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Is every generation more attractive than the last? — a conjecture

June 8, 2010

Has the following ever happened to you?

You meet someone of about your own age and are struck by how attractive that person is.  Then, a bit later, you meet that person’s parents and are amazed to find that they are particularly unattractive people.  “How is this possible?”, you ask.  “How can such a good-looking person be the progeny of such homely parents?”

I have had moments like that a number of times in my life.  And, most likely, they can be explained as a purely psychological phenomenon: something like the same color illusion, where minor/nonexistent differences are enhanced by contrast.

Nonetheless, it occurred to me a little while ago to ask a sort of audacious and perhaps silly question.  Namely, is there some reason why people tend to be more attractive than their parents?  Is it possible that each generation actually is more attractive than the previous?

Let me present a rough argument, given below, as to why that might be the case.  It’s a fairly unconvincing and perhaps completely meritless piece of speculation, but either way I’d be glad to hear your opinion.

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A crude argument: genetics as a process of averaging

There has been a fair amount of research during the last decade which suggests that averageness is attractive, at least when it comes to facial features.  What I mean is this: if you take a bunch of faces and then you average their features together, the resulting “average” face will probably be more attractive than any of the individual faces that went into it.  There are lots of cool demos on the internet showing this phenomenon; they’re pretty fun to play around with.

There is, of course, an evolutionary argument for why this should be true: evolution tends to select for healthy traits and to weed out unhealthy ones, so it makes sense that we should be attracted to the “average” person who possesses good traits rather than to the “uncommon” person who possesses bad traits.  It’s not a terribly convincing argument, but then again I rarely feel very convinced by evolutionary arguments.

What I do know is that reproduction is itself sort of a process of averaging.  When two people produce a child, that child has some of the father’s attributes, some of the mother’s, and some that are a hybrid of the two.  So after many generations, a given child represents a kind of (stochastic) “average” of all the descendants whose genetic material contributed to its own.

So the basic argument is this: if averaging makes a face more attractive, and if every child is an average of his parents, then doesn’t that make a child likely to be more attractive than his parents?

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Now, there may be some terrible flaw in my understanding of genetics (or aesthetics) here.  It does sound a little silly to claim that humans are getting relentlessly more attractive over time.  But you know, I never thought the Venus de Milo (supposedly the ideal of Grecian beauty 70 generations ago) was all that pretty.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Michael B permalink
    June 8, 2010 6:40 pm

    One difficulty with analyzing this is that people tend to be less attractive as they age. For a fair comparison, you should look at photos of the parents when they were approximately the same age as the child.

  2. Brent permalink
    June 8, 2010 7:11 pm

    I think averaged faces are more attractive because symmetry is aesthetically pleasing. Averaging faces will remove “blemishes” and asymmetry, leaving a smooth and balanced visage. The evolutionary argument based on this states that we are drawn to blemish-free and symmetrical faces because they indicate underlying healthiness.

    Another factor that may have affected your observation, is that a lot more intervention occurs these days, in terms of dental treatment, skin creams, sunblock use, etc which are likely to improve symmetry and remove blemishes.

    And of course “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” insofar as the perception (or ranking) of beauty is affected by society. Different people find different faces attractive.

    • frint frinterson permalink
      December 31, 2013 2:02 pm

      So how do we explain why the ladies like Lyle Lovett?

  3. lestin permalink
    June 8, 2010 8:08 pm

    One potential confound: the social construction of attractiveness.

    I don’t know nearly enough about the literature on evolution and attractiveness to comment on how strong an effect biology has, but I do know that ideas about what is beautiful change radically over time (and from culture to culture). Clothing retailers initially chose skinny models for their catalogs because thinness was unattractive–they wanted people to pay attention to the clothes. Paleness, “duckbill” breasts, prominent muscles, unkemptness . . . all things that have come into and out of favor over time, and many of which we have some control over.

    So gorgeous children might just be dressing (tanning, working out) to the present idea of attractiveness.

  4. June 8, 2010 9:58 pm

    @Michael B: Good point, but even that has the drawback that the old pictures will show old fashions, and sometimes you just can’t get past how funny people looked back then (and the uncomfortable feeling that 30 years from now, people will think how funny we look now). I’d like to see a web site that took an old picture and left faces and bodies intact, but changed the hair and clothes to contemporary styles, so we can tell what our parents looked like to the people around them.

