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Facial Symmetry, and Soulless Darwinism

David Klinghoffer

facial symmetry

Telling people, on the basis of shaky science, to think of themselves and others as nothing more than evolved animals…What could possibly go wrong with that?

Of course, a lot has gone wrong. As scholars including Richard Weikart and John West have demonstrated, the political, ethical, cultural, and other costs of Darwinism’s influence go deep and very dark, in Europe, America, and Africa The upcoming documentary Human Zoos tells one disturbing story, of many, about how evolutionism’s legacy has played out over the past century and a half. Against such a backdrop, rude remarks and hurt feelings at a holiday party may seem a trivial matter.

Yet this vignette tells you a lot. An email correspondent points out a story at the website Tor.com, which covers science fiction and fantasy in an unusual and thoughtful manner. Writer Elsa Sjunneson-Henry responds in a very personal way to a recent movie that I haven’t seen yet, The Shape of Water. In the film, a mute woman falls in love with a Black Lagoon-style sea monster, and he (it?) with her.

The author is a “deafblind speculative fiction writer, editor and disability activist.” She’s written elsewhere about life with an artificial eye, and styles herself as the “Fiction Writing Cyclops.” She reflects on the disability of the film’s protagonist, and on her own.

Society says that disability makes us lesser, makes us uneven humans. The worst of humanity looks at me with my one clouded eye, and my one hearing ear. It looks at me and it says I am half of what I could be. This isn’t a projection. I don’t feel less than whole. I have had people tell me that I am lesser than them. That they couldn’t imagine what it would be like to inhabit my body, that they would rather die than experience what it is like to live in a disabled body.

She’s disappointed that the movie seems to imply only a monster could love a disabled woman, an unfortunate message echoed elsewhere in the culture. She includes spoilers, so beware before going to the link. She concludes with this:

Over the holidays, I attended a party where a guest told me that disabled people were cast as evil characters because evolutionary psychology says that asymmetrical people aren’t attractive. He said this, while looking into my asymmetrical eyes. He said this without apology. He said this because he believed it, with my husband not two seats away from me staring daggers at him. The thing is, this isn’t the first time this has happened to me. It probably won’t be the last. There’s nobody fighting back, except the disabled people out there who want to be loved. [Emphasis added.]

Whoa. OK, that is a powerful point, and something to which I had never before given a thought. The walk-on role of the amateur evolutionary psychologist is fascinating. The idea of facial symmetry as a marker of good health and desirability as a reproductive partner, thus a source of attraction favored by natural selection, is a familiar notion if you follow the professional and popular science literature.

As an empirical matter, it’s also false. No doubt, people reveal a great deal about themselves through their faces, more than they realize. In fact, though, there seems to be no connection between subtle asymmetry and health challenges that could bear on reproduction. From Live Science:

Despite the widespread assumption that symmetry might be a sign of good health, studies have turned up little evidence of a link between the two. A few small studies have linked facial asymmetry with some short-term health woes, like scratchy throats, but many others have found no links at all.

However, those studies were generally small, relied on people to accurately report their own health and focused on participants’ recent health.

In the new study [in Proceedings of the Royal Society B], researchers examined 4,732 British 15- and 16-year-olds whose health had been tracked since birth as part of the United Kingdom’s Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children.

The researchers analyzed three-dimensional scans of teens’ faces, looking for symmetry, and compared those findings to health measures including birth weight, childhood health problems, body mass index (BMI) and even IQ at age 8.

The results showed no links between health and facial symmetry.

From Discover Magazine:

Symmetry is a beautiful thing — especially when it comes to potential partners. Studies have shown that people prefer symmetrical facial features in the opposite sex, which many scientists think evolved to help people choose the healthiest mate.

Yet a new large-scale study throws that into doubt, indicating that health during childhood has no impact on later facial symmetry.

So the fable from evolutionary psychology is just that, a fable. The guy at the party is an ignoramus. What’s real is the inhuman way that Darwinism encourages us to think and talk about other human beings. Check out the comments under the Discover article. Very quickly the discussion turns from coldly dissecting human anatomy to a comparison with dog breeding.

  • “Now redo that study without modern medicine and with a greater hunter-gatherer lifestyle. I wonder if ancient lack of medicine might affect how minor incidents with face, teeth and eyes affect appearance.”
  • “To me facial symmetry (absence of any asymmetrical variations, even surficial) seems to suggest genetic stability, which in turn implies resistance to health problems, irrespective of health during childhood.”
  • “Mm… Seems to me that greater genetic variation would be more likely to cause asymmetrical features. Like mixing two different breeds of dog results in odd symmetry.”
  • “2 breeds of dog yes, but if you keep mixing them wouldn’t they just got more and more symmetrical. Comparing the one that is mixed with 2 breeds and the one mixed with many. Symmetry would go hand in hand with genetic variation right?”

This, as ever, is a danger of evolutionary thinking.

What constitutes beauty, inner or outer, is a question beyond science. Trying to pretend it can be crunched through “large-scale studies” and gross metrics like body mass or IQ is not only a cloddish delusion but a formula for thinking and talking about humans in some terribly inhuman, soulless ways. Even as researchers retreat from the equation of symmetry with health, try reading this stuff through the eyes, or eye, of Ms. Sjunneson-Henry.

Discussing other people with horrendous insensitivity is, obviously, not the invention of evolutionary theory. Certainly, though, the picture of what a human being is has suffered under Darwinism, and this has consequences. The writer’s painful experience at a party offers a small but revealing illustration.