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FAC E


The perfect average


Victorian polymath and statistician Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911) explored the concept of facial beauty using photography. By combining portraits of different individuals, he produced composite images that might reveal their common features. In general, Galton found composite faces more beautiful than any individual face, stumbling upon the idea that perfection is essen- tially the average. Galton also applied his composite methods to ‘distil’ the typical look of the criminal from individual photographs of convicted felons. His results again tended to look like the law-abiding average.


Unromantic choices


In 1990, American psychologists Judith Langlois and Lori Roggman revisited Francis Galton’s investigation into facial beauty, using computers to build their own composite images. Their results confirmed Galton’s: both women and men were considered more attractive as composites, and the greater the number of individu- als combined in a single image, the more attractive the result was judged to be. In discussing their unromantic finding – that we naturally tend to select partners with characteristics close to the mean – Langlois and Roggman apologised to readers of their scientific paper for such a ‘parsimonious answer to the question of what constitutes beauty’.


I use this plan for my beauty data classifying the girls I passed in


streets or elsewhere as attractive, indifferent, or repellent… I found


London to rank highest for beauty; Aberdeen lowest.


Sir Francis Galton in Memories of My Life, 1909


Read


Ellenbogen J. Reasoned and Unreasoned Images: The photography of Bertillon, Galton and Marey. Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press; 2012.


The wrong face


Specimens of composite portraiture From Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development, 1883 Francis Galton b12086514 Wellcome Library


In the mid-sixteenth century, years after well-to-do peasant Martin Guerre left his Pyrenean village without explanation, a man was accepted as Guerre by his wife, child and fellow villagers. All ran smoothly for years, until Mrs Guerre took her ‘husband’ to court claiming he was an impostor. When the case was about to be resolved in the man’s favour, the wife’s story was proven by the reappearance of the real Martin Guerre. This true tale may seem bizarre, even in a time


pre-dating identity documents and photography, yet it remains unclear whether Mrs Guerre was a simple woman deceived by an impostor (as others were), or an abandoned parent happy to embrace the pretence offered by an alternative husband.


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