Fetching faces and friendly foxes

September 25, 2013

"What is beautiful is good" -- but why? A recent article in The Quarterly Review of Biology provides a compelling physiological explanation for the "beauty stereotype": why human beings are wired to favor the beautiful ones.

Studies have shown that humans subconsciously attribute positive social qualities (such as integrity, intelligence, and happiness) to physically attractive individuals. Even across cultures there exists a significant consensus on relative beauty: youthful facial features, including, for women, relatively large eyes, a relatively high craniofacial ratio, and a relatively small jaw. In an article published in the September 2013 issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology, Dr. I. Elia, an independent scholar at Cambridge University, bridges genetics, physical and social anthropology, and psychology to interpret the findings of the "farm fox experiment" in Russia to reveal "a possible and replicable demonstration of the origin of beauty while inadvertently illuminating its ancient philosophical connection to goodness via a plausible neurohormonal pathway."

Silver foxes (Vulpes vulpes) were selectively bred for "friendly" behavior toward humans. Within 20 years, a tame line of communicative, trusting, and playful foxes was achieved. Researchers also noticed that in addition to desirable behavioral traits, the foxes also experienced more rapid development to maturity and displayed more "attractive" and more juvenile physical features, including rounder skulls and flatter faces, with smaller noses and shorter muzzles. That these neotenic changes resulted from genetically controlled alterations in friendly behavior may suggest that to humans, facial beauty signals an individual's relatively greater level of approachability and sociability.

In the experiment, selection for "friendly" appeared to affect genes controlling the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which modulates both fear and aggression. Selection to reduce both these states in order to obtain more friendly foxes alters the triad's function, with consequent changes in hormone levels that, due to earlier physical maturation, also affect diverse physical features. Earlier skeletal maturation means that the sutures at the base of the skull fuse sooner, making the skull more domed and giving the higher craniofacial ratio and foreshortened face human beings find endearing.

Natural selective pressure for approachability must have similarly prevailed in the evolution of mammals, because too-aggressive or too-fearful individuals would have interfered with the feeding and survival of offspring. Because young and female mammals are traditionally more involved than males in early feeding, it is not surprising that neotenic faces and behaviors generally appear in young and female mammals -- and that this particular emotion-evoking facial structure links to friendly, interactive, calm, trusting, and social behaviors.

Some neotenic changes may underpin the ability to interact, cooperate, and learn in humans and other species. Intuitive or deliberate selection appears to have enhanced the neotenic package, which predisposes to calm, curious, and caring rapport among individuals. Studies have consistently found that relative facial attractiveness in both children and adults (females and males) significantly correlates with social performance and with intelligence measured by IQ. This has set the stage for learning and cooperation within and between several mammalian species, and is likely due to changes in genes controlling the HPA axis, which then produces similar downstream effects in diverse species when rapport behavior is chosen. Although more supporting research is needed, it appears that species as different as bonobos and killer whales may have selected themselves for approachability, with consequent key behavioral and structural traits (including crowded teeth!) that are shared by them, humans, and domesticated animals.
-end-
Elia, I. E. "A Foxy View of Human Beauty: Implications of the Farm Fox Experiment for Understanding the Origins of Structural and Experiential Aspects of Facial Attractiveness." Quarterly Review of Biology Vol. 88, No. 3 (September 2013). http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/671486

The Quarterly Review of Biology, the premier review journal in biology, has presented insightful historical, philosophical, and technical treatments of important biological topics since 1926. The QRB publishes outstanding review articles of generous length that are guided by an expansive, inclusive, and often humanistic understanding of biology. Beyond the core biological sciences, the QRB is also an important review journal for scholars in related areas, including policy studies and the history and philosophy of science.

University of Chicago Press Journals

Related Behavior Articles from Brightsurf:

Variety in the migratory behavior of blackcaps
The birds have variable migration strategies.

Fishing for a theory of emergent behavior
Researchers at the University of Tsukuba quantified the collective action of small schools of fish using information theory.

How synaptic changes translate to behavior changes
Learning changes behavior by altering many connections between brain cells in a variety of ways all at the same time, according to a study of sea slugs recently published in JNeurosci.

I won't have what he's having: The brain and socially motivated behavior
Monkeys devalue rewards when they anticipate that another monkey will get them instead.

Unlocking animal behavior through motion
Using physics to study different types of animal motion, such as burrowing worms or flying flocks, can reveal how animals behave in different settings.

AI to help monitor behavior
Algorithms based on artificial intelligence do better at supporting educational and clinical decision-making, according to a new study.

Increasing opportunities for sustainable behavior
To mitigate climate change and safeguard ecosystems, we need to make drastic changes in our consumption and transport behaviors.

Predicting a protein's behavior from its appearance
Researchers at EPFL have developed a new way to predict a protein's interactions with other proteins and biomolecules, and its biochemical activity, merely by observing its surface.

Spirituality affects the behavior of mortgagers
According to Olga Miroshnichenko, a Sc.D in Economics, and a Professor at the Department of Economics and Finance, Tyumen State University, morals affect the thinking of mortgage payers and help them avoid past due payments.

Asking if behavior can be changed on climate crisis
One of the more complex problems facing social psychologists today is whether any intervention can move people to change their behavior about climate change and protecting the environment for the sake of future generations.

Read More: Behavior News and Behavior Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.