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Facial attraction: how sexual choices shaped the face

Aug. 13, 2007
Courtesy PLoS One
and World Science staff

Men with large jaws, flar­ing cheeks and big eye­brows are sexy—or at least were that way to our an­ces­tors, re­search­ers at Lon­don’s Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Mu­se­um have found. 

Adult males have shorter up­per faces, for their width, than fe­males do, re­search­ers found. This male face is wid­er, as ap­par­ent from the yel­low ver­ti­cal lines when he is com­pared to the face above. Yet the up­per fa­cial height is about the same, as is ev­i­dent when com­par­ing him to the face left of him. The re­search­ers placed the yellow lines against fa­cial ref­er­ence points known as the na­si­on, zy­gion and pros­thi­on, shown at up­per left.


Fa­cial at­trac­tive­ness played a ma­jor role in shap­ing hu­man ev­o­lu­tion, ac­cord­ing to the sci­en­tists. 

In ev­o­lu­tion, genes for more ad­van­ta­geous or at­trac­tive traits al­low those who have them to re­pro­duce more. Thus their ad­van­ta­geous genes spread through popula­t­ions at the ex­pense of oth­er genes, in this way grad­u­ally chang­ing whole spe­cies.

The new re­search in­to our fos­sil an­ces­tors has found that our choice of sex­u­al part­ner has shaped the hu­man face over time. The find­ings ap­pear in the Aug­ust is­sue of the on­line re­search jour­nal PLoS One.

Men have evolved short faces be­tween the brow and up­per lip, which ex­ag­ger­ates the size of their jaw, the flare of their cheeks and their eye­brows, said the Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Mu­se­um pa­lae­on­tol­o­gists. The shorter and broader male face has al­so evolved along­side and the ca­nine teeth have shrunk, so men look less threat­en­ing to com­peti­tors, yet at­trac­tive to mates.

At pu­ber­ty, the re­gion be­tween the mouth and eye­brows, known as up­per fa­cial height, de­vel­ops dif­fer­ently in men and wom­en, ac­cord­ing to the re­search team. Un­like oth­er fa­cial fea­tures, this dif­fer­ence is­n’t simply at­tri­bu­ta­ble to men’s great­er size. De­spite the size dif­fer­ence, men have an up­per face si­m­i­lar in height to a female face, but much broader, they found; these dif­fer­ences are seen through­out hu­man his­to­ry. Thus, a few sim­ple mea­sure­ments could serve to cal­cu­late fa­cial at­trac­tive­ness math­e­mat­ic­ally, sci­en­tists said.

“The ev­o­lu­tion of fa­cial ap­pearance is cen­tral to un­der­stand­ing what makes men and wom­en at­trac­tive to each oth­er. We have found the dis­tance be­tween the lip and brow was probably im­mensely im­por­tant to what made us at­trac­tive in the past, as it does now,” said El­ea­nor Wes­ton, a pa­lae­on­tol­ogist at the mu­se­um.


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Men with large jaws, flaring cheeks and large eyebrows are sexy—or at least were that way to our ancestors, researchers at London’s Natural History Museum have found. Facial attractiveness played a major role in shaping human evolution, according to the scientists. In evolution, genes for more advantageous or attractive traits allow those who have them to reproduce more. Thus the advantageous genes spread through populations at the expense of other genes, in this way gradually changing whole species. The new research into our fossil ancestors has found that our choice of sexual partner has shaped the human face over time. The findings appear in the Aug. 8 advance online issue of the research journal PLoS One. Men have evolved short faces between the brow and upper lip, which exaggerates the size of their jaw, the flare of their cheeks and their eyebrows, said the Natural History Museum palaeontologists. The shorter and broader male face has also evolved alongside and the canine teeth have shrunk, so men look less threatening to competitors, yet attractive to mates. At puberty, the region between the mouth and eyebrows, known as upper facial height, develops differently in men and women, according to the research team. Unlike other facial features, this difference isn’t simply atributable to men’s greater size. Despite the size difference, men have an upper face similar in height to a female face, but much broader, they found; these differences are seen throughout human history. Thus, a few simple measurements could serve to calculate facial attractiveness mathematically, scientists said. “The evolution of facial appearance is central to understanding what makes men and women attractive to each other. We have found the distance between the lip and brow was probably immensely important to what made us attractive in the past, as it does now,” said Eleanor Weston, a palaeontologist at the museum.