A few weeks ago I was watching Planet of the Apes, the original version, circa 1968, for the first time in many years. It’s a movie you can only enjoy fully one time because of the famous concluding scene, the Big Surprise. I was streaming it on Netflix and only half-watching, at least until the point where our confused astronauts encounter a tribe of wild humans. One of those humans turns out to be a woman who eventually becomes Nova. Like all the wild humans, Nova can’t speak, and mainly she’s there to look pretty.
And boy, did she.
In fact, Nova was so astronomically hot that I had no choice but perform a little Google magic and find out more about her. Her name is Linda Harrison if you’re interested. She was born the same year as my father, and was married for ten years to 20th Century Fox studio boss Richard Z. Zanuck.
I know I’m not the only guy who Googles pretty actresses, but I would guess these searches are typically for women from the present day. I suppose the idea is to imagine for a few minutes what it might be like to meet the girl, or more precisely her face plastered on the character she played in the film you just saw, before you return to reality. In this case, however, the face I was searching for didn’t really exist anymore. The film is forty-one years old.
I think a lot about this, about attraction, and why it so heavily depends on looks. I understand generally the science behind attraction, and it’s easy to watch it in practice. Fair or not, it’s the first thing you notice about a person. If you’re looking at a photograph it’s perhaps the only thing you’ll notice. If you’re in a bar or at a party, and you see someone across the room, do you notice their personality? Do you notice their vocabulary or how well-read they are? Not likely. Not at first.
It’s not honest to say attraction to physical beauty makes you shallow or superficial. If all you care about is a person’s looks, then yes, it probably does mean that. But the reality is, as far as we’ve come from the trees, despite of all the amazing knowledge we’ve amassed, we’re still easily led around by the more primitive side of our brains. Intellectually, any of us can understand that the color of a person’s eyes, the shape of her nose, the thickness of her eyebrows, the curve of her hips…none of these things have anything to do with her personality. Or actually they probably do, but not necessarily in the way you might hope.
Women often claim that looks don’t matter to them the way they do to men. But they nevertheless notice the shape of a man, the way he moves, his posture, the physical presence he strikes. In the modern world, a man’s confidence and stature have little to do with his ability to protect a woman from danger, but that matters little. The ancient brain responds to these cues even when we recognize them as irrelevant.
In a forum such as this one, an online literary magazine, where words matter more than a 100-pixel wide avatar, attraction arises from other sources. The first thing you notice is not smooth skin or bright blue eyes, but a person’s sense of humor, their proficiency and creativity with language, with the subjects they choose to write about. Or the wittiness and insight of their comments. These are criteria by which we can mostly agree make for better friendships and romances, right?
And yet, when you meet an online friend in person, the physical personality doesn’t always match the online version. Invariably something is lost in translation.
I believe it’s easier to find an intellectually compatible friend or partner online because of the way we aggregate, the way we’re drawn to sites and concepts important to us. The opportunities are simply greater in number, and there aren’t many comparable ways to meet similarly in person. But because our ancient brains still cling to the importance of physical presence—even though modern technological society has rendered the survival benefits of beauty and strength largely obsolete—we can’t quite make full use of the impressive social benefits of the Internet.
But things are changing. Think about how much time you spend on the Internet today versus five years ago, or ten. Our social customs and behaviors don’t advance as quickly as technology, but they will eventually catch up. And when you consider how our physical world is really just information, elementary particles arranged in a certain way, how much of a leap would it be for your consciousness to reside in the computer itself?
As far as the universe is concerned, there’s not much difference between you and the air in front of you. Your body is made of higher density matter, more organization, but you, who you are, the concept of self…that’s a human construct. If you honestly believe physical beauty is only skin deep, that the essence of a person is his mind and personality, then the absence of a body might prove to be the ultimate expression of that idea.
Are you ready to make that leap?