Archives For Survival of the Prettiest

Several years ago, I was teaching John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn to a group of sophomore students. While they did struggle with the first four stanzas of the poem, they lingered on the the memorable last stanza of the poem:

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!                           45
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’        50

Like other students before them in previous years, they wrestled with the conclusion that Keats arrived on with the closing lines:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty”

What is beauty?

When I asked students, “What is beauty?” they had many different ideas. In one session, we discussed physical beauty. It was not a surprise that each student held a different idea about physical beauty. After they listed the characteristics,  I offered a photo of “beautiful” face. When I shared this photo, they all agreed she was beautiful.

Computerized face: Survival of the Prettiest by Nancy Etcoff

Computerized face: “Survival of the Prettiest” by Nancy Etcoff

After they agreed, I revealed that this particular face had been generated by a computer. The beautiful face was developed as part of the research by Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard psychologist and medical researcher. Her research on attitudes towards beauty resulted in a book titled, Survival of the Prettiest.

The face they all agreed was a beautiful face was, quite literally, an average[d] face. The graphic at right had been generated by a computerized program that averaged the faces of hundreds of women. In other words, this was not a single woman who defined beauty, but a representation of multiple women.

The conclusion my students reached was, although the face of the woman was beautiful, a  “virtual babe”, she was really just “average”.

The Truth in Averages

The students discussing the computerized face understood averages; they were confronted with the term daily. They maintained an attendance average; they received a grade point average. They knew mathematically that an average is a form of reduction; a division into an arithmetic mean. They also understood that calculating an average did provide a kind of truth in their performance, but not the whole truth. There was almost always a test or quiz or project that could be in “dispute” or “unfair.”

They did agree that the face created by the computer program was probably more equitable in making qualitative judgements. Every face was weighed by the software program in exactly the same way. They suggested that there was probably more “truth” (fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal) in the averaging process in the face’s creation than in their GPAs.

Truth is Beauty?

“So, is this particular beauty ‘truth’?” I asked again, pointing to the computerized face, “…is this a true individual ‘beauty’?”
They did not think so.
“Collectively, then?”
“Mrs. Bennett, all this proves is everyone together is beautiful…and that is the truth!”

What say you, John Keats?