Taking Beauty Off the Gold Standard

All this useless beauty.

Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

In his book “The Evolution of Beauty,” biologist Richard Prum quotes former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to illustrate what he considers an erroneous view of life. “Physical beauty is evolution’s way of assuring us that the other person doesn’t have too many intestinal parasites,” Bernanke told Princeton’s graduating class of 2013. 

Prum sees this statement as a relic of a 20th-century worship of utility. People, including scientists, believed that beauty in nature must be backed by some bedrock of objective quality or value. The belief plays out in economics in the gold standard, he said, and in the theory of a rational market. In biology, it plays out as the assumption that beauty in humans and other animals is a proxy for health and fertility. Prum makes a case that nature isn’t always so practical. Sometimes it can be downright frivolous.

While much of his book deals with love among the birds, it ends with a Valentine’s message to our species: Those lacking whatever passes for perfect body proportions or facial symmetry aren’t lower-quality humans. And not fitting societal standards of beauty doesn’t mean you have more parasites than the next person.