Cosmetic Surgery and Natural Selection
September 2, 2004 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Is cosmetic surgery endangering natural selection?
posted by the fire you left me to Religion & Philosophy (25 answers total)
How the heck...?
posted by agregoli at 8:45 AM on September 2, 2004

Yes. We are all in grave danger.

posted by cmonkey at 8:47 AM on September 2, 2004 [1 favorite]

Well, then isn't any surgery, or in fact any medical intervention that treats a condition that occurs relatively early in life, endangering natural selection? Our cultural appearance preferences correspond a lot less closely to actual "fitness" than the presence of diseases that may be influenced by heredity.
posted by transona5 at 9:03 AM on September 2, 2004

I think the question asked reflects a poor understanding of what natural selection is. It's something that is, not something that can be endangered, whatever that would mean.

Perhaps you are asking if cosmetic surgery will stop natural selection from selecting out "defective" traits like "ugly" noses or improperly sized breasts. I think it's far too complex a question to address regarding just one facet of things (ie, someone's appearance--so many more factors come to play in determining who mates with whom and how many offspring they produce--the wealth required to even consider undertaking cosmetic surgery is negatively correlated with birth rate, for example).

But I'm not sure what any of that has to do with "endangering" natural selection. That's not a concept that makes any sense.
posted by daveadams at 9:03 AM on September 2, 2004

Don't know about plastic surgery, but some people think that bottle blondes are helping to wipe out the real thing. (Warning: includes picture of Anne Widdecombe)
posted by penguin pie at 9:11 AM on September 2, 2004


I assume you're following this (faulty) line of reasoning: people can use cosmetic surgery to increase their attractiveness, and thus their chance of reproducing, therefore overriding the natural selection that would normally weed them out, and passing the "ugly" genes on to later generations.

First of all, I doubt cosmetic surgery is common enough to not be completely overwhelmed by other factors. (Does lipstick and eyeshadow endanger natural selection? How about just good fashion sense?)

And even if you posit some hypothetical future where everybody gets surgery, so we're all as attractive as we want to be, then even that wouldn't "endanger" natural selection: it would just change what influences it -- in this case eliminating the importance of physical attractiveness in favor of other factors.
posted by ook at 9:13 AM on September 2, 2004

As daveadams stated, cosmetic surgery is akin to "buying-up" an outward appeareance. Beyond that, it offers no gurantee of one's merits as a trustworthy companion, nurturing parent, or financially responsible individual.
posted by Smart Dalek at 9:15 AM on September 2, 2004

true, Smart Dalek, but would it help someone pass on their genes -- that's all that really matters (in the natural selection line of thinking). There are plenty of butt-ugly people procreating, so I don't think plastic surgery, if widespread, would make much difference.

But I've also thought about eyeglasses and other such "tools" helping keep natural selection at bay. How many people would have died young or otherwise not passed on their genes if they could barely see (hence more likely to get into an "accident" of some kind). Same with mental therapy.

So maybe in the "best" sense of plastic surgery (fixing birth "defects") it would give people a chance to procreate that might not have otherwise.
posted by evening at 9:28 AM on September 2, 2004

Beyond that, it offers no gurantee of one's merits as a trustworthy companion, nurturing parent, or financially responsible individual.

But does it get you more your end away more often? Many experts link this with your chances of reproduction.
posted by biffa at 9:32 AM on September 2, 2004

Oops, some low quality editing snuck in their. Make of it what you will.
posted by biffa at 9:33 AM on September 2, 2004

Yeah, definitely not.

Cosmetic surgery is the instrument of natural selection.
posted by chicobangs at 9:34 AM on September 2, 2004

Birth control is doing the most to affect "natural" selection. As it stands, we're breeding for poverty, lack of education, and strong religious beliefs.
posted by callmejay at 9:40 AM on September 2, 2004 [1 favorite]

Access to cosmetic surgery is the instrument of natural selection.
posted by bonehead at 10:11 AM on September 2, 2004

But I've also thought about eyeglasses and other such "tools" helping keep natural selection at bay. How many people would have died young or otherwise not passed on their genes if they could barely see

"barely see?" Keep in mind that what is considered poor vision today was perfectly adequate for, say, detecting that there's some sort of large, fast animal chasing you--which is why "poor vision" hasn't already been selected out.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:16 AM on September 2, 2004

No, silly. Don't you know that love is inherently blind?
posted by naxosaxur at 10:37 AM on September 2, 2004

Where we are now with medical technology (glasses, bigger boobs, whatever...) is interfering with natural selection in a way. However we are in no way beyond it as long as there are diseases we cannot control. One day everyone who isn't immune to AIDS, cancer, TB, whatever... will be dead and natural selection will have done it's magic. Fixing your nose, or getting bigger breasts will only very minimally change the outcome.

posted by pwb503 at 10:40 AM on September 2, 2004

callmejay--actually, there was at least one study done about women and birth control pills and pheromones. i wish i could find links, but i recall reading about it in the NYTimes and walking past a discovery channel show (that was playing in the living room) talking about it. something to the effect of hormonal birth control interferring with a woman's ability to sniff out the best possible genetic combination for her. it would certainly explain some relationships i've witnessed.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:42 AM on September 2, 2004

evening and others already touched on it, but I'd like to reiterate that fitness is determined by successful reproduction, not just having a better chance at it. I'm willing to wager that people with access to cosmetic surgery correlate heavily with folks that don't reproduce as successfully [in terms of number of offspring]. Isn't it generally true that poorer folks have more offspring than the financially secure?
posted by sciurus at 11:00 AM on September 2, 2004

daveadams is all over it, pwb and others are somewhat confused:

