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  • Superficial?Not Us—We Men Are Born Molecular Geneticists!
  • Thiruchandurai V. Rajan

Due to some strange quirk of chance, women outnumber men in my life. I share my home with my wife and three daughters. In my office, the departmental administrator and all three secretaries are women. For several years, my lab personnel have all been women—there are two technicians, and four women graduate students. I sometimes think that I can spend several days in a row without conversing with a man, unless I make a very deliberate effort.

I must confess that this has given me some perspectives that I might not otherwise have. For whatever reason, the women in my life seem to have decided that I am harmless—one of the girls, as it were—and they indulge in candid discussions as if I weren't even there.The lesson I have learned is that women's conversations are different from men's. For about ten or so years, I used to have lunch with a group of male colleagues. Despite this, I do not know the names of their wives or their children. I never learned what the wives did for a living or what kind of people they might be. In contrast, I know a great deal about the relationships my women colleagues have with their significant others, sometimes in more excruciating detail than I need necessarily know. The one thing that has emerged from this admittedly small and perhaps skewed sample is that whereas the older women I know seem to have come to terms with the peculiarities of those in their lives with Y chromosomes, younger women seem far less inclined to be tolerant. They find us wanting. They seem convinced that we men are [End Page 422] superficial, that nothing turns our heads and our hearts more than a pretty face or a good figure, that we have no appreciation for the "inner being."

Pardon me, but I think my young female friends are not reading recent literature in evolutionary biology. After reading a series of papers in High Impact Journals, I have come to the conclusion that these women are in fact quite incorrect about us men. Superficial? Heaven forbid! Our choices are driven by an exquisite, highly refined feel for molecular genetics, and a deep understanding of interactions between alleles at various genetic loci in developmental biology—and more than anything else, by our selfless regard for the good of the next generation. Bear with me as I explicate what might seem an outrageous statement.

There is a piece of folk wisdom that says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and another reinforcing aphorism that avers that love is blind. Both these chestnuts support the general acceptance that it is difficult to understand what two people see in each other when they decide to enter into a long-term relationship. Unwilling to let either of these two pieces of folk wisdom go unexamined, scientists have begun to examine seriously what exactly beauty is, and whether it is really true that it is in the eye of the beholder (Etcoff 1994). Some studies have dealt with facial beauty, others with body configuration.

Let me begin with the studies that deal with facial beauty. Almost everyone will agree that the first thing we notice about a person is his or her face. But what makes some faces attractive, others merely average? For most of human history, we have been content to believe that such decisions are idiosyncratic and, further, heavily influenced by cultural norms. However, recent studies insist that this may not be as axiomatic as it seems.

The impetus to the more recent investigations of facial beauty comes from a purely accidental study in the late 19th century by Francis Galton (1878), the quixotic English polymath, geneticist, and, some would say, racist. Galton was interested in the role of heredity in the human "stock" and was a tireless and influential promoter of eugenics (he coined the word). He wanted to improve the proportion of individuals of superior genetic constitution, by promoting selective marriage and breeding. He was also interested in determining if there are specific facial or...


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