Beauty Starts With A Friendly Face, In Humans & Foxes



foxembePhoto: Courtesy Zefram / Wikimedia Commons.
We all want to say that beauty is relative. Countless scientific studies, however, have isolated a series of facial characteristics that humans, even across cultures, generally consider beautiful: symmetry of features, a broad or flat face, a small nose, reduced jaw, and a large ratio between the height of the cranium and the height of the face.

Why those features, and not others? Since attractiveness plays a critical role in mating, those traits must communicate something evolutionarily important to potential partners, like fertility or social status. But, what about friendliness?

Perhaps the answer lies with our animal friends. Irene Elia, a biological anthropologist at Cambridge University, recently published an analysis in the Quarterly Review of Biology that examines the facial features of foxes — yes, foxes — bred over a period of 50 years. In 1959, a Russian geneticist began looking for ways to breed tameness into silver foxes in order to make them easier for furriers to handle. Along the way, their faces became more like those of domesticated dogs, with floppy ears, flatter faces, smaller noses, and larger craniofacial ratios.

Yes, the very same features we find attractive in humans.

Elia suggests that this is hormonally based. That the neurotransmitters that regulate behavior can also influence development characteristics. But, what does this mean for humans? Well, a friendly face is preferred over less attractive ones, because we subconsciously attribute qualities like integrity, intelligence, and happiness to attractive people. On an evolutionary level, a beautiful and friendly face would indicate a level of sociability, which allows for learning and cooperation and general advancement of the species.

Troublingly, studies have even shown that parents unwittingly give disproportionate amounts of attention to their more conventionally attractive children. Elia points to two such studies, one which demonstrated that children who qualified as unattractive (by independent judges) were less likely to be safely secured in the seats of grocery carts, compared to their more attractive siblings. The other found that abused children more often had lower craniofacial ratios than those who had not been.

Clearly, this is not to say that unattractive humans — or, people who fall outside the evolutionary concept of beauty — are necessarily worse, less lovable, or less desirable to mates. (As we all know, plenty of beautiful people are absolutely awful. Young Stalin, anyone?) If Elia is correct, however, we can finally understand why this odd handful of facial characteristics indicates what we call beauty — even if we don't agree with it. (The Economist)