Alien Beauty Standards

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It just occurred to me that most humanoid alien "babes" are supposed to be beautiful by our standard. However, would our standard be the norm for intelligent civilizations? And if not, what might be?
 

Extollager

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My understanding of beauty is a traditional one that, I think, is widely dismissed today. It would go something like this:

Rightly understood, the beautiful is a category of reality. This means that something could be beautiful even though hardly anyone recognized the fact, and, conversely, that something might not be beautiful, even though most people said that it was.

I understand the beautiful, in a loose sense anyway, in Platonic terms. The beautiful in its essence is something permanent, outlasting the decay of the beautiful shapes and colors that our senses perceive. No thing that our senses perceive can be definitively beautiful or exhaustively beautiful. Thus, for example, the limpid clarity of blue eyes and the warm darkness of rich brown eyes are both beautiful, but something can't be beautiful in both of these ways at the same time.

It would be better to say that taste rather than beauty is "in the eye of the beholder," when "in the eye of the beholder" is an expression meant to convey that, well, everyone has his or her likes and dislikes, and there's no point in arguing about these differences, etc. Taste might sometimes not be only a matter of one particular person's liking, but of a culture's. Thus, in medieval Japan the taste was for high-status women to blacken their teeth artificially (as seen in Kurosawa's movie Throne of Blood). In the baroque period, artistic taste, perhaps reacting against the austerity esteemed in the medieval period, was for portraits showing billowing masses of flesh. I don't, myself, think that it's correct when we say that such things show that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." These and many other examples that could be cited are instances in the history of taste.

Conversely, a taste for the beautiful may need to be inculcated. (This is something that, I suppose, the schools and universities have largely defected from.)* Otherwise, something beautiful might not seem to be so. There's an Arthur Machen story, "7B Coney Court," that suggests this:


Now, to come around to the question posed at the beginning of the present thread, about alien babes:

The issue is that the "alien babes" are really human beings -- whatever they are supposed to be. They are the same type of creature as the old fairies, who were as big, or maybe a bit taller even, than human beings, but beautiful and perilous.

If I might quote an old ballad in support of this point:

True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank,
A ferlie he spied wi' his e'e,
And there he saw a lady bright
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.


Her skirt was o' the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o' the velvet fyne.
At ilka tett o' her horse's mane
Hung fifty siller bells and nine.


True Thomas he pull's aff his cap
And louted low down to his knee:
“All hail, thou mighty Queen o' Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see.”


“O no, o no, Thomas,” she said,
“That name does not belong to me;
I am but the queen of fair Elfland
That am hither come to visit thee.”


“Harp and carp, Thomas,” she said,
“Harp and carp along wi' me.
And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
Sure of your body I will be.”


“Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird shall never daunton me.”
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips
All underneath the Eildon Tree.


“Now ye maun gang wi' me,” she said,
“True Thomas, ye maun gang wi' me.
And ye maun serve me seven years
Thro' weal and woe, as may chance to be.”


She mounted on her milk-white steed,
She's ta'en True Thomas up behind.
And aye whene'er her bridle rung
The steed flew faster than the wind.


O they rode on and farther on,
The steed gaed swifter than the wind,
Until they reached a desert wide
And living land was left behind.


“Light down, light down now, True Thomas
And lean your head upon my knee,
Abide and rest a little space
And I will show you ferlies three.


“O see ye not yon narrow road
So thick beset with thorns and briars?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho' after it but few enquires.


“And see ye not that braid, braid road
That lies across that lily leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Tho' some ca' it the road to heaven.


“And see ye not that bonny road
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland
Where thou and I this night maun gae.


“But, Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue
Whatever ye may hear or see.
For if you speak word in Elfyn land
Ye'll ne'er get back to your ain countrie.”


Syne they came on to a garden green,
And she pu'd an apple frae a tree:
“Take this for thy wages, True Thomas
It will gi' ye the tongue that can never lie.”


“My tongue is mine ain,” True Thomas said,
“A guidly gift ye wad gie to me!
I neither dought to buy or sell,
At fair or tryst where I may be.


“I dought neither speak to prince or peer
Nor ask of grace from fair ladye.”
“Now hold thy peace,”, the lady said,
“For as I say, so must it be.”


