Is Beauty (or cuteness) in the eye (or genes) of the beholder?

I finished reading Scott Westerfield’s “The Uglies,” a teen SF book set that is all the rage right now.  I enjoyed it, in-spite of it’s youthfulness, because the basic story line had some interesting ideas in it – the one that caught me the most was the reaction of the Uglies to the Pretties – they had a biological response to the Pretties that made them want to please them, to see them smile.  This brought back memories of a TV show I had watched years ago on why we think Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters are cute.  Googling, wikiing, and in-depth searching finally led me to Stephen Jay Gould’s piece “A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse, which must have been the basis for the show I saw.

In the article he starts out by noting the mischievous characteristics of Mickey that were slowly bred out of him, and the blander and cuter appearance that coincided with these changes:

“In short, the blander and inoffensive Mickey became progressively more juvenile in appearance. (Since Mickey’s chronological age never altered–like most cartoon characters he stands impervious to the ravages of time–this change in appearance at a constant age is a true evolutionary transformation. Progressive juvenilization as an evolutionary phenomenon is called neoteny…”

“The Disney artists transformed Mickey in clever silence, often using suggestive devices that mimic nature’s own changes by different routes.  To give him the shorter and pudgier legs of youth, they lowered his pants line and covered his spindly legs with a baggy outfit.  (His arms and legs also thickened substantially–and acquired joints for a floppier appearance.)  His head grew relatively larger- and its features more youthful.  The length of Mickey’s snout has not altered, but decreasing protrusion is more subtly suggested by a pronounced thickening.  Mickey’s eye has grown in two modes: first, by a major, discontinuous evolutionary shift as the entire eye of ancestral Mickey became the pupil of his descendants, and second, by gradual increase thereafter.

Mickey’s improvement in, cranial bulging followed an interesting path since his evolution has always been constrained by the unaltered convention of representing his head as a circle with appended ears and an oblong snout.  The circle’s form could not be altered to provide a bulging cranium directly.  Instead, Mickey’s ears moved back, increasing the distance between nose and ears, and giving him a rounded, rather sloping forehead.”

Mickey Mouse 

“In one of his most famous articles, Konrad Lorenz argues that humans use the characteristic differences in form between babies and adults as important behavioral cues.  He believes that features of juvenility trigger “innate releasing mechanisms” for affection and nurturing in adult humans.  When we see a living creature with babyish features, we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness.  The adaptive value of this response can scarcely be questioned, for we must nurture our babies.  Lorenz, by the way, lists among his releasers the very features of babyhood that Disney affixed progressively to Mickey: “a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements.”  (I propose to leave aside for this article the contentious issue of whether or not our affectionate response to babyish features is truly innate and inherited directly from ancestral primates–as Lorenz argues–or whether it is simply learned from our immediate experience with babies and grafted upon an evolutionary predisposition for attaching ties of affection to certain learned signals.  My argument works equally well in either case for I only claim that babyish features tend to elicit strong feelings of affection in adult humans, whether the biological basis be direct programming or the capacity to learn and Fix upon signals.  I also treat as collateral to my point the major thesis of Lorenz’s article—that we respond not to the totality or Gestalt, but to a set of specific features acting as releasers.

Lorenz emphasizes the power that juvenile features hold over us, and the abstract quality of their influence, by pointing out that we judge other animals by the same criteria–although the judgment may be utterly inappropriate in an evolutionary context.  We are, in short, fooled by an evolved response to our own babies, and we transfer our reaction to the same set of features in other animals.  Many animals, for reasons having nothing to do with the inspiration of affection in humans, possess some features also shared by human babies but not by human adults—large eyes and a bulging forehead with retreating chin, in particular.  We are drawn to them, we cultivate them as pets, we stop and admire them in the wild- while we reject their small-eyed, long-snouted relatives who might make more affectionate companions or objects of admiration.”

Thus Gould shows a “biological imperative” to cuteness- survival of the infant.  But what about beauty, which to many is closely allied, in that it is a form of attractiveness.  In a paper in PLoS One, Rizzolatti and colleagues, discussing responses to classical art, ( stated:

“One of the most debated issues in aesthetics is whether beauty may be defined by some objective parameters or whether it merely depends on subjective factors.  The first perspective goes back to Plato’s objectivist view of aesthetic perception, in which beauty is regarded as a property of an object that produces a pleasurable experience in any suitable viewer.  This stance may be rephrased in biological terms by stating that human beings are endowed with species-specific mechanisms that resonate in response to certain parameters present in works of art.  The alternative stance is that the viewers’ evaluation of art is fully subjective.  It is determined by experience and personal values.”

