On Beauty: How Eugenics Got Darwin Wrong

Dear CF,

In today’s sampling of the Eugenics Review, I learned why “we” (by which the reviewer does not mean white men but the human race) think white ladies are more beautiful than other ladies. It has everything to do with the story of human progress, which takes place in 6 easy steps.

From the Review’s review of J.B.S. Haldane’s Daedalus, or Science and the Future (E.P. Dutton, 1924), a full copy of which is here, comes this nutty piece of prose:

“According to Haldane, prehistory had known four fundamental biological innovations, including the domestication of animals, of plants, and of fungi for the production of alcohol. The fourth, he allowed, more ultimate and far-reaching in importance than any of these, was the invention of frontal copulation. That ‘altered the path of sexual selection, focussed the attention of man as a lover upon woman’s face and breasts, and changed our idea of beauty from the steatopygous Hottentot to the modern European, from the Venus of Brassempouy to the Venus of Milo.”

You may wonder, as I did, what “steatopygous” means. The OED apparently felt the need to define a feature of a race as “abnormal:”

A protuberance of the buttocks, due to an abnormal accumulation of fat in and behind the hips and thighs, found (more markedly in women than in men) as a racial characteristic of certain peoples, esp. the Hottentots and Bushmen of South Africa.

In the fifty years that elapsed between the publication of Darwin’s “Descent of Man” and Haldane’s queasy little volume, the natural sciences radically amplified the apparently objective stance, especially when it comes to beauty. Context goes out the window and their claims get overblown. Where Haldane tries (the way evolutionary psychology often tries and fails) to come up with some objective principle that universalizes and justifies a (white, male) sexual preference, Darwin and his fellow natural philosophers acknowledge the subjectivity of his position. When Darwin surveys the physical traits that distinguish different races, he’s careful to point out how beauty is a variable (and, insofar as it claims to transcend the particular island of that Galapagos finch, nonexistent) category that can’t and won’t transcend the accidents of population, context and geography.

Fitness, for Darwin, was never an absolute category. Here’s what he says in 1871:

It is well known that with many Hottentot women the posterior part of the body projects in a wonderful manner; they are steatopygous: and Sir Andrew Smith is certain that this peculiarity is greatly admired by the men.

Of the Chinese he writes:

Finlayson, after minutely describing the people of Cochin China, says that their rounded heads and faces are their chief characteristics; and, he adds, “the roundness of the whole countenance is more striking in the women, who are reckoned beautiful in proportion as they display this form of face.” The Siamese have small noses with divergent nostrils, a wide mouth, rather thick lips, a remarkably large face, with very high and broad cheek-bones. It is, therefore, not wonderful that “beauty, according to our notion is a stranger to them. Yet they consider their own females to be much more beautiful than those of Europe.”

None of this is exactly enlightened by our standards, but there’s a world of difference between Darwin’s grip of the problems intrinsic to universalizing something like beauty and Haldane’s, who ebulliently forges ahead, blithely unaware that his penis not be the ultimate arbiter of taste.

Not that he wasn’t an original thinker or an interesting man: he was a Marxist sympathizer and wrote often for the Communist Daily Worker. Even more interestingly [thanks Wikipedia!], Daedalus was evidently considered a “shocking science fiction,” showing as it does “the effect of the separation between sexual life and pregnancy as a satisfactory one on human psychology and social life.” It’s largely about “ectogenesis, (the development of fetuses in artificial wombs) – “test tube babies”, brought to life without sexual intercourse or pregnancy.)”

A champion of pleasure without pregnancy. Haldane: I want to like you for that. I do But here’s what you say right after offering his description of frontal copulation—which, again, is the fourth “invention” that justifies white women’s superior beauty:

There are certain races which have not yet made this last invention. And in our own day two more have been made, namely bactericide and the artificial control of conception.

Fascinating, right? By definition, if you find a non-European woman sexually attractive, you haven’t figured out missionary style sex yet. Your preferred sexual position has you lagging in the race for racial supremacy. Luckily, the beautiful winners, who have outsourced pregnancy, will be there to lend a helping hand (and stop you from reproducing).




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