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View Full Version : Does physical beauty reside in averages ?



Maciamo
15-05-11, 09:51
I have started reading Critical Mass, by Philip Ball (http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0099457865?ie=UTF8&tag=eupedia-21&linkCode=as2&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0099457865), which is about the physics of society (application of physical and statistical laws to the behaviour of masses of people).

The second chapter relates the first attempts to understand society through mathematical laws, in particular of "social physics" of Belgian astronomer and mathematician Adolphe Quetelet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolphe_Quetelet) (1796-1874). Quetelet realised that the bell-shaped error curve (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Error_curve) in probability could be applied to demography. The 1:1 ratio between newborn boys and girls followed the statistical error curve and the law of large numbers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_large_numbers). The higher the number of births, the closer the male-to-female ratio would approach 1:1, just like the natural evening out of heads and tails when tossing a coin.

Quetelet noticed that physical characteristics, such as height or girth, were distributed along the same bell-shaped curve. Quoting from pages 77 and 78 : "Instead of regarding height differences as a characteristic feature of nature, he saw them as departures from an ideal form. These 'errors' become less prominent as greater numbers of people are taken into account. [...] This is true, Quetelet decided, not only for physical characteristics but for behaviour, since the foibles of the individual temperament average out among the tendencies of the mass. [...] Since it was clearly a desirable thing that society should 'exist and be conserved', this implied that average behaviour was the right behaviour. And so Quetelet's social physics became founded on the concept of the 'average man' (l'homme moyen), whose dimensions and physical features and also moral and aesthetic attributes represented a perfect mean to which all should aspire. To be great was to be average. [...] The idea of physical and moral perfection of humankind which is reflected in the conformity to a mathematical ideal dates back to the Renaissance; but now there existed the tools to quantify what perfection was."


It is hard for me to agree with the idea that perfection is to be found among averages. Populations aren't uniform. Averages in different countries will give different average physical features and traits of character. This is obvious enough from facial averages (http://www.faceresearch.org/) (usually from football players) often posted on this website or by Dienekes Pontikos on his blog. You can't expect a average Finn to look like an average Italian. So where does perfection lie ? The geographic boundaries of countries are also somewhat artificial (although some populations did evolve in isolation from others for longer periods of time).

Regarding character, averages will also diverge between countries. The average character of a national or ethnic group is the basis for cultural studies. It is ludicrous to think that the perfect character results from the average of all humanity. Both physical and neuro-psychological differences between ethnicities reflect in part an adaptation to the local geography and life style. Comparing ancestral populations, hunter-gatherers will need to be taller, more robust, more aggressive and have better vision and athletic abilities than farmers. Agricultural population being denser, they require people to be tamer, more sociable, but also more organised than hunter-gatherers.

There isn't one perfect average. Some differences are "errors", due to undesirable genetic mutations. But most differences have been preserved to this day through natural selection because they served a purpose, or gave its carrier an advantage over others in some situation or some milieu. This is the principle of evolution. That's why I think it is wrong to think that all humanity should aspire to the average of all of its members. Some traits of character have become dominant because they were selected during this specific population's history. And indeed new positive or desirable features often start as a minority, often as a single new mutation in one individual.

Reinaert
15-05-11, 18:26
Well.. I think physical beauty is a trick that nature has implanted in our perception.
Take a photo of a beautiful girl nowadays. Follow what an editor does with it..
At least, make the eyes a bit bigger. The nose a bit thinner. All humans are programmed to like the looks of a child.
How we look is a matter of evolution.
People from the same genetic pool seem to recognize each other, what is felt as desirable.
Or the opposite attracts more. Also a form of natural selection.

For the rest, physical beauty is very subjective.
Today the magazines portray skinny women as the standard.
With a brown taint, because that reminds of expensive beach resorts.

In the days of the painter Rubens, women were a bit fat. Because it meant they were wealthy.
Also quite pale, because that meant they didn't have to work. Again a status symbol.

So what we consider as "beauty" may differ because of our culture.