“Is there an objective, biological basis for the experience of beauty in art?  Or is aesthetic experience entirely subjective?  Using fMRI technique, we addressed this question by presenting viewers, naïve to art criticism, with images of masterpieces of Classical and Renaissance sculpture.”

“Although it is commonly accepted that subjective criteria play a major role in one’s aesthetic experience , it is also reasonable to accept that there exist specific biologically-based principles which may facilitate the perception of beauty in the beholder.  After all, new artists typically first master the ability to represent standard principles of beauty, such as symmetry and proportion, and only then eventually bend these rules to represent their overall vision of the world .”

After an intricate discussion of the techniques used, and the biological responses, they conclude:

“The main question we addressed in the present study was whether there is an objective beauty, i.e., if objective parameters intrinsic to works of art are able to elicit a specific neural pattern underlying the sense of beauty in the observer.  Our results gave a positive answer to this question.  The presence of a specific parameter (the golden ratio) in the stimuli we presented determined brain activations different to those where this parameter was violated.  The spark that changed the perception of a sculpture from “ugly” to beautiful appears to be the joint activation of specific populations of cortical neurons responding to the physical properties of the stimuli and of neurons located in the anterior insula.”

“It has often been claimed that beauty, objectively determined, does not exist because of profound subjective differences in the evaluation of what is beautiful and what is not.  Although individual biases are undeniable, it is also rather implausible to maintain that beauty has no biological substrate and is merely a conventional, experientially determined concept. As Gombrich wrote, elements in a picture which determine aesthetical experience are “deeply involved in our biological heritage”, although we are unable to give a conscious explanation to them . (cites omitted)

The results of our experiment concerning what we called subjective beauty are also relevant here.  In the condition in which the viewers were asked to indicate explicitly which sculptures they liked, there was a strong increase in the activity of the amygdala, a structure that responds to incoming information laden with emotional value.  Thus, instead of allowing their nervous centers to “resonate” in response to the observed stimuli (observation condition), when the viewers judged the stimuli according to their individual idiosyncratic criteria (explicit aesthetic judgment), that structure was activated that signals which stimuli had produced pleasant experiences in the past.”

The Golden Beauty: Brain Response to Classical and Renaissance Sculpturesby Di Dio, Macaluso and Rizzolatti (PLoS ONE 2(11): e1201. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001201)

From here we move to Plato’s idealism:

“Platonic idealism is the theory that the substantive reality around us is only a reflection of a higher truth. That truth, Plato argued, is the abstraction.  He believed that ideas were more real than things.  He developed a vision of two worlds: a world of unchanging ideas and a world of changing physical objects.

For example, a particular tree, with a branch or two missing, possibly alive, possibly dead, and with the initials of two lovers carved into its bark, is distinct from the abstract form of Tree-ness.  A Tree is the ideal that each of us holds that allows us to identify the imperfect reflections of trees all around us.

“The forms that we see, according to Plato, are not real, but literally mimic the real Forms. In the Allegory of the cave expressed in Republic they are called the shadows of real things. That which the observer understands when he views the mimics are the archetypes of the many types and properties (that is, of universals) of things we see all around us.  They are not located in the object, which as far as Plato is concerned, is mere smoke and mirrors situated in space (which also is real).”

Kant disagrees with a universal concept of beauty: “Kant insists that the aesthetic judgment is always, in logical phrase, an “individual” i.e. a singular one, of the form ‘This object (e.g. rose) is beautiful.  He denies that we can reach a valid universal aesthetic judgment of the form. ‘ All objects possessing such and such qualities are beautiful.'”

So is beauty only “skin deep,” or as is proposed in The Uglies, a biological responses to please these people.  While that specific issue has not been addressed in papers, I think you can extrapolate from the neotate and art studies that beauty is something we respond to, whether we are aware of it or not, and that, regardless of culture, there are certain aesthetics that do not vary, although at this time (but perhaps not in a more homogenized future) racial and cultural differences will occur.

This essay is NOT intended to be a scholarly piece, or the definitive word on this, but merely an exercise in thought from a book my daughter had me read. 

Happy thinking…


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