He has gotten a coat of the even cloth
And a pair of shune of velvet green,
And till seven years were gane and past
True Thomas on earth was never seen.

--What the poet, like his (or her) successor the sf author, has done, is to combine the allure of superlative human beauty with the allure of the strange and marvelous.

So if a science fiction writer wants to write about a truly nonhuman beauty, he or she may do so, but the possessor of that beauty will not be a "babe." Ladybug beetles really are beautiful, but without being sexually alluring to humans. That's a consideration that might help the sf author.


*Guest Post: Machen’s “The Glitter of the Brook” and Poetic Knowledge by Dale Nelson
 

Toby Frost

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The chances of an alien looking much like a human are very low, let alone looking like an attractive human who just happens to be green (sorry, Captain Kirk). I don't see any reason why, say, a Predator would be sexually attracted to a human. The image of some 1950s space lobster carrying off human women, or of Jabba the Hutt chaining Princess Leia to his throne, doesn't make a lot of sense unless these are particularly bizarre individuals for their species.

Assuming that we're talking about creatures that reproduce a lot like humans (and there are plenty of other ways), I can think of two main factors that would determine attractiveness: biology and culture. Biology would make me expect a creature to want to mate with a creature that was healthy and capable of producing strong young to keep the species going. That would suggest that it would look free from disease or mutations, so would seem pretty "regular" for its type and in good, probably fairly youthful, condition (whatever that is).

However, then you've got culture. For example, a lot of women (who are meant to be attractive) in Victorian paintings look pale and slightly unwell by modern standards. That's not ideal for breeding purposes and, by global standards, its not the worst thing that's been expected of women by a very long way. Introduce some element of sexual weirdness, usually as a result of religious or political fanaticism, and almost anything could happen (like, say, The Handmaid's Tale).

So Mr Predator is probably going to want to mate with a female Predator who looks healthy and well-put-together by his species' standard - ie a scaly green monster with dreadlocks and huge mandibles. From the little I can make out of Predator culture, she'd probably be a violent warlord with an impressive skull collection. At least they'd have a shared interest.
 

scarpelius

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"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
Basically is a relativistic property, if you change the reference system the value of the beauty is going to change. This is the objective, absolute point of view.

On the other hand, as a writer when you are describing aliens, you don't have the luxury of treating their look, habits, civilization, etc. etc. from an objective point of view. You have to humanize them, so that the reader can relate to them. You have to describe them in such a way that the reader can understand their motivations, objectives, feelings (if such thing exists) and so on.
 

EJDeBrun

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The biological goal of all living beings is to reproduce (this is a science opinion. don't @ me).

As such what we consider to be "beauty" standards are usually derivitives of traits that could be considered beneficial towards bearing young.

Examples in human terms (again "traditional biological standards" have nothing to do with personality etc etc):

In women

- Predilection towards younger = better able to bear and survive childbirth

- Wide hips = See above.

- Larger breasts = better to feed young

In men

- Taller/stronger = taller / stronger children! Can also fight off rivals

- Chiseled jaw / blue eyes / nice pecs = attract woman to gain opportunities to pass on genetic material (read up on the blue eye mutation. It's eye opening <- see what I did there?)

(there are more but I don't want to go into here)

Point is! Our "biological" standards of beauty are linked to our reproductive cycles and this is consistent across all animal species.

So when it comes to ALIEN species, I expect something of the same and the standard of beauty will be liked with traits that help perpetuate survival or attract the opposite gender to create reproductive opportunities.

Common examples:

PLUMAGE in birds! (or house building, or singing, or feeding, or rock giving. Birds have the best mating/attraction rituals)

MALE SIZE! (Practically all mammals)

INTELLIGENCE! (the smart cuttlefish can be clever enough to trick its way past a larger, stronger opponent)

Basically attraction is biologically linked to breeding, so if think about what an alien species needs to breed, it'll help a lot to determine what would make one specimen more attractive than the other.

And to reiterate: this is strictly a biological perspective with no reference to social or cultural influences which can (obviously) supersede anything Nature programs.
 

zmunkz

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I agree with @EJDeBrun, this is a lot more biological than people these days tend to give credit. No doubt nature and nurture both have their role to play, but it seems to me biology sets all the rules of the game, and everything else can only flex within those rules.