Where we are now with medical technology is interfering with natural selection

No, it's not. Natural selection is a name for a statistical property of reproducing populations. It exists as long as different members of the population reproduce in different amounts. What you mean is that perhaps what Natural Selection is selecting for may be changing, which is almost certainly true, as this has always been changing forever.
posted by freebird at 11:11 AM on September 2, 2004

Not just forever, but always forever. That's even longer than forever.
posted by freebird at 11:14 AM on September 2, 2004

crush-onastick, if you're referring to the University of Catania research, the idea was that oral contraceptives could alter the sense of smell and appear to prevent the increase in olfactory sensitivity that occurs at ovulation. In practical terms, when a woman is off the pill (for example, trying to have a baby with a man she may only have known while she was using oral contraceptives), she might be in for a shock - not necessarily because he smells wrong but because she is so much more aware of how he smells.
posted by caitlinb at 11:36 AM on September 2, 2004

thanks, caitlin, but i was apparently thinking of something else.

i managed to find an archive of the NYtimes article. apparently it was a UofChicago study, but the article doesn't mention the birth control/sense of smell correlation, so it may be that i learned about both things separately and confused them with each other.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:32 PM on September 2, 2004

To say that technology is interfering with natural selection is absolutely absurd and betrays an inherent misunderstanding, or at the very least a Thoreau-esque definition of the word natural. Try this one on for size:

Bird with bigger brain is born -> bird invents new way to poke ants out of a tree with a stick (gasp! technology!) -> bird eats more, gets bigger, attracts mate -> bird has big-brained kids.

Now, do we say that the stick is interfering with natural selection? I've heard this eugenics-in-reverse argument several times (technology is lowering the standards that natural selection would otherwise set, leading to a pollution of the gene pool with such undesireables as the nearsighted) and find it not only a bit absurd, not only a bit insulting, but also a bit Nazi.

Basically this whole argument hinges around the Richard Dawkins axis-of-operation argument. If you beleive that natural selection occurs on the scale of individual organisms, then maybe you are right about this. Maybe, however, you are also an idiot.

Most people agree that natural selection occurs at the species, group, or gene level, but not really anywhere in between. In other words, at the species level, technology is a product of increased brain-to-body weight ratio in homo sapiens, and therefore has been selected for millenia. Even at the group level, those clans of early humans that could utilize - lets be fanciful here and include your example - lava-glass spectacles so that it could raise just one more infant to be a productive member of society would have a clear advantage over clans whose nearsighted children could not.

And now, of course, we enter into that lovely area of evolution where we argue about what makes a species. Is it merely the genes, and the meat? Or can we define a species - and therefore also its suitability for selection - by its potential for innovation, its capacity for growth? Is a bird without suitable materials and know-how to bild a nest really a bird? In other words, will it survive to pass on its "birdness" to offspring with the appropriate nest-building technology? Once we get towards the more complex organisms that posses more than stimulus-response processing capacity, isn't each species suitability for reproduction intamitely tied to its capacity to squeeze as much juice as possible from that decision making organ? Doesn't technology, then, not interfere with, but presuppose natural selection?

In other words, opposable thumbs aren't selected for; think about it: in and of themselves they are useless. The tools I can make and use as homo sapiens are selected for. Because I have these thumbs, I can hold a rock and use it as a club to hunt food better. We say "opposable thumbs are selected for" because it sounds better, but in reality what makes me the more effective organism, the thumb or the rock? Technology is selected for. See also cyborg theory.

From here, of course, we get into the lovely concept of "technology is interfering with nature's ability to select away the ugly gene," which is not only monumentally insulting but also a vast simplification for how both selection and genetics work. Lets Leave aside such considerations as "what are you, an Aryan?" aside for the moment, as well as such considerations such as "what society defines as desirable isn't always what is the most advantageous biologically (e.g. anorexia)," as well as such implications as "dem gays is interfering with natural selection too, so demz is unnatural-like, too!"

Consider that in species without the luxury of cosmetic surgery, there still exist, say, beautiful cats and ugly cats. This is, of course, because beauty is not an absolute definition, but rather the term we use to refer to the top few standard deviations of the normal bell curve. As long as there is variation in appearance there will be ugly and beautiful, just as long as there is variation there will be tall and short, though over the years and across continents the quantitative definitions can change drastically. Saying "cosmetic surgery is interfering with our ability to select out ugly people" is like asking "so why hasn't natural selection gotten rid of short people, yet?"

Also perhaps consider that without predators we don't need to run fast, and without eating raw meat we don't need apendices. Many of the traits you consider important in people: their appearance, their vision, have become utterly irrelevant to their ability to succeed as individuals in this society and thus pass on their genes. Indeed, there is a strong negative correlation between success as measured by, for instance, SES, and offspring production.
posted by ChasFile at 2:23 PM on September 2, 2004 [1 favorite]

I'll tell you what's not natural; those stripey, slimming tops. You see a nice girl and you walk over and look her up and down under the assumption that the lines are parallel but then the stripes go all akimbo to trick you!

There's this description in the book "Just For Fun" by Torvalds, that things go through 3 stages of Survival, Social, and Fun. War was survival, then it was for power, and now it's for fun. Some war is survival, but religious wars tend to be for social power rather than food (most of the time). Sex was survival, then it was social status, now it's fun. The world doesn't move at the same pace, but that's the progression to expect.
posted by holloway at 3:30 PM on September 2, 2004

...which to me means that natural selection stopped being about survival a long time ago. Clothes, too.
posted by holloway at 4:46 PM on September 2, 2004

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