The problem with funding science projects is that there are so many specializations these days that a particular topic becomes researched so many times and from so many different angles that an awful lot of money is being constantly wasted in re-disocvering the same things. In my time I must have come across at least half-a-dozen research projects — admittedly from socioloists — devoted to discovering what physical beauty is. Most of them arrived at specifications and formulas. Not one touched on beauty’s significance. How much did all that cost?
Francis Galton (1822 – 1911) discovered it a century ago. Like many great discoveries, he came across it by accident. This was when photographs were glass slides. One day when in a fit of nothing better to do he overlaid one portrait on top of another and looked at the joint face. Finding it agreeable and being a genius, he then photographed a lot of faces and began superimposing them one on the other. He discovered that the more he superimpossed them the more beautiful the combined product became ! “Almost angelic” he described the last face of one such trial.
“Beauty” is an average face, he declared. Not only that, but an average body — for their age and sex — was a good-looking body. But why was this a “great” discovery — even though Galton didn’t recognise its significance? It is because average people, in the main, tend to be the healthiest people. Not only that, but also the most intelligent. Why should Nature — that is, blind evolution — decide that average is best?
. . . I’m strictly gooig to leave that to my next post because I’ve already gone off topic before I’ve properly started my original. This topic is that crowds of people — that is, when people meet together closely for one reason or another — are often stupid and sometimes dangerous. Why do we so often leave reason behind us when gathered together in large numbers?
The reason is that for millions of years we lived in small groups which, on any important occasion, only involved a dozen or two mature adults at any time. We are also hierarchical, always obeying the leader — and aleader who, more often than not — of higher than average intelligence, as would be his political sidekicks. If there were ever any emotive behavioour from the lower ranks — no more than half-a-dozen — they could be kept in line.
More crowded situations would have been rare — during a drought, say, when two groups might be facing each other over a serious matter such as territory for food. Ethologists have a word for it — ‘super-stimulus’. A super-stimulus is anything that’s rarely come across but which our genes have not built up any immunity or methods of evasion. Not all super-stimuli are dangerous. There are few things healthier than a crowd of supporters cheering a soccer team. But there can also be nasty fights if two sets of supporters afterwards are in a dispute.
Sugar and alcohol are also super-stimuli because early man on the African savannah scarcely ever came across beehives or fermenting fruit — and it didn’t really magtter if they gorged themselves on the rare occasions when they did. But they’re both strictly poisonous if regularly taken to excess. We have no physiological defence against them. Nor have we any emotional defence against a large crowd if it gets into a mood. Even our beliefs can be changed. It is said that if a Nazi critic ever attended any of Hitler’s mammoth Nuremberg Rallies in the the 1930s he would come out as an enthusiastic Nazi, and many intellectuals refused to go knowing this.
Anyway, this topic was sparked off by reading about a project of Daniel C. Richard, previously of the Psychology Department, at UC Santa Cruz and now at the Multimodal Lab in the Department of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain sciences at University College London. He wants to do things about crowds using real people in real settings on a grand scale where people mingle and specialise, rather than in a psychology lab. He wants to “use gaze, speech and motion tracking technology to investigate how perception and cognition are embedded in the social world”. Well, it’s not for me to criticise because I know too little about his project as a whole, but I’m suspicious that an awful lot of money is going to be wasted on this project.