Re: BOOKS: Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
Thu, 9 Sep 1999 09:45:03 -0700

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, <>, writes:
> "Robert J. Bradbury" wrote:
> >
> > As such, whether it is true or not, it is probably worth reading
> > for people who envision "self-selection" of their own attributes
> > (physical, mental, emotional, etc.). The self-selection of
> > attributes presumably depends to some degree on how one perceives
> > those attributes will be received by those around you. From
> > my perspective, a more significant question is, what attributes
> > will individuals select, when anyone can select them? Will
> > they select the putative biological "norms" that have been most
> > successful, or will individuals attempt to distinguish themselves
> > from the "norm" in creative, unusual or even freaky ways?
> Personally, I'd just as soon tie the perception of physical beauty
> directly into my evaluation of the female's intelligence and disable all
> checking of physical attributes. I find it disturbing, even disgusting
> to believe that my mind would probably have more trouble empathizing
> with Trinity or Ivanova or Buffy if they were ugly and fat. (Note I say
> "my mind" rather than "I", and "believe" rather than "know".)

Greg Egan had a short story about a guy who had some brain damage that left him unable to perceive beauty. So they did an operation to fix it, and he ended up with the ability to manually control how beautiful he perceived any given object or situation. He could pop up a little dial in his visual field and mentally twist it one way or the other, to make whatever he was looking at seem incredibly beautiful or very plain.

Egan seemed to want us to draw his usual moral (IMO) about how this illustrates the pointlessnes of everything, how our perceptions are simply arbitrary and meaningless, etc. My gripe was that it presented an over-simplified view of beauty; it is not just a single perception that could plausibly be tweaked as in the story. It comes from many different sources. Many aspects of an entity may cause it to be considered beauty; its complexity, its symmetry, its concordance with other aspects of itself or of your beliefs and feelings. You can't just tweak a knob, you would need to go much deeper.

The very idea that a trivial one-note hum could be made to seem beautiful in the same way as an elaborate symphony, is not only wrong but IMO pernicious. It cheapens our perceptions, it cheapens the inherent beauty and complexity of the mind itself. Yes, we are machines, but we are complex, intricate, endlessly fascinating machines. Egan always seems to miss this point. Rather than losing faith because we are mere machines, we should marvel at what mere machines can become.