How many times have you heard someone say that the pursuit of beauty, or of its preservation over time, is a “vain” endeavor? My guess would be probably many. That’s why you need to tread carefully if you plan to present the preservation of looks as an argument in favor of rejuvenation biotechnology—you might be stepping into a minefield.
Quite frankly, I never got what’s so wrong with wanting to maintain youthful beauty over time, and I’d tend to think we’re dealing with a fox-and-grapes situation here.
Eye of the beholder
Let’s start with a trivial observation: beauty is not absolute. Nothing and no one is beautiful per se; only an observer can decide on the beauty of something, and that decision really matters only in the observer’s frame of reference. In plain English, this means that what is beautiful to me can be ugly to you and vice versa, and our respective opinions don’t really measure any objective property.
That being said, what does pursuing beauty mean? As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a sensible way to pursue beauty is that of pursuing a look that you find beautiful yourself, and I really see nothing wrong with that, regardless of your age. What’s the point of accepting whatever the mirror shows you, even if you really don’t like it? None. What’s wrong with changing your appearance if that makes you feel better about yourself? Nothing. So, if one is in favor of rejuvenation for the sake of preserving his or her own beauty, I say that’s a perfectly valid reason. (Though if that’s the only reason, I’d say he or she is missing the main point.)
Are elderly looks beautiful?
But wait—somebody might object—am I implying that the traditional look of older people cannot be beautiful? Not at all. As said, the perception of beauty is subjective, so if anyone finds typical elderly features beautiful and would like to have them, by all means—he or she should go for it. In a similar vein, those among us who really don’t like wrinkles and grey hair shouldn’t be mocked by others for our preferences or our alleged lack of sufficient wisdom to accept the natural course of events. (Brief detour: automatically accepting anything natural just because it is such is not a sign a wisdom; rather, it is a sign of lack of critical thinking skills.)
However, if I’m allowed a little cynicism here, people who deliberately alter their appearance to look elderly because they think they’re going to be beautiful—greying their hair, wrinkling their skin, hunching their back, and so on—are not very common. The “beauty of looking older” seems to be one we learn to live with, rather than one we seek after; it’s one that we resign ourselves to when youthful beauty withers away.
This is why I say calling the desire to preserve beauty vain is akin to the fox disdaining the grapes because they were surely sour anyway: if we covertly desire to keep the beauty of our younger days despite knowing it is not possible, making up reasons to disown that desire may be a decent coping mechanism—certainly better than spending decades mourning your lost looks.
Beauty as an evolutionary strategy
But that’s not the whole story. I think part of the reason why the desire to preserve beauty is frequently regarded as shallow is due to popular wisdom saying that we should look for deeper-rooted qualities than physical beauty in a significant other; qualities that, unlike beauty, won’t fade over time. (It’s unclear whether according to pop wisdom, it would be okay to look just for beauty in a partner if it were a more permanent feature, but let’s not go there.) Beauty is only skin deep, and thus, not as worthy of attention as other qualities. Pardon my bluntness, but I think this is nonsense, for more than one reason.
One reason is that people should be free to look for whatever they like in a partner. I belong to the serious-relationships-only brigade, but if there are people out there who are interested only in one-night stands and care only about their partners’ looks, that’s perfectly fine as long as all parties involved know what’s going on and are fine with it.
Another reason is that we evolved a sense of what’s physically beautiful and attractive for biological reasons that have nothing to do with how shallow or deep we are. If you look at it from an evolutionary perspective, how successful you are at passing on your genes depends in no small part—fifty percent, in fact—on what kind of other genes you mix them with. If you mate with a partner whose poor genetics are a threat to the health of your offspring, you’re striking a bad deal and potentially wasting resources that, in the wild, are all but abundant. Our ancestors couldn’t really go looking for mates while carrying around a genetic testing toolkit to screen potential candidates for suitability (and neither should you, if you care about your dating life), so evolution had to take another route. Long story short, individuals who were attracted to (read: found “beautiful”) other healthy individuals and pursued them were more successful at passing on their genes than those who weren’t so picky. That’s why animals engage in all manner of flamboyant mating displays and rituals, by the way; they are evolutionary strategies that signal potential partners how strong, healthy, and generally fit for reproduction they are.
Granted, we humans know how to get past that, and we can definitely be attracted to and love people who are not beautiful by stereotypical standards for their other qualities, and that is a wonderful thing. However, the point is that elderly people aren’t a typical example of beauty and physical attractiveness because we never evolved to see them that way, and with good reason: the visible changes of old age are a result of a damage accumulation process just as much as the diseases of aging (it’s not by chance that they begin to happen at around the same time), and mating with a damage-ridden individual doesn’t really improve your odds of successfully passing on your genes, given that older individuals are far less fertile and far less capable to look after children than young individuals.
The takeaway here is that youthful looks are a reliable indicator of good health; elderly looks are a reliable indicator that your health is going downhill, even if you are “healthy for your age”. Grey hair, wrinkles, and flabby skin aren’t just aesthetically unpleasant to look at; they are the result of one’s body slowly falling apart from the inside out, which is why we don’t find them beautiful in the first place—there’s no evolutionary reason to.
A minor side note
One might observe that there are different kinds of youthful looks and that by the above, they should all be indicators of good health. However, I said before that beauty is not absolute, and what’s beautiful to me might not be to you, which seems to punch a hole in the idea that beauty indicates good health: if this is the case, why don’t we all like youthful looks in the same way?
This delves deeper into evolutionary theory and isn’t really related to the topic of rejuvenation, although it’s presented here to dispel a potential misunderstanding. The reasons why different people may find different young people beautiful may be many; aside from possible sociocultural influences (e.g. if you find people with glasses more attractive when this is a clear sign of poorer vision, this likely has an explanation not rooted in biology), individuals might tend to select mates with similar genetic makeup to their own. This was discussed for example by Professor Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene”, the basic idea being that, as the most successful genes are those that spread around the most, being attracted to mates with similar (though of course not identical) genetics to your own increases the chances of the genes that you have in common to be passed on. When we are attracted to one youthful look over another, we might be selecting the look that results from a genetic makeup closer to ours.
Truly comprehensive rejuvenation biotechnology should, in principle, be able to preserve our youthful looks just as much as our youthful health. If for some bizarre reason, it fails to do so, preserving only our health, it would nevertheless be a success, for its main purpose is indeed the preservation of health. Still, the goal of preserving one’s beauty isn’t necessarily frivolous, although it may be considered only a secondary benefit of anti-aging medicine. Some people might think that rejuvenation biotechnology is nothing but the wish of people who’re excessively preoccupied with their appearance, but they’d be missing the point just as much as anyone interested only in the beauty-preserving benefits of rejuvenation would be.