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Shape preferences pertaining to ancestral and derived forms
In a previously addressed study by Albert Magro, he showed that the widespread appeal of the Barbie doll is best explained by Barbie exaggerating many of the derived features in humans. Magro followed up this study with a more elaborate one where he used 18 sets of line drawings representing ancestral, intermediate and derived shapes, and had them rated by men, women, children, adults and people of European, sub-Saharan African and East Asian ancestry.(1, pdf [6.7 MB])
Some examples of the line drawings used are shown below. Note that it is not always obvious that the outlines trace shapes related to the human form. The intermediate forms do not represent shapes mid-way between the extremes. The participants were asked to pick the most appealing of the three choices for each set.
Fig. 1. Line drawings depciting ancestral, derived and intermediate shapes.
With the exception of those less than age 20 finding high foreheads the least attractive, all groups preferred intermediate or derived shapes to ancestral ones. Men and women had similar preferences except for one minor difference; women preferred thicker lips. The preferences of ethnic groups were largely similar. The differences involved sub-Saharan Africans preferring straighter torsos to a more curved-in lower back and a higher forehead compared to the other two groups, and Europeans preferring intermediate neck lengths compared to the other two groups. Different age groups had mostly similar preferences; the exceptions involved those less than age 20 finding the high forehead the least attractive and a longer neck more attractive than older individuals.
So the study showed broad agreement across different groups regarding aesthetic preferences along the ancestral-to-derived discriminant.
There is a minor shortcoming in the article by Magro. Magro mentions a preference for facial neoteny in women on the part of men. Neoteny refers to the retention in adulthood of the juvenile form of the ancestral species, but human face shape is not a juvenile version of an ape’s. At most, the regression of the jaw in humans is partly neotenous and there is growth retardation in the human skill, making the adult human skull differ less from the juvenile human skull compared to the age-related transformation in apes.(2) Chances are that Magro used neoteny in a loose sense, namely referring to the retention of more juvenile features, and hence the appropriate term would have been pedomorphy, but again, just because the male skull deviates more from the juvenile form compared to the female skull, it doesn’t mean that there is a preference for more child-like features in women’s faces; the preference is for feminine features indicative of a young adult. Normal preferences are for signs of sexual maturity.
- Magro, A. M., Evolutionary-derived anatomical characteristics and universal attractiveness, Percept Mot Skills, 88, 147 (1999).
- Penin, X., Berge, C., and Baylac, M., Ontogenetic study of the skull in modern humans and the common chimpanzees: neotenic hypothesis reconsidered with a tridimensional Procrustes analysis, Am J Phys Anthropol, 118, 50 (2002).