There is little reason to suppose human standards of beauty would apply. What you describe is a simple consequence of the fact the audience is human. Alien lifeforms wouldn’t likely appeal to us, though they would likely appeal to one another.

That said, I do like to disagree with the common claim that aliens could be so strange as to be unrecognizable to us. Evolution by natural selection is the only known mechanism for building complex lifeforms, so it stands to reason that aliens, however foreign, will at least be subject to the same general principals and convergences in natural selection. Eyes, for instance, evolved independently more than half a dozen times in Earth’s history. Seems very reasonable aliens will have eyes. Sensory organs require some form of processing, so nervous systems are practical, and to reduce signal latency, there will likely be strong pressure for those organs to be physically close to the central nervous system if the lifeform is large. Seems very reasonable large aliens will have something like a head located somewhere on their body. Sexual reproduction is certainly more error correcting and resilient in the face of sudden selection pressure changes than asexual reproduction. It also is the least complex of the non-asexual systems, so here again, two principal genders might be common. All together, I suspect we’d see more similarities to Earth-like life in aliens than we might first expect, but we’d only find them beautiful insofar as we find any non-human animal on Earth to be beautiful (which is to say they can be beautiful, but not sexually so, thus not “babes”).

I disagree with the Platonic concept, though that is tangential. To me, beauty is something experienced, and therefore requires a conscious mind to experience it.
 

Venusian Broon

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It just occurred to me that most humanoid alien "babes" are supposed to be beautiful by our standard. However, would our standard be the norm for intelligent civilizations? And if not, what might be?
Who is to say that a sentient alien would actually recognise us as a significant intelligent civilisation? We may interest them in the same way that a few of us are interested in ants, and how they organise themselves and their nests, but otherwise completely insignificant. And taking this analogy further when was the last time an ant communicated it's 'standards' to a human researcher? ;)
 

Stable

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@EJDeBrun I'm sorry, but you've triggered me with your science talk. ;)

Nearly all the examples of fertile/attractive features you've given are just more of the social affected features. You've fallen for the old scientific trap of confusing how it is and how it should be. Which I think shown both how powerful and insidious culture can be, we end up making up these Just So stories.

Specifically -
Prediliction towards young - lots of studies show that more mature females in many species do better as mothers and at childbirth.
Larger breasts - no one is certain why humans have larger breasts, but feeding young is definitely not it - see almost every other mammal who don't need large breasts to feed their young (and many of whom have bigger, hungrier young than we do).
Chiselled jaw/blue eyes/nice pecs - more prominent jaws are linked to testosterone, so more aggressive males, which might have some link to fitness. Again though, these are examples of things that modern society has decided are attractive. Look back several hundred years and people thought that defined musculature was gross, and a nice bit of fat was very attractive because it showed you could afford food. Blue eyes I'll give you.

So if these features are a bit iffy what features can we look for? I think symmetry is a likely one. But not necessarily bilateral like we have. I can imagine some aliens going "Wow, look at that frood. He's so symmetrical if he spins 60 degrees it's like he hadn't moved at all."
 

zmunkz

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I disagree with your initial claim, @Stable . I think there is a strong tendency, especially recently, to attribute far to much to social structures, sometimes even paradoxically so (a quick example, to clarify while not opening pandora’s box, is about gender: can a woman be born in a man’s body? Is classical femininity the result of social pressure? The first implies biological roots while the second rejects it, and yet both statements tend to be supported by the same ideological group). I sympathize with this trend, which seeks to allow individual variation to surpass “group identity” (which is a good thing by any accounting) but it goes too far when it ignores the enormous inertia evolution has given our species. To claim the common expressions of sexual selection are purely social is to massively disregard the reality of evolutionary history. Social pressure may force-multiply some things, but those “things” are absolutely grounded in human biological and evolution.
 

Stable

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I disagree with your initial claim, @Stable .
I'm not saying that there are no biologically set beauty standards (for humans), in fact I specifically said that I thought symmetry being beautiful may be. I'm saying that those specific ones are mostly socially set, and that this is why we have to be careful when trying to figure out which is which, because how do you tell? I reread @EJDeBrun 's post and I do agree that you'd have to look to the aliens' biology to make guesses about their beauty standards.

