Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Beauty And The Labcoat

The obsession modern human society has with beauty is an outgrowth of the need for the species to procreate, which is an evolutionary imperative enforced through natural selection to drive the continued diversification of the species, to allow for its success in adapting to changes in environment. A rudimentary system to ensure the survival of our species, dragged along into the modern era through the auspices of our DNA, we have taken it, expanded it, "codified" it, and then attempted to enforce it, through media and opinion. Beauty has gone from a primitive device to the bane of human society.

Nowhere is that more evident than in a remarkably troubling event that took place this week, when Psychology Today -- a magazine loosely dedicated to the dissemination of useful knowledge in the field of psychology -- printed a tract by Satoshi Kanazawa that was entitled “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” It was another in a series of diatribes dressed as science by the author, seeking to apply a veneer of scientific legitimacy to sexist and racist ideas in the disreputable field of "evolutionary psychology." It was attempting to paint a picture of black women as "undesirable" compared to "social norms"; instead, it painted a picture of a bigoted author trying to justify that bigotry, an all too common practice over the centuries. Science has now usurped scripture as the medium by which nonsensical, biased, and backward ideas are perpetuated and reinforced.

Science is based on the idea that things that are quantifiable, that is, measurable, can be subject to interpretation through standardized testing and statistical analysis to provide insight into the inner workings of the universe and the things within it. The most important part of such study is the ability to measure -- as accurately as possible -- the thing you are studying. The more subjective a measure becomes, the less accurate it can be said the results are. Subjectivity is the bane of valid results, because if independent observers cannot agree on the measure or how it is expressed, then they cannot be said to be able to agree what the results mean. This is expressed most succinctly in Einstein's theories of relativity, where the differences between observers could be linked to relative motion by equations which could convert apparently divergent data into sets measurable by a common system.

It is one thing to measure the energy of a photon knocking an electron out of its orbit around an atom, or the rate of flow of blood through veins or the electrical variance of a neuron; when it comes to such things as beauty, subjectivity makes it impossible to build a truly common frame of reference in the Einsteinian sense. It is also impossible to say that since our pursuit of beauty is part of an evolutionary mechanism, that that mechanism expresses itself exactly the same way in each organism in a species. To wit, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Given this subjectivity, the idea that beauty can be quantified is specious. What you and I and any other million people on Earth think is beautiful is bound to be different, whether we are talking a flower, a tree, a scene, or another person. It is influenced by upbringing, culture, location, history, and a thousand other factors that cannot be controlled for, and it is the ability to set a baseline control against which to measure results that is at the heart of scientific inquiry. Without it, science is just so much coffee talk.

Having debunked the "science" aspect of Satoshi Kanazawa's work, we can now attack -- and that is certainly a valid word -- the bigotry lying beneath the facade. For, as history has shown repeatedly, where people try to use science to invent differences between the races or sexes or creeds that can be used to claim that one group is "better" than another, it is usually in the service of bigotry and phobia. What did black women do, to become the center of such revolting attention? Nothing, except that perhaps, with a strong black woman as First Lady, this is nothing more than another thinly-veiled attempt to peddle racism as something else to avoid the obviousness that the author and others would surely prefer, but know would be detrimental to them.

Human society can no longer be a slave of its basest impulses. We may rail against racism and sexism and homophobia and all the other ills we see, but there has to be more than righteous indignation. We have to actively counter-program against the pogroms and diatribes and vitriol that continue to infest our global family. There is no room for such bile, such hatred; the very planet we live on may be on a collision course with climactic changes that could render our species nothing more than a distant memory. We should be, must be, beyond these petty considerations. We are all one, all human -- the differences between us are not a point of contention, but a path to survival.

The worst of them will never be swayed by true logic and unassailable reason; once dedicated to their own world view, many will cling to it even as the waves swallow them and the winds knock down their towers of denial. We should not abandon all hope and write them off, where there may be even the slimmest chance of their conversion, but we also cannot stand idly by and treat these affectations as harmless curiosities. We must push aside the dark and sordid beliefs that threaten us, and school future generations in acceptance, compassion, and trust. Our survival depends on how we deal with such impediments to our growth -- it is time for the garden to be weeded and restored.

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