    • gravityandlevity permalink*
      June 9, 2010 2:13 pm

      I would also like to see this done. It seems like my conjecture should be testable using the right kind of experiment.

  5. June 9, 2010 2:11 am

    As I understand inheritage (and I don’t, really, I am a physicist, not a biologist) children are generally not the average of their parents, not by far. There are dominant and recessive genes, genes that won’t mix (i.e. you will have either blue or brown eyes, not brownish blue ones), phenomenological expressions due to environmental facturs, epigenetic factors, etc., etc. It is obvious when you think of it, or else after tens of thousands generations of intermixing, we would all look the same.

    And as lestin said, our idea of attractiveness has changed profoundly – there were times where you wouldn’t have been considered attractive without at least a double chin!

    • gravityandlevity permalink*
      June 9, 2010 2:19 pm

      Your point is well-taken. Clearly there is more to inheritance than averaging.

      But I wonder: are people becoming more uniform in the way they look over successive generations? If my conjecture is right, then as time progresses there will be less variability in physical appearance. If you’re right, then there will be no change whatsoever; things will get reshuffled but the distribution will retain its width.

      I honestly don’t know which is more correct. Clearly there are some aspects of physical appearance (clear distinction between races, for example) which become blurred over time. But is that the same as saying that we are, on the whole, moving toward some “racially averaged face”?

      • Bilbo permalink
        March 2, 2013 2:50 pm

        Not trying to be a pedant or smart alec, but I feel like “heredity” is probably a more suitable word for the concept of inheritance of genes.

  6. June 10, 2010 11:36 am

    I’m reading Richard Dawkins’ “The Greatest Show on Earth” right now and he brings up a very related point: why doesn’t variation decrease with every generation? If children are averages of their parents, why don’t we approach a more and more average population?

    He uses the metaphor of paint. Mix red paint and blue paint and you’ll get purple. No matter how carefully you mix different shades of purple, you’ll never get red or blue back.

    Dawkins’ answer is that genetics isn’t about averaging and that paint is a bad metaphor. Genetic is more like shuffling a deck of cards.

    If you think children are more attractive than their parents, it’s probably your perception. Parents are older than their kids. Sure, you can look at pictures, but home photography has improved a lot in the last 30 years, so it’s not a fair comparison.

  7. Steve permalink
    June 10, 2010 6:55 pm

    I wonder if some of it is a result of regression to the mean. I noticed that at the beginning you talked about seeing attractive peers and homely parents, but didn’t mention seeing ugly peers and even uglier parents.

  8. George Grady permalink
    June 21, 2010 9:51 am

    Your approach reminds me strongly of a fluid mechanical or thermodynamical point of view. That is, even though nature seems to be made of (in some sense) particles, there are just so many of them that we can talk about their average properties (such as pressure or temperature). I think that what you’ve written would be a strong argument if we could treat the genetics of people in a similar fashion. However, I doubt that there are enough people (there are nowhere near a mole of people in the world), nor are there enough possible genetic states at each locus (there are only a small finite number of alleles of a given gene, as opposed to a very large number of possible velocities of an individual molecule). I don’t think the continuity limit has kicked in.

  9. jacobus permalink
    July 9, 2010 12:14 pm

    So maybe the Miami Heat management didn’t read your paper!

    • gravityandlevity permalink*
      July 9, 2010 12:25 pm

      You know, I remember watching LeBron early in his career and thinking “wow, this guy would be incredible as some team’s third scoring option.”

      In other words, if LeBron could play the “James Worthy” role, where he didn’t always have the ball in his hands but could focus on making quick cuts to the basket, running the floor, and being the kickout man on pick and rolls, he could be the most efficient scorer in the history of basketball.

      It remains to be seen whether he’ll be used that way in Miami. But if LeBron can somehow accept the “sidekick” role, I think it will be incredible to watch (he’ll be the highly-efficient, less-used “alley” to Dwayne Wade’s “highway”).