I'll clarify - the traits EJDB stated as being biologically attractive may or may not be. But the stories picked out for each one don't hold true. For example, men might be set to find larger breasts attractive biologically (if we ignore all the guys who don't). But breast size is definitely not because of the amount of milk production, or else plenty of other mammals would have large breasts too. Look at our closer relatives - the other great apes don't have massive racks as a rule. So if we did evolve to prefer large breasts it was very recent and for some other reason than milk production.

I don't know which it is, but I would love for this to be socially set because then it would be an example of social pressure pushing physical evolution. :cool: I think that's what EJDB was referencing with blue eyes, which is also a cool phenomenon.

The other thing is - we know that (certain) beauty standards have changed over the last 500 years, or are different between modern cultures (is it Samoa that thinks fat is incredibly attractive?). So those traits are definitely socially based, or at least influenced. And if the social influences can override the biological then I think I've proved my argument.

We have incredibly plastic and adaptive minds thanks to our biology. To bring it back to the aliens (sorry K2) - perhaps this is why Jabba finds Leia in a bikini appealing - he's been exposed to too many human beauty standards as a young slug.

Caveat: using biological/social influences as a dichotomy is obviously simplifying when the two factors aren't mutually exclusive.
 

EJDeBrun

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I'm not saying that there are no biologically set beauty standards (for humans), in fact I specifically said that I thought symmetry being beautiful may be. I'm saying that those specific ones are mostly socially set, and that this is why we have to be careful when trying to figure out which is which, because how do you tell? I reread @EJDeBrun 's post and I do agree that you'd have to look to the aliens' biology to make guesses about their beauty standards.

I'll clarify - the traits EJDB stated as being biologically attractive may or may not be. But the stories picked out for each one don't hold true. For example, men might be set to find larger breasts attractive biologically (if we ignore all the guys who don't). But breast size is definitely not because of the amount of milk production, or else plenty of other mammals would have large breasts too. Look at our closer relatives - the other great apes don't have massive racks as a rule. So if we did evolve to prefer large breasts it was very recent and for some other reason than milk production.

I don't know which it is, but I would love for this to be socially set because then it would be an example of social pressure pushing physical evolution. :cool: I think that's what EJDB was referencing with blue eyes, which is also a cool phenomenon.

The other thing is - we know that (certain) beauty standards have changed over the last 500 years, or are different between modern cultures (is it Samoa that thinks fat is incredibly attractive?). So those traits are definitely socially based, or at least influenced. And if the social influences can override the biological then I think I've proved my argument.

We have incredibly plastic and adaptive minds thanks to our biology. To bring it back to the aliens (sorry K2) - perhaps this is why Jabba finds Leia in a bikini appealing - he's been exposed to too many human beauty standards as a young slug.

Caveat: using biological/social influences as a dichotomy is obviously simplifying when the two factors aren't mutually exclusive.
Let's talk about birds a little bit because that will help illustrate my point better.

Scientific opinion: Birds are social creatures but they do not have a "society" or "culture" that can supersede their biological needs to reproduce.

Birds also have a ton of complex mating rituals which rely (mostly) on the males enticing the females to reproduce for a pretty simple reason: it's pretty hard to physically persuade a mate to have sex against her will when she can, you know, FLY AWAY.

And what has this resulted with? A staggering variety of techniques to entice the drab females to the nest. And out of all those techniques, a LOT of them deal with beauty (peacocks anyone?) In fact, the drive to beauty can actually lead the males to risk their lives by being ridiculously feathered (again, peacocks) because the ladies like something nice to look at.

And in this example there are absolutely NO social or cultural factors since birds haven't achieved this level of intellectual advancement.

So, to reiterate my point, if you take human constructed social standards out of the equation, there are still biological factors that can drive one set of traits in any direction so long as they lead to reproduction.

(I am not interested in arguing with anyone about the fine points of my statements re: human base levels of attractiveness except for this link to the Venus of Willendorf)

And yes, I admit I didn't go into cultural or social standards of beauty because my goal was to provide the OP with a starting point. And of course cultures can and will influence how certain "fashion trends" go (blackened teeth from Japan, anyone?) BUT I would argue that at their very very very base standard of beauty for any species, the starting point BEFORE culture interferes (we're talking cave man days here), stems from the biology of the species.
 
