How We Got So Pretty

on March 30, 2008

People who specialize in digging up human fossils tell us that until about 15-20 thousand years ago, we all looked very much alike. Back then, everyone on the planet apparently resembled present-day Australian aborigines, with broad faces and strongly pronounced features.

But after that, we started changing rapidly — at least on the surface. So-called racial distinctions appeared, distinctions that are usually regarded negatively because they make us look different from one another and now present barriers to global harmony. What is far less often noted is that those changes also made us prettier. All of us. Though each group adapted according to its own unique standards of beauty, in every region our facial contours became smoother and more delicate, our hair more appealing in form or color, our bodies sleeker and sexier.

There’s an easy explanation for that — the old Darwinian standby of sexual selection. In a simple tribal society, success at producing and raising offspring is largely determined by basic physical and mental fitness. But once society becomes just a bit more complex and distinctions of wealth and power appear, the game changes radically. The most dynamic and charismatic men take on leadership roles, which typically gives them the opportunity to father children by multiple women. The most attractive and charming women appeal to the top-ranked men, and that offers their own children a better chance to survive, become leaders in turn, and have first choice of mates.

As hereditary aristocracies emerged and adopted practices such as polygamy, this principal of survival of the prettiest became even more firmly engrained, until a certain delicacy and elegance of features came to be taken as a natural hallmark of aristocratic birth. Somewhere along the line, even the nature of our myths and legends changed, so that the heroes were all brave and handsome and the women all beautiful and clever. Romantic themes involving competition for the hand of a desirable mate became central to epics and fairy-tales alike.

There are disquieting aspects to this. It can be disillusioning to our inner five-year-old to realize that a story like “Cinderella” is just a gussied-up narrative concerning an experiment in selective breeding. It may be even harder for our inner revolutionary to accept that once upon a time there was some actual point to the aristocratic claim to be inherently superior to ordinary folk — though by now any such superiority would have filtered through the population as a whole.

It is more sobering yet to consider that this Darwinian experiment — which required men to over-achieve and out-perform all rivals simply to be assured of leaving descendants — may be the cause of our present-day twin catastrophes of ceaseless war and environmental degradation.

But perhaps most disconcerting is the possibility that all of us may be no more than lab rats in an ages-long breeding project, whose basic guidelines are so firmly ingrained into us through story, song, and art that we never think to question them or attempt to evade their strictures.

We have to ask — what is our true role in this project? Are we the active sculptors in the workshop — or the passive clay? The unwitting pawns of our remote ancestors — or the superhuman beings they could only dream of becoming? Lacking clear answers, we can do no more than speculate as to who we really are, where we came from, and how we got here.

But an even more important issue presents itself. If that particular experiment is coming to an end — as the worldwide rejection of aristocratic norms and imperatives over the last two centuries would suggest — then perhaps the script that has been programmed into us has run its course and is about to expire. In that case, the most pressing question becomes: Where do we mean to go next?


A listing of all my posts on the roots of civilization can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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