conviction (even if with so little purpose) about their likes do know their minds.
But if so, then I am unable to know them; their pleasure is wholly and entirely opaque to me, impenetrable like stone, and the only possible explanation for the gulf that separates their reactions from mine is that we somehow have radically different brains. Because, after all, I am a pretty open-minded fellow. I am neither racist nor agist; I am happy to let gays marry; and let murderers live forever on a life-sentence. My taste in food and clothing is eclectic and my cultural diet is rather more varied than most. Yet, no amount of staring at this stuff makes it more palatable to me; on the contrary, I only grow more uncomfortable with looking. The only explanation for my response I can think of is that I am constitutionally, congenitally prevented from appreciating colors and shapes reminiscent of physical deformity, disease, decay and death.
Which is of course precisely how brain mutations are expected to work: to produce brains which calculate in entirely different, mutually incomprehensible ways. One mutation might well produce a brain capable of understanding topology or the quantum effect; another – a brain which responds with gratifying emotions to the shapes and colors represented at the show in question. Normally, all these mutations would swim together in the population perfectly and imperceptibly intermingled; but apply an asymmetric shock and some might rise to the fore.
One does a fairly good job of isolating himself from humanity – after all to do so is the only way to survive it. But one does such a good job of it that one begins to forget that he is doing it. And thus, in the course of going about this carefully isolated life and dealing with the carefully selected few one begins to develop… a distorted picture of humanity: men (and women) begin to seem more reasonable and more decent than they in fact are. Mankind in general begins to seem well-made enough, sometimes even worthwhile.
It is a sampling error.
Because then one does something which exposes him to humanity in general, such as put his house up for sale: to view this house all sorts come, not just the carefully preselected lot to which one has heretofore limited himself; invariably discussions follow touching upon the personal – the choice of bathtub; or where one has located the light switches; and progress to the complicated: terms, prices, money; and then one begins to realize that all is not well; worse: that much is outright wrong.
And then one remembers again what one has known but has carefully forgotten: that although our brains are a result of natural selection and fit our contingencies fairly well, they continue to evolve, which means to mutate, and that mutations are random, some for the better and some for the worse, and that many of the mutations for the worse are not critical, which is to say they continue to function, or rather malfunction – function badly, with many mistakes, but nevertheless somehow manage; and that as the defects are internal, one cannot tell from just looking that there is something wrong; that the brain is in fact a production failure, a reject; and that – were it an industrial product it would have been scrapped without ever seeing the light of day; one has to in fact engage that brain in some task, such as that of trading a house, to discover that it’s not working, that inputs do not result in rational outputs, and that outputs are rubbish.
But then one looks around to see how people live – the housing they find acceptable, the life partners they take on, the ideals they commit themselves to, their biographies, their financial decisions and it all suddenly makes sense: we live in a world populated by – and mostly run by – defective brains.
Happy New Year.
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 image: upper 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.