In which our intrepid hero gets stuck into science and the popular press—again.
I have a photo stuck up on my desk at work, blown up to A4. It’s a young woman, brown hair with red highlights, blue eyes with just a touch of green. She’s gorgeous.


She also doesn’t exist. She’s a digital composite from FaceResearch, built from the faces of 16 different women.

Millions, possibly billions, of men out there yearn after a woman they can never have, but the beauty on my desk lacks even the basic meatness of the heavily PhotoShopped models we see every day. She reminds me that more than anything, beauty is manufactured. And I love her for it.

(It sounds a little strange, I guess, but it’s not without precedent. The Aphrodite of Cnidus evoked some pretty bizarre reactions when it was completed, too.)

As a some-time artist, beauty is one of my obsessions. I like to think that my comprehension of aesthetics transcends the merely erotic. I also like to think that I have an inkling about science, which is why this article from News.com.au provoked a strong reaction in me:

Social division might split humans into two sub-species 100,000 years from now—just as British author HG Wells predicted more than a century ago.

The descendants of the genetic upper class would be tall, slim, healthy, attractive, intelligent, and creative.

They would be a far cry from the “underclass” humans who will have evolved into dim-witted, ugly, squat goblin-like creatures.

The forecast was made by British evolution expert Dr Oliver Curry, who spent two months investigating the ascent and descent of mankind over the next 100 millennia. […]

According to Dr Curry, the human race is likely to peak in the year 3000, before collapsing into technology-driven decline. […]

The logical outcome would be two sub-species, “gracile” and “robust” humans representing the rich and poor from long ago in history.

As an illustrative device, I present the Venus of Willendorf (from c22,000 years ago) and Kate Beckinsale. Each paragons of beauty (in my opinion, anyway) in their own times, but separated by a mere twenty-two millennia—less than a quarter the span which Dr Curry discusses.

And there’s not a great deal of similarity between the two (well, maybe a couple—take a cold shower and pipe down, you in the back, okay?). My point is, standards of beauty can change radically over time, and differ from culture to culture. Certain determinants (such as symmetry) remain constant, but there’s a lot of flexibility from there.

If Curry’s cultural vision “peaks” at 3000AD, then there’s still a good 97,000 years for cultures to rise and fall, each with their own concepts of beauty.

As for speciation into gracile and robust forms of humanity, it’s unlikely to come about through aesthetics and simple wealth. Over that sort of time period, speciation comes through ecological pressures and isolation of populations.

And who’s to say that the gracile form will be the one endowed with all the beauty and intelligence? Much of our perception of beauty is hardwired; women, in particular, have been shown to have marked preferences according to hardwired imperatives. Often, they’re still looking for tall, dark and handsome. They might want to mate with gracile man, but it’s the robust ones they tend to want to breed with.

The slight metrosexual (and the skinny geek, for what it’s worth) simply represent current stereotypes. Go back to Viking times, and short, skinny men were depicted as weak, dishonest and often predatory upon their own—not what the flaxen-haired beauties of the North were looking for in a mate. Orlando Bloom wouldn’t stand a chance.

It’s different now, and it’ll be different again in a couple of decades’ time—let alone 100,000 years from now. Dr Curry, methinks, draws a long bow—longer, perhaps than Legolas.

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