Oh, and don't forget the way people were deformed in some cultures to meet their "beauty" standards.
From little feet in China, to a very long neck in Africa.
Yes, and even today people are doing the same.. Tattoos and piercings.. Disgusting! :23:

edao
15-05-11, 19:20
Regarding character, averages will also diverge between countries. The average character of a national or ethnic group is the basis for cultural studies. It is ludicrous to think that the perfect character results from the average of all humanity.

When you think about Globalisation or Americanisation if you like, maybe it does make sense.

Is America not a melting pot of mainly European cultures and ideas, a kind of cultural averaging? You only had to watch Eurovision to see how readily people from many different nations were trying desperatly to emulate this one major 'average' culture. I think if anything the effects of globalisation show us cultural differences are fairly superficial, how much of traditional national culture has been lost in Europe over the last 100 years? Probably more than in a 1,000 years. Technology if anything is facilitating a rapid averaging of values across the globe. Which isn't a bad thing if people share common values and ideas then there is less confilct and more cooperation.

Mzungu mchagga
15-05-11, 20:49
When you think about Globalisation or Americanisation if you like, maybe it does make sense.

Is America not a melting pot of mainly European cultures and ideas, a kind of cultural averaging? You only had to watch Eurovision to see how readily people from many different nations were trying desperatly to emulate this one major 'average' culture. I think if anything the effects of globalisation show us cultural differences are fairly superficial, how much of traditional national culture has been lost in Europe over the last 100 years? Probably more than in a 1,000 years. Technology if anything is facilitating a rapid averaging of values across the globe. Which isn't a bad thing if people share common values and ideas then there is less confilct and more cooperation.

Sure! But we have to hold in mind that even the average can shift, or even has to shift and does it all the time! Just as Maciamo pointed out, the environment differs from 'space and time'. What is desirable here and now, wasn't or won't be desirable there and then. We would simply become extinct!
Of course, being average implies being the norm, which again implies being healthy! But only concentrating on a very fixed average would equal suicide, so the answer for survival would be to concentrate on a range within a norm, and toleration of outsiders from time to time.

edao
15-05-11, 21:35
fixed average would equal suicide, so the answer for survival would be to concentrate on a range within a norm

Is there such a thing as a fixed average, surely that would stop it being definable as an average? :thinking:

In politics we see averaging, we have a left wing party in power spending too much, only for a right wing party to come in and cut spending. Over all we get pulled from left to right and average somewhere around the middle.

Humans have a need to conform with others around them, I'm sure this must help contribute to a prefference for averaging?

Mzungu mchagga
15-05-11, 22:36
Well, you can calculate the average. But that doesn't mean you can ever match the average in reality. It is like meeting the facial average football player in real life who was created by 100 other players.
Yes, politics try to match the average between debating parties. Otherwise it would disturb the harmony of the people and thus create uprisings. However, as I mentioned before, environment (economical, political, scientific, society) changes, and also politics need to adjust. This can only be done by at least slightly moving away from the used average.

Maciamo
16-05-11, 08:55
When you think about Globalisation or Americanisation if you like, maybe it does make sense.

Is America not a melting pot of mainly European cultures and ideas, a kind of cultural averaging? You only had to watch Eurovision to see how readily people from many different nations were trying desperatly to emulate this one major 'average' culture. I think if anything the effects of globalisation show us cultural differences are fairly superficial, how much of traditional national culture has been lost in Europe over the last 100 years? Probably more than in a 1,000 years. Technology if anything is facilitating a rapid averaging of values across the globe. Which isn't a bad thing if people share common values and ideas then there is less confilct and more cooperation.

The USA is a giant melting pot, and people in big cities especially tend to been genetically mixed. But I do not think that American culture is an averaging of those of all the people who immigrated there. American culture is strongly inherited from the early British and German settlers, who imposed their emerging American culture on later immigrants.

Of course, some elements from other cultures were absorbed too, but often in areas that had a strong community from one particular country (New York having many, like the Italians, Jews, Irish and Latin Americans). In those cases, it is more often the best from each minority culture that is taken into American culture. It is not a process of averaging American culture as a whole. Participants of the Eurovision may be trying to emulate American pop music, but they are not trying to become American. They are just picking one trait of American culture that they admire. Picking and choosing is the opposite of averaging.