What’s in a Face?

The evidence of the hands.

The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture
By Frank R. Wilson
Pantheon; 480 pages; $30

The Face
By Daniel McNeill
Little, Brown and Co.; 384 pages; $23.95

A sphinx has the body of a lion and the face of a man. Why is this no good? Simple: Because in order to have a face, you need a pair of hands. Paws won’t do. Animals with paws must have big, furry, jutting muzzles, which rule out a face. They need muzzles for biting, to defend themselves, and to attack prey, whereas possessors of hands can fashion and chuck a spear or throw a punch. Animals need muzzles to carry things and to gnaw on their food, whereas possessors of hands can make a fire to tenderize their viands. And in order to have growing scalp hair–as humans uniquely do–you need to have hands to cut it, lest it get so long that it jeopardizes your survival. So faces presuppose hands. Sphinxes and centaurs and other countenanced but handless creatures not only do not exist, they could not exist.

That exciting aperçu occurred to me in the course of reading The Face and The Hand, two books that otherwise brought me unremitting boredom. Well, almost unremitting. The Face made me cringe a lot. Its author, Daniel McNeill, won a science-writing prize a few years ago, and this seems to have gone to his head. His prose oozes a kind of rotten poetry, and no observation is too banal to be left unspoken.

Take McNeill’s extended meditation on kissing–please:

A kiss can pour love from lips to lips, two receptacles filling each other. … The lovers’ tongues caress each other, dance about the teeth and inner cheeks, bathe in each other’s oral fluids. … Long, luxurious smooches can end in a sound like planes of glass rubbing, or even in a cheep. … Family members and relatives commonly kiss. … The kiss is often a gesture of greeting.

I didn’t know all that, did you?

As for The Hand, by California neurologist Frank R. Wilson, even the epigraphs are tedious. One of them reads:

The true relevance of lateralization of function will be ascertained only by careful research that acknowledges that aspects of this function develop throughout the life span, beginning at birth, if not before.

Try as I might, I can detect no lambent flicker of humor in these pages.

There are some scattered interesting bits in both The Face and The Hand, however. Someone ought to extract and put them in a concise form, to save people the trouble of reading the books. In fact, that’s what I’ll do.

L et’s begin with the chin. It is a singularly human facial feature, one that even the Neanderthals lacked. The chin seems to have emerged around 130,000 years ago. Why? Scientists have no idea. What they do know, however, is that men’s chins have been getting larger over the last 200 generations. They have a theory for this. The male chin grows during puberty in response to testosterone. Testosterone weakens the immune system. So, paradoxically, a big chin on a healthy man is an advertisement of robustness: It means that, despite an excess of testosterone, his immune system is still powerful enough to fight off disease. Therefore women should fancy a big chin on a mate, and the trait is sexually selected. (Insert Jay Leno joke here.) I do not know whether this theory is true. I do know that in good society, chins are very important. Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high at present.

If the face has been getting longer at the bottom over the generations, it has been getting shorter (and broader) on top. McNeill does not mention this, but it is true. The trend is called brachycephalization, and it has been happening mainly in rural Poland between the Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea–which, for some arcane reason, is one of the few places on Earth where humans are still evolving. (Anthropologists discovered this by examining skeletons from the region going back to 1300, some 30 generations.) The Darwinian advantage of having a shorter head, if any, remains unknown. Some Indian tribes have gone for the same effect by a horrific sort of plastic surgery. The Choctaws flattened the heads of babies by placing bags of sand on their brows and ridiculed whites as “longheads.” By contrast, Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaton, seems to have had her cranium artificially stretched for beauty’s sake.

Did this really make her beautiful? What renders a face truly soul-bewitching? Whatever it is, it transcends culture, despite what Naomi Wolf may try to tell you. People everywhere share the same criteria of facial beauty. This conclusion is supported by a wealth of studies over the last 15 years in which individuals from different cultures have been asked to rate photos for beauty. Chinese, English, and Indian women prefer the same Greek men; Hispanic and black Americans agree on which newly arrived Asian women are the genuine babes, and so on.