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zmunkz

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@Stable , I agree with your fundamental point, I think, I just feel biology needs more due. I think we are a lot less free than we think. Of course, there are certainly social patterns that emerge which are quite distinct to different areas, so clearly there is a role to play.

I'll clarify - the traits EJDB stated as being biologically attractive may or may not be. But the stories picked out for each one don't hold true. For example, men might be set to find larger breasts attractive biologically (if we ignore all the guys who don't). But breast size is definitely not because of the amount of milk production, or else plenty of other mammals would have large breasts too. Look at our closer relatives - the other great apes don't have massive racks as a rule. So if we did evolve to prefer large breasts it was very recent and for some other reason than milk production.
I agree that modern breast size does not imply milk production, and I suspect this is an example of runaway sexual selection.
It's a fascinating thing about sexual selection that it both chases and drives natural selection, yet it is not informed by it, so to speak. We find things attractive that, at some point in our past, were advantageous. Since then, those traits sometimes exaggerate because the attraction leads to more mating, not because the exaggerated trait continues to imply increasing advantage. Sexual selection has no way of knowing this, of course (until the exaggerated trait becomes detrimental). A common example is the plumage of the Peacock.

This does not mean that attraction to breasts is, therefore, social. I'm sure "nurture" is a force-multiplier, but it's base is absolutely biological. It just so happens that there is a disparity between function and instinct.

... men might be set to find larger breasts attractive biologically (if we ignore all the guys who don't)...
Well, granted. There is enough genetic diversity in the human population now and throughout history that no single factor could really be called a universal. Like with most things, we are speaking in implied terms of bell curves and averages.

The other thing is - we know that (certain) beauty standards have changed over the last 500 years, or are different between modern cultures (is it Samoa that thinks fat is incredibly attractive?). So those traits are definitely socially based, or at least influenced.
I do agree overall, but I'd still argue these things are biologically based, and then only socially influenced thereafter. It stands to reason that attraction, built by the tinkering and blind machine of evolution, should be multifaceted and opaque. It seems reasonable, for instance, that we'd be somehow tuned towards healthy partners and thus find them attractive. In different cultures within different contexts, different physical attributes might be indicators of health (your Samoa reference). In this case, it is still fundamentally biology driving attraction, even if that manifests in apparently culturally-isolated traits. I'm not sure this can explain everything, though (certainly not some from my link up top), so you clearly have a point here. I just hedge it a bit more than you do.

We have incredibly plastic and adaptive minds thanks to our biology. To bring it back to the aliens (sorry K2) - perhaps this is why Jabba finds Leia in a bikini appealing - he's been exposed to too many human beauty standards as a young slug.
True, true. Perhaps I'm not giving it enough credit. And LOL per Leia.
 

chrispenycate

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I suspect we're over-emphasising the reproductive element here. Not that it doesn't (quite emphatically) exist - but I can take aesthetic pleasure in a galloping horse, the Taj Mahal, an elegant solution to a problem or a rainbow, without desiring to copulate with any of them, despite their incontrovertible beauty.

Humans tend to look for symmetry as a sign of beauty - fiddler crabs might have a distinctly different opinion. And beauty doesn't have to be visual - music can achieve it, odours occasionally manage - gastronomy frequently generates flavour combinations generating considerable aesthetic pleasure - and they can even look good, too.
 
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EJDeBrun

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I suspect we're over-emphasising the reproductive element here. Not that it doesn't (quite emphatically) exist - but I can take aesthetic pleasure in a galloping horse, a rainbow, an elegant solution to a problem or a rainbow, without desiring to copulate with any of them, despite their incontrovertible beauty.

Humans tend to look for symmetry as a sign of beauty - fiddler crabs might have a distinctly different opinion. And beauty doesn't have to be visual - music can achieve it, odours occasionally manage - gastronomy frequently generates flavour combinations generating considerable aesthetic pleasure - and they can even look good, too.
I agree that beauty can be found in a lot of things that aren't biological. My response re: reproductive is due to the OP asked the question around the attractiveness of "alien babes"
 
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