A new in-depth study has found evidence that links physical attractiveness to the functioning of the immune system.
Although there are still many questions to be answered, the researchers suggest that their findings show “there is likely a relationship between facial attractiveness and immune function.”
However, it remains to be seen how reliable this relationship is.
The truth behind beauty is something scientists have wondered about since the discovery of evolution. Are social norms of attractiveness affected in any way by the gentle inducement of sexual selection, or is beauty indeed in the eye of the beholder?
The answer is not as simple as choosing one side or the other. Even Charles Darwin, a renowned proponent of natural selection, did not believe that beauty was a sign of better health or good genes.
The universal constants of what we might all find beautiful have been a constant source of debate, with little consensus about what they might be (let alone if they even exist). Yet, throughout history, all kinds of human cultures have viewed certain physical characteristics as attractive, while ignoring others.
While the notion of being an objective standard of beauty remains controversial, some researchers propose that facial features considered attractive may actually be markers of good health, implying that our attraction to them could potentially benefit survival. of our offspring.
It’s an intriguing idea in theory, but it lacks quality evidence. In this context, the authors of the present study claim that their research is the most rigorous on the subject to date.
Their study included 159 young adults, whose images were rated for attractiveness by 492 people in online surveys. Following the participants’ head shots, each individual also underwent a series of tests to assess the state of their immune system, the level of inflammation in their body, and their self-reported health status.
When analyzing the results, the authors found that people whose faces were considered attractive had relatively healthier immune function, particularly when it came to bacterial immunity.
Interestingly, there was no link between higher inflammation and attractiveness in the participants. This could suggest that facial attractiveness is a better indicator of a functioning immune system than signs of acute illness.
In short, the primary function of facial attractiveness might have less to do with avoiding a sick mate than avoiding a mate that may impact the health of your future offspring – hypothetically speaking, at least.
The study also revealed some interesting sex differences. Men, for example, were more likely to be judged attractive if their natural killer cells were working well. These cells are essential in clearing the body of viral infections.
Women, on the other hand, were considered more attractive when they showed slower growth of a bacterium in their plasma, which is linked to the levels of minerals, glucose and antibodies in their blood.
The results suggest that facial attractiveness may be linked to immune factors that may be passed down through the genes, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t cultural factors impacting individual perceptions of face either. the beauty. How each weighs is unclear.
“It is also possible that the links between attractiveness and health are obscured in modern humans, given that human preferences for mates were forged before the advent of modern medicine,” the authors suggest.
“That is, although attractiveness may have mediated both health and immune function in ancestral populations, the links to health may no longer occur as modern medicine allows those who have low immunocompetence to stay relatively healthy.”
Ultimately, one study is not enough to determine why human aesthetics exist and what evolutionary purpose, if any, facial beauty might serve. Further research will be needed to replicate these findings, if they can, and explore what drives the association between physical attractiveness and immune function.
Until then, beauty will remain an enigma.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.