Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mirror Mirror, who's the fairest of them all?

Imagine a species that can challenge our claim of being the ONE and ONLY species of the Highest Order.

What does that species look like?
Does it look like us?
Or does it look something like E.T., a friendly alien from Steven Spielberg's movie E.T., with inflated and elongated head and protruding eyes?
Or does it look more beautiful than us?

A recent discussion with my sister got me thinking that as humans we are very resourceful, creative, and generous when it comes to giving ugly attributes to say a friendly alien, or a mutant. But unfortunately we cannot imagine a single biped, extraterristial or earthly, which is better looking than us.

Thomas Huxley, a 19th century anatomist, pointed out, only egocentric species, such as humans, could deny having similar anatomical traits as primates. Maybe if our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees and orangutans, were LESS hairy and a bit MORE "attractive", naysayers would be more than willing to accept the reality of evolution.

Also, if you look at computer generated images of our early ancestors, they look less attractive than us. The most recently discovered ancestors of ours, Homo floresiensis, were nicknamed Hobbit by the popular media. Maybe there is some pleasure involved in outgrowing one's ancestors, but that is hardly a politically correct way of referring to our genetic progenitors.

In science fictional accounts, aliens are either less attractive than us, or they take our anthropomorphic forms. We often hear that our imagination is limitless, but my imagination fails me to come up with a species (earthly or martian), which trumps our attractiveness. I am not talking about enhancing our own human characteristics, or eugenics. I am referring to our collective high self-regard, and limited creativity, which fails us in imagining a bipedal species which is better looking than us.

A couple of weeks ago, evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson in her blog entry "Wanted: Intelligent Aliens, for a Research Project" pointed out, humans usually rate themselves high when it comes to being more attractive, funny, intelligent, and reckon themselves to be below average when it comes to "bad" traits such as, racism, dishonesty, and so on. So our personal bias dictates that we are far more intelligent and attractive [1]; and far less dishonest than we actually are. Maybe it is this personal bias that stops us from imagining a species far more attractive than us.

Here is my favourite paragraph from the aforementioned article:

"Moreover, in our assessments of other animals, we are consistently surprised. My favorite example of this comes from a headline in Nature a few years ago that announced that 'sheep are not so stupid after all.' The reason for the re-evaluation of ovine intelligence was a series of elegant experiments that showed that sheep can recognize and remember other sheep. But sheep are social animals: they live in flocks. It would be astonishing if they could not do this. (A sheep newspaper would no doubt have run the headline, 'Humans Amazed Again!')"

[1] However, most people I know underestimate their looks.

The following video shows that our concept of beauty, just like everything else in this world, revolves around us. Accentuate a couple of facial features, make them symmetrical and voila you're beautiful.
"No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted."


Josh said...

That's an interesting way to look at it, I've always gone with our perception of beauty has evolved with us and (what with the beautiful being more likely to pass their genes on) we evolving with our perceptions. For this reason, I think it would be impossible to imagine a beautiful non-human, if we could then the human race would be an entirely different species....

Love the video by the way!

Maria Sondule said...

I agree with you- humans underestimate their own beauty. usually. I mean, we're not THAT pretty, but a lot of people think they're ugy when they aren't. It brings them down when they could rise above all else.

changetheworld360 said...

Fascinating observation. I guess humans should understand that not all beauty is selective, so to speak. Clearly, certain individuals are more good-looking than others in our population, but as a whole, the human race is inherently more beautiful than most other creatures, including our closest primate relatives.

Zany said...

Josh, you're right our perception of beauty has evolved with us. I couldn't have said it better.

Maria, I think media is to be blamed for the unrealistic beauty standards we have. I think for that reason, our concept of beauty keeps changing.

Changetheworld360, I agree with you the human race is better looking than the rest of hominids.

As you guys kindly pointed out, our perception of beauty is changing with time. But the fact that this perception revolves around us, is something I find rather discerning.