08 November 2012

from Lawrence, Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting: The importance of physical appearance

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are discussing a topic that might well be described as the curse of human beings in
the 21st Century. No, it's not the corrupt politician, but our appearances: The importance of
physical appearance.

Unfortunately, discrimination seems to be a permanent feature in our society. In my short essay I
try to assess why this is the case.

The importance of physical appearance

Let's exclude the interpretation of this topic to mean one's grooming and up keeping. Shampoo,
shower gel, shaving blades, soap, mouth wash, hair styling and make up should all take us a long way
in being presentable in public. Indeed being sufficiently well groomed is very important for us when
meeting other people. And rejection or exclusion for not presenting oneself in public with a minimum
of grooming is more than justified.

But underneath the face value of this topic, there is a very serious philosophical issue because
there is a very serious social and biological issue implied in the topic. And the issue comes in two
parts. Our distaste for things that do not conform and our bias towards things we perceive to be good.

Now, we not only like things that we perceive to be good, but many times go one step further and
desire them. And of course, as we all know today, the primary purpose for a biological system to
desire another member of its own kind is for reproduction purposes. And an equally important purpose
is for companionship, because biological systems are, generally speaking, social creatures, despite
the fact that some animals live a solitary life (sea turtles).

Thus, physical appearance certainly has biologically importance because it conveys relevant
information very efficiently about our physical state to other people. So someone who looks anaemic
or pale is a sure visual sign that they are sick or worse and therefore at the very least we should
be cautious how we approach them, and certainly not valid candidates for reproductive partners.

We can go another step further. We also know today that a good well balanced diet, amongst other
things, has at least two effects, we grow taller and we are smarter. Although we also know, today,
that being taller does not cause us to be smarter, but before we knew this there was a bias for
people to favour tall instead of short people (especially tall males), because there was always a
good chance that they were also well off than the average person. And thus were more likely to be
also well nourished and therefore healthier.

And then we can go to the twilight zone of the topic and look at obesity or size challenged. In the
past (look at Ruben's paintings) and even in some cultures today, being fat was associated with
beauty or fertility. Today being fat, despite being a very common condition in advanced cultures, is
a no, no!

Of course, it comes as no surprise that the cultures that have a bias towards fat women (based on
body mass and not body frame), are also the same cultures where famine and disease are likely to be
rife. There are other reasons why women should be large in size, but I have made my point.

While the above is generally valid and well documented, it might have been practical a few centuries
and a few millennia ago, but today behaviour based on these biological instincts is not necessarily
valid. And part of the reason is of course, we have such control over the human body and our
environment that appearances might not reflect the true well being and intellect of a person.

In other words, appearances might have given us more true positive hits in our basic biological
state, but obviously, in our rational state appearances we are more likely to have a false positive
hit. How else can we explain states, such as the USA, who claim to be God fearing peoples and still
have 16.3% of their population without health cover? (Health care in the United States – Wikipedia)
and how can we explain other countries (UK and Spain for example) trying to adopt the American model
of health care? The American health model appears to give choice and access to health care, but the
reality is that it excludes a large portion of the population from healthcare whilst not necessarily
being better than other models.

If we are attracted towards things that look good, we are also repulsed with things that do not
conform to our perceptions. However, things that conform to our perceptions are things that conform
to some value judgement and criteria. And therefore, by implication, values that are probably based
on the idea of culture or a collective group.

In a basic society, height and size might have some validity as excluding or including factors;
until, that is, a society becomes a scientific society and starts building a knowledge base to deal
with health and nutrition issues (amongst other things). Nevertheless, repulsion is no less a
natural instinct than attraction is, but in a society where nature is no longer the only master of
our destiny the old gold standards and the old values need to change as well. Otherwise this can
lead, in a supposed civilized society, to anomalies or straight forward discrimination.

Unfortunately, people today still discriminate on race, looks, nationality, weakness, body size,
shape, beliefs, biological norms, and so on. Sure we have developed the concepts of human rights,
and constitutions as tools for those rights, and constitutional courts to protect those rights.
Indeed today in an average civilised country, that tries to uphold the rule of law, we find a solid
set of laws to protect people against discrimination. And those who openly advocate discrimination
are unfortunately mentally sick, or mentally wicked or mentally challenged.

Indeed we have also developed the language to describe instances when we discriminate against people
because of their physical appearance. The term is "size discrimination or sizeism" (see Wikipedia)
and the term does not only mean that people discriminate against short or fat people, or other
feature, but discrimination because of any physical feature which others might not like. For
example, very slim people (not anorexic) are sometimes also discriminated against, or very tall people.

Or take the case of Debrahlee Lorenzana, who according to a report in Forbes.com*, was fired from
her job because she was "too hot" or too attractive for some of her male colleagues to concentrate
on their work.

What the Lorenzana case confirms is that we are creatures that have a bias towards conformity (the
centre of the bell curve) and repulsion of instances that appear in the fat tail of the bell curve
(extremes). The company could have fired those guys who could not concentrate and employed people
who could! This knowledge serves social engineers, including businesses and politicians, to exploit
our weaknesses by prodding and poking our biological instincts. Why are American presidents**
always^ above the average height of American males?^ Or why are film stars always attractive and
nearly body perfect? Or why are families in adverts are always a male, a female, an older boy and a
young girl; in other words the average family with the average number of 2.5 kids?

As rational beings we know that discrimination is wrong, we have legislation for that, although not
yet for sizeism, but against this awareness we also know that the world we live in is still
controlled by the principle of survival of the fittest or the luck strike.

And here we will find the key philosophical issue. Given that the principles of evolution are sound
and universally valid, why is it that biological evolution develops much slower than intellectual
(knowledge) evolution? In other words, why does our physical body and its survival mechanisms,
evolve much slower than our knowledge base?

This might go a long way to explain why we develop moral and ethical systems, such as laws against
discrimination, and yet we still succumb to biological impulses such as discrimination on
appearances. But this discrepancy between biology and our knowledge development raises its own
question: is knowledge (human knowledge) an anomaly of biology in general and of evolution in

Best Lawrence

*The Conversation: The Booty Bias
**Heights of presidents and presidential candidates of the United States
^Height Chart of Men and Women in Different Countries
^except for Carter

Best Lawrence

PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao

Thursday's Open Tertulia in English
Important Notice: From December 1st, the Tertulia will take place at O'Donnells (ex-Moore's) Irish
Pub, c/ Barceló 1 (metro Tribunal)

from Lawrence, Sunday PhiloMadrid meeting: The importance of physical appearance

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