In an article in the NY Times, Natalie Angier talks to scientists in the field and discusses why we perceive some harmless animals as ugly. Some of the explanations for our reactions are very problematical, but I thought the subject was fascinating. Our culture is obsessive about beauty and rarely considers anything more than biases when (not) thinking about ugliness. We get nitpickingly specific about beauty and almost never considers ugliness. It’s one of those things that everybody knows.
…Let’s not pussyfoot. They are, by our standards, ugly animals — maybe cute ugly, more often just ugly ugly. And though the science of ugliness lags behind investigations into the evolution of beauty and the metrics of a supermodel’s face, a few researchers are taking a crack at understanding why we find certain animals unsightly even when they don’t threaten us with venom or compete for our food.
…Among the all-star uglies are the star nosed mole, whose mug in close-up, said Nancy Kanwisher, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “is disturbing because it looks like the animal has no face,” or as if its face has been blown away.
Clearly the second look matters. I don’t know how I’d feel about a star nose mole in life, but on second glance I rather liked it. The nose seemed more sea anemone-like than repulsive, and the badger-like claws are attractive.
..As scientists see it, a comparative consideration of what we find freakish or unsettling in other species offers a fresh perspective on how we extract large amounts of visual information from a millisecond’s glance, and then spin, atomize and anthropomorphize that assessment into a revealing saga of ourselves.
…We see images of jaguars, impalas and falcons and we praise their regal beauty and name our muscle cars for them. We watch a conga line of permanently tuxedoed penguins, and our hearts melt faster than the ice sheet beneath those adorable waddling feet. Even creatures phylogenetically far removed from ourselves can have an otherworldly appeal: jellyfish octopus, praying mantis, horseshoe crab.
It’s interesting that so many of the creatures that are deadly or dangerous to us, we find beautiful.
…The more readily we can analogize between a particular animal body part and our own, the more likely we are to cry ugly. “We may not find an elephant’s trunk ugly because it’s so remote,” Dr. Dutton said. “But the proboscis on a proboscis monkey is close enough to our own that we apply human standards to it.
…Classical beauty is easy, but a taste for the difficult, the unconventional, the ugly, has often been seen as a mark of sophistication, a passport into the rarefied world of the artistic vanguard. “Beauty can be present by its violation,” Dr. Steiner said, and the pinwheel appendages of the star-nosed mole are the rosy fingers of dawn.
…Don’t forget the gargoyles of our own creation, purebred cats and dogs that are stump-limbed, hairless and wrinkled, with buggy eyes and concave snouts, and ears as big as a jack rabbit’s or curled at the tips like rotini. We love them, we do, our dear little mutants, not in spite of their ugliness, but because of it.
Looking at what different cultures eat, and ‘appetizing’ strongly includes visuals, it seems obvious that standards of ugliness – i.e. I wouldn’t put that in my mouth – vary greatly. Examining all of this I’m still struck by how shallow and circular these explanations are. It strikes me as the very beginning of a conversation I’d love to see developed.