Book Summaries History

Chapter 9: The Uses of Beauty (The Red Queen)

Are beauty standards cultural whims or innate drives?

Incest may give us a hint.

Freud thought that incest is a taboo that originated in people’s attraction to ther opposite sex parents, because it would result in birth defects. But there are several objections to this theory.

First, sexual attraction is not the same as attraction. Second, not all people have incestuous desires. Third, it is not necessarily trie that social rules about cousin marriagfe were incest taboos.

Westermarck provided a theory that contradicted Freud’s. His idea was simple. Men and women cannot recognize their relatives as relatives, but they can use a simple psychological rule: avoid mating with people who they knew well during childhood. Sexual aversion to relatives is thus achieved. This theory is in line with human behavior. Step siblings don’t marry unless they were brought up apart.

Freudians criticize this theory on the grounds that it obvioates the need for any incest taboos. But the taboos Freud observed are restricted to cousins, since mating within the nuclear family is extremely rare.

But mating between cousins is not clearly bad. Chances of defects are low and it is an effective way of preserving wealth and genes.

There are critical perods where we acquire habits and preferences that are hard to change. Few people change their accent after the age of 25, no matter where they move to. This may explain what is behind Westmarck’s theory. We become sexually indifferent to people we grow up with.

Heterosexual men inherit beauty standards from their genes, and adopt them from their culture.

Thinness, for example, was not always attractive. Plump women were once considered more desirable, and this made biological sense, since plump women were more likely to undergo a successful pregnancy. But thinness in modern times has become the new standard of beauty. One hypothesis is that thinness is closely associated with wealth, since only rich women can afford to diet and exercise. Men are bombarded with the new standards of beauty from their early years. During man’s critical phase of forming idealized images of women, it is the slim female figure that is usually adopted.

But this conflicts with last chapter’s conclusion. It is supposed to be women, not men, who care about the social status of their potential spouses.

The determining factor may ultimately be youth, which correlates with thinness. We are descended from men who chose young women as mates and thus had more offspring than other men.

Fashion is despotic. Like the “sexy son” theory, there is the “sexy daughter” theory. Men who married women with below average faces saw their daughters become spinsters or engaged to second rate men.

Men place physical features above personality and status. Women do not do the same. The exception is height. Tall men are universally found to be more attractive than short men. Men seek shorter wives, and women seek taller husbands. IT has been calculated that every inch is worth 600 dollars a year in America.

Women find competitive and confident men sexy. Men don’t find confident and competitive women sexy.

What happens to people with average beauty? They settle for second best. Mr. Average chooses a plain woman. Ms. Average chooses a wimp. They temper their idealism with realism.

In movies, we see the man gain fame slowly, after many movies. The female, on the other hand, skyrockets to fame from a single film. New females renew man’s libido.

The recipe of the James Bond films was perfect: a new girl every time, but the same old Bond. (Man, though less than some male mammals, exhibits the ‘Coolidge effect’: a new female refreshes his libido. The effect is named after the famous story of President Calvin Coolidge and his wife being shown around a farm. Learning that a cockerel could have sex dozens of times a day, Mrs Coolidge said: ‘Please tell that to the president.’ On being told, Mr Coolidge asked, ‘Same hen every time?’ ‘Oh no, Mr President, a different one each time.’ The president continued: ‘Tell that to Mrs Coolidge.’

Matt Ridley, The Red Queen

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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