January 15, 2008

From Fred Colbourne :

Re: Science gives beauty some of its mystery back (Dec. 22): “By degrees, the chin got smaller; the nose narrower and more button-like.” Is this a description of neotony at work? The facial reduction of modern humans is a bonanza for orthodontists, because modern faces are just too infantile to accommodate the adult teeth of our ancestors. Perhaps what drives neotony is sexual selection that operates through the perception of beauty in faces that are more infantile. Does it work for men also?

On a recent visit to an island in eastern Indonesia, I noticed that the differences in faces among some adults and their children seemed to be greater than the differences among adults and children in the western islands. I took this as an indication that neotony is more pronounced in western Indonesia compared to eastern Indonesia.

Possibly there is a cultural bias in the western islands that selects for neotony and this bias operates through perceptions of beauty that differ now or in the past from perceptions of beauty in the eastern islands.

So is a face beautiful because it looks a little childlike, but not infantile? Is a face beautiful because it looks vulnerable or at least non-threatening? If these questions might lead to the loss of mystery, you can always read James Joyce’s description of the young woman wading in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There is enough mystery in those few paragraphs to last a lifetime.

Fred Colbourne


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