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Survival of the prettiest

No matter how much some ladies doth protest, a woman's beauty best predicts her spot in the social hierarchy at Duke, and at no time is this fact more naked than during Sorority Rush. Only at this instant is it possible for the Inquisitors to make their opinions overt, to relegate the un-pretty to the un-groovy bottom Zlans of the popularity pyramid. For those who find Homo sapiens more boring a species than, say, animals with mating seasons one can literally smell, this part of the year scores well on drama. Bursting with frippery, bedecked and baubled, bobbing boobies bulging from bras, nubile East Campus females are a sight. With more than a little feminine anxiety, they have commended their spirits to women who will select them largely on the basis of their attractiveness, pedigree and affluence. Not coincidentally, the principal attribute up for judgment--beauty--is what the Duke Man most treasures.

But what is beauty, and why does he cherish it? To the contrary of what some feminists have argued, beauty is remarkably stable between cultures, and as Nancy Etcoff reports in her riveting book Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, hunter gather bands like the Ache of Paraguay are likely to agree with Westerners about the attractiveness of people from cultures other than their own. We value beauty and catapult those who possess it to the top of our social hierarchies because it indicates qualities important to the reproductive success of its possessors.

As Etcoff points out, beauty is more valued in cultures that have problems with parasites, suggesting that men initially preferred 'beautiful' women because they were parasite free. She also argues out that the well-known female obsession with eradicating all traces of acne--and the male aversion to women with it--have adaptive significance; pimples reveal the presence of androgens, which are male sex hormones, and it has been demonstrated that women who seek acne treatment are significantly less fertile.

But the most telling fact about beauty has to do with what is know known as the waist to hip ratio, the circumference of a woman's waist divided by the circumference of her hips. This measurement is a fairly accurate gauge of the hormonal status of a post-pubertal female, and thus her fertility. Etcoff reports the work of Devendra Singh, a psychologist who has found that this number is more important to men than weight or--astoundingly--breast size. Less surprisingly, she reports that Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe had the ideal ratio (.7), as do most contemporary supermodels. ('Top' Duke sororities are probably in this ballpark, too.)

Fascinating though it is to know that sororities subconsciously select their members based on breeding ability, health and freedom from parasites, it is simultaneously pathetic. Men escape such torment. Although more attractive males receive somewhat higher esteem in the eyes of their peers, there is more of a meritocracy, with their social status hinging on their level of 'dominance,' which depends on skill, intelligence, athleticism and resources-categories that are far more malleable than beauty. For women, ugliness never pays in our culture, no matter what. Perhaps this explains why SAT-acing, genome-sequencing, archive-combing girls cram themselves into ridiculous clothes and parade themselves before organizations that select members based on male preferences established many thousands of years ago when humans still roamed the earth and bivouacked on the margins of tar-pits.

Women need to kick the Iceman out of their sororities and put a stop to the psychological spear throwing that makes bid day so distasteful. Humans are now, as biologist E.O. Wilson suggests, fast approaching a point where it will be possible to 'decommission' natural selection and promote happiness for more than just those at the top of the social ladder, by working to recalibrate the seedier segments of our DNA. To do this we will need female scientists, not the scores of sobbing girls whose sense of self-worth--both social and intellectual--will be demolished to our collective detriment come Sunday.

Matt Gillum is a Trinity senior. His column appears Wednesdays.

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