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This "natural history" of the face unravels the surprising mysteries of one of the most familiar sights in everyday life, exploring the face's anatomy, its singularity, its ability to communicate, and its beauty.
This "natural history" of the face unravels the surprising mysteries of one of the most familiar sights in everyday life, exploring the face's anatomy, its singularity, its ability to communicate, and its beauty.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals, on a wet, black bough.
One Tour of Parts Unknown
IN his Travels (1356), Sir John Mandeville found the Andaman Islands rife with sensational beings. Headless humans strolled about with eyes and mouths on their chests. He saw noseless, sheet-faced citizens with punchhole eyes and lipless mouths. On one island, residents had a huge upper lip that shaded their faces as they drowsed in the hot afternoon. Elsewhere, tongueless dwarves with hard, grommet mouths sucked up food through a straw, and people walked about with ears that hung to their knees.
One scholar said Mandeville never traveled further than the local library, and it's almost certainly true. Faces like these inhabit the same realm as centaurs and flying monkeys, and for the same reason. They don't work.
The real human face is a glory of function, yet strange in ways beyond Mandeville's imagination. Indeed, it sets us apart from even the Neanderthals. For instance, it is fiat, an extraordinary fact in the snarling animal world. Our mouths, noses, foreheads, and chins are almost unique. Males sprout beards and mustaches, unusual among primates. Our hair grows so long we regularly cut it, unlike any other creature.
It is a singular structure and it teems with subtleties. Indeed, it resembles a mansion full of invisible servants, little Ariels like the eyebrow performing tasks we never realize. It's also a zone of sensuality, of surging lips and gossamer hair, dancing eyelashes and pupils bright with sin. Such cues can be obvious, but they can also work sub rosa, spinning delight out of apparent air.
Of all items we see in daily life, the face most urgently needs a tour, for it is an enchanted terrain, one that both engages us and sedates the curiosity. From the eyes down to nose and mouth, and out to the frame of ears and hair, it is a playground of secrets. Some are shallow and some very deep, and the most basic of them goes back to the early days of animal life itself.
The Early and the Odd
Why have a face?
We don't strictly need one. Many creatures, like sea urchins, starfish, clams, jellyfish, and protozoa, disdain it entirely. Others have partial faces. The microscopic rotifer has a pair of eye-spots on a rod in a feeding cup, an almost faceless face. The face of the sea anemone is all mouth, and of the octopus, two peering eyes. Snails have tiny mouths and eyes on stalks that wave over their heads.
Yet faces are amazingly common in the animal kingdom. Jaguars, salamanders, and hawks have them, as do all insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Why them and not the jellyfish?
The answer lies in evolution, the treasure chest of meaning for anatomy. The faces of everyone -- Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan, William Shakespeare, Chef--began in the sea.
A true face bundles mouth and sense organs, and it may be older than shell or bone. Geneticists say multicelled life arose around 1.2 billion years ago, but hard fossils don't appear until much later, around 544 million years ago. Soft-bodied creatures like worms and the weird, feather-like Ediacarans scuttled about in this vast eon, but their remains are scarce. The first face likely coalesced toward the end of this period.
When shelled creatures suddenly did arrive, they were spectacular. It was the great Cambrian carnival of life, the zoological equivalent of the Paris art world in, say, 1910, and memorable faces adorned the seas. The tiny Opabinia, for instance, boasted a tentacle like an elephant's trunk and five mushroom-like eyes. It is so weird that, when first shown to an audience of paleontologists in 1972, they burst out in laughter.
But other creatures were more recognizable, like the slithery worms with eyes and mouth in front, and they show the origin of the face. It is the child of motion. When an animal swims regularly in one direction, the head becomes its leading edge. A forward mouth swallows food easily, through simple momentum; a mouth astern would recede from it. The head also contacts nonstop novelty, so the sense organs cluster up front, like the guidance system of a missile. There they reveal the future, an animal's fate in the space ahead.
Vertebrates like fish have four times more basic structure-mapping genes than invertebrates, and more intricate heads and bodies. And with fish, significant brains become common. The brain audits the facial senses. In theory it could go anywhere, like the central chip of a computer, but biological wiring is frail. So it too lodged up front, like a pilot before an instrument panel. And since the mass of neurons makes a choice killing point, fish evolved a hard covering for the brain, a skull or headshield. Bone became the foundation of the face.