The key ingredient seems to be averageness. The most ordinary features are, aesthetically, the most extraordinary. If you use a computer to merge a lot of faces together, the result tends to look as fetching as Leonardo DiCaprio. This effect was first noticed when a 19th century eugenicist tried to create an average criminal face by making a photographic composite of lots of mug shots. The “prototypical criminal” turned out to be way too handsome.

There are two evolutionary advantages to looking average. One is that potential mates can be sure you’re a human and, hence, biologically worth mating with. (Remember, Homo sapiens lived side by side with Neanderthals for many thousands of years, and we differed from them chiefly in the face.) Second, average facial features are a sign of good genes, of being close to the optimal design favored by natural selection.

But some faces are even more pleasing than the average face. Women are judged to be beautiful when they have larger than average pupils and retroussé noses; such babyish features suggest that most of their childbearing years are still ahead. Full lips are a plus, probably because they reflect high estrogen levels and thus high fertility. Contrariwise, masculinized features in women–like a large, angular jaw–signal too much testosterone, which reduces fertility.

Our faces are fur-less and exposed to the world so that they can be read. Cheaters and liars imperil the cooperative enterprises necessary for survival, but they give themselves away by their skewed facial expressions. The most important facial muscles are not under the control of the will. A fake smile is seldom persuasive–it lasts too long, it looks wrong around the eyes. Even at the corners of the mouth, the phony smile betrays itself by being subtly lopsided: Involuntary expressions, arising in the lower, unitary brain, affect both sides of the mouth equally, but willed expressions are governed by the cerebral hemispheres, the dominant of which sends a stronger signal.

There is much maundering in The Face about the face of the Mona Lisa, the face of Jesus, the face of God. I have not seen the face of God, but I have seen a certain Washington literary editor who looks like the Wrath of God.

T>he Hand tells the affecting story of how the thumb rose from being just another digit to being opposable. For our simian ancestors in the trees, falling from branch to branch was a normal mode of locomotion, but you had better have a prehensile paw for grabbing the crucial limb at the last moment. When we landed on the ground, hands were first employed in knuckle-walking, later in juggling and brain surgery.

The most interesting thing about the human hand is the phenomenon of “hand dominance,” which, like speech and toolmaking, is unknown among apes. Why are we either righties or lefties, and why in the ratio of 9-to-1? Is it this asymmetry in the use of our hands–one of which is “good,” the other relatively disabled–that points up their intimate alliance with the brain, whose two hemispheres (each controlling a different hand) are similarly specialized?

It may well be that the hands molded the brain, not vice versa, the stimulus being the all-important activity of marksmanship: throwing missiles at prey. One amusing (but untestable) hypothesis has it that females were the principal hunters on the African savanna and that they invariably threw with their right arms, because they were carrying their babies in their left arms up against their hearts, the beating of which soothed and quieted the infant. In any case, the secret of manual dexterity is all in the timing–hitting the piano key or releasing the curveball at precisely the right instant. And it is in the analytical left hemisphere of the brain, which controls the right side of the body, where these sorts of timing decisions are best computed.

It is a trite thought, I know, but our hands and our faces come very close to being our selves–our “higher” selves, at least (our lower ones reposing in some oafish organs in the gut and below). The self that observes the world as a Cartesian spectator lurks directly behind the face, just above the eyes. The self that engages the world as a Heideggerian homo Faber inhabits the hands, just above the palms.

Both are subject to alienating experiences. Staring at our face in the mirror, as The Face author points out, “we become first and third person at once, viewer and viewed. Even when the face is utterly impassive, we can know what it’s thinking, I know what it’s thinking, and enjoy a moment of mind reading.” (For some reason, this works best at the end of a cocktail party, when you have ducked into the bathroom and are feeling slightly squiffy.) Or, wiggling your fingers by letting the motive force propagate directly from your will to the digits, you suddenly notice the real cause of the action is quite elsewhere, in tendons rippling beneath the skin way up at the elbow–a bit of mechanical trumpery that gives the lie to the self. I would recommend these metaphysical exercises as a cheap alternative to reading The Face and The Hand.