      Of course, it’s just as easy to imagine the Heat getting embarrassed during the second round of the playoffs because their cut-rate point guard and center can’t pass muster against decent competition.

  10. Jared permalink
    August 18, 2010 6:08 pm

    I was wondering the same when I was living on campus in college. But then I was thinking, if everyone has to be paired with someone, and if the most attractive people of one sex pair with the most attractive people of the other sex, then the least attractive people will also pair with each other.

    Not that this has anything to do with your point about whether averaging parents’ faces should tend to produce more and more attractive offspring. If that’s not the case, then maybe the averaging effect only works when you average faces of the same sex. If you average faces of opposite sexes, maybe it produces a pretty uniformly mixed bag.

  11. lmendes permalink
    November 19, 2011 11:55 pm

    Ugly people tend to mate other ugly people thus to remove extreme characters by reshuffling their genes (extreme recessive disapears, extreme dominant can fit well on other sex or combination) Beautiful couples statistically have not so nice progeny.. but still more attractive than the ugly couples. Thats not true that recent generations are more attractive… the problem is that ugly and unintelligent people of each generation has much more descendents.. and those tend to be ´averaged´… this causes each generation loose about 4 potential IQ points (that cant be undone by aesthetical advances) and the ratio of recessive ´ugliness´ genes increase to a new cicle. Richard Ly nn is a rigorous author on the subject.

  12. lmendes permalink
    November 20, 2011 12:45 am

    Ugly people tend to mate other ugly people thus removing random extreme characters by reshuffling their genes (extreme recessive disapears, extreme dominant can fit well on other sex or combination) Beautiful couples statistically have not so nice progeny.. but still more attractive than the ugly couples. Thats not true that recent generations are more attractive… the problem is that ugly and unintelligent people of each generation has much more descendants.. making their averaged puppies better looking .. this is a pattern that occurs when a trait is dumping fast.. because the low reproduction of upper part… Low IQ fertitlity ratios causes each generation loose about 4 potential IQ points (that cant be undone by aesthetical advances) and the ratio of ´ugliness´ genes increase to a new cicle… but thousands independent ´ugly´ traits keep the pattern from changing… until it accumulates and p^2 be high for recessives…. Richard Ly nn is a rigorous author on the subject of IQ.

  13. November 30, 2012 4:08 pm

    I’m a little late here but you are all right. Humans tend to get more attractive every generation as they reproduce towards the mean, however because humanity is an expanding population, the effect is masked as there is plenty of opportunity to retain outlier characteristics. Additionally, the effect is muted by the resistance of dominant-recessive linked gene traits to averaging, the non-mobility of different populations across the globe (mating within populations that carry the same divergent traits), and the fact that people self-select mating partners based on appearance. The effect is even further muted by the fact that society rewards beauty by pressuring attractive individuals into career and socioeconomic strata that favor producing less children. So to sum up, unless the human population reaches a plateau, as a group it will never succeed in overcoming the variables that keep it from promoting attractiveness and rendering ugliness extinct.

  14. Evan permalink
    March 24, 2013 11:06 pm

    What about each generation having unattractive people that don’t, have any kids so the average for the next generation would be generally more attractive. Also, remarriage. Perhaps better looking people are more likely to have kids in a second marriage after divorce; sad and slow, but hey, that’s evolution for ya’.

  15. Rick permalink
    November 15, 2014 10:13 pm

    Age is not always relevant to attractiveness. You see young people who are very plain, but then middle aged people who are very attractive. So age is not always a factor in how good looking someone is.

  16. Dakota permalink
    May 1, 2015 1:25 am

    I just got to point out that the human race isn’t evolving any more. Overtime different races are going to be blended together more, but we are not going through the process of natural selection any longer. There’s not too many things today which make somebody more likely to reproduce than somebody else. And in order for natural selection to occur, people with the undesirable traits would either have to be dying or not reproducing.

  17. itskarthiq@gmail.com permalink
    September 21, 2015 10:44 am

    Damn, i have been wondering the same thing since about a month. Looks like the same thought occurred to you but five years early🙂 Are ‘Humans becoming more attractive?, and are children generally more attractive than their parents? ” Infact i even typed my first question as a search query which led me to this site🙂

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