If you could take the stars in the Orion and shift them about at whim, the constellation would quickly vanish. Orion is more than Rigel, Betelgeuse, and its other stars. It is a pattern, and so is the face. In fact, we see the same array of mouth, nostrils, and eyes in creatures from eels to Einstein. It has been a marvel of hardiness, outlasting mountain ranges. That means evolution has crashed other designs.
What's made it so durable? Why, for instance, does the mouth always lie below the nostrils and eyes? And why don't we have eyes in the back of our heads, so we could see the whole world at once?
The face has a master sculptor: the quest for food. Hence the mouth dominates everywhere, in toads and foxes, caymans and wildebeest. It is the portal where an animal assimilates the world, begins to change it from nonself to self. Hazards abound here and care is paramount. So three checkpoint senses -- taste, smell, and sight -- lurk nearby to reject poisons and generally tell ambrosia from ash. The taste buds he within the mouth, the nostrils sit just above, and the eyes perch a tier higher.
Why are the latter two above the mouth? As it happens, this placement yields many rewards. For vertebrates in general, it sets the eyes above falling food and out of the body's shadow. Fish especially need eyes oriented to sunlight, which fades even a few hundred feet down. The arrangement also lets land animals gobble morsels from the earth, sniff rising aromas, and view snout and ground at once, instead of snout and sky.
Some creatures boast extra senses on the face. Blind cavefish have ridges of tiny rods which detect the ripples in water from moving prey. The dimples of pit vipers like rattlesnakes can register shifts in heat as slight as 0.002 [degrees] F. and help them strike rodents in dark burrows. And sharks have a bulb of flesh jutting out between their eyes and low-slung mouths. Long a puzzle to zoologists, this nosecone contains the ampullae of Lorenzini, which sense electrical pulses from living creatures. To a shark, all food is like a parolee with a radar bracelet.
Strong forces have fixed the face pattern, yet species can stretch it. Carnivores like cats and bears have frontal eyes like headlights to give them binocular vision, which sharpens their sense of 3D, makes them better hunters. But this pairing narrows the visual field, so they often compensate with swivel necks -- an owl's can turn some 270 degrees -- and eyes that rotate in their sockets. Like all higher primates, humans hew to the carnivore model and have necks and matched, movable eyes. We don't have eyes in the back of our heads because by turning our necks and eyes we can see the whole panorama anyway.
Prey, however, need a faster early-warning system. Many, like gazelles, have eyes on the sides of their heads, to scout a wider range and spot cheetahs earlier. Most fish employ this sentry strategy, and in fact their lenses can bulge through their pupils, giving them a near 360-degree view. Some bottom-feeders take a more drastic tack. Their faces split. The ray, for instance, has a mouth and two nostrils on the smooth, broad belly where it eats. But its eyes lie on top. Its enemies can only come from above, so eyes below would be a gift to barracudas.
Nature smiles on other deviations. Nostrils atop the skull seem pure Mandeville, but whales and dolphins have blowholes there to breathe more easily when they surface. A long, liana nose is bizarre, yet the elephant grew one because its head can't reach the ground. The great flanged face of the hammerhead shark is one of the oddest in the vertebrate world. It may have arisen to spread the nostrils farther apart, increasing the difference between odor levels in each, so these sharks could better track the origin of delectable scents.
Does any animal have eyes on the back of its head? The shrimp Rimicaris exoculata, which lives near seafloor vents in the Pacific, comes close. It has eyes on the rear of its shell. Oceanographers wondered why, and discovered a subtle, surprising glow from the vents themselves. The shrimp monitors this unexplained light to keep hot fluid from scalding it.
These are huge variations, as faces go. But here as everywhere, a small change can sometimes spur a destiny.
Why Have a Hairless Face?
We treasure smooth facial skin and can respond very badly to interruptions in it like acne and wrinkles. A particular grotesquerie is hair all over the face, the rare "werewolf" syndrome. Yet hair coats the faces of most mammals. We have a bare face, and this apparently trivial fact has shaped our very nature.
It goes back to primates. According to a tale in the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation epic, the gods' first attempt to populate the earth resulted in people with "dry faces." The gods deemed these wooden specimens a first draft and tried to expunge them. Their descendants inhabit the jungles today: monkeys.
Monkeys are far from wooden, of course. They are quick-silver creatures, agile, social, ceaselessly achatter. And their "dry" or naked faces can stand out strikingly, isles of color amid fur. It is an innovation, for their immediate forebears, the prosimians like lemurs and lorises, have hairy faces.
What chased the pelt away? A big clue lies in the upper lip, where a second change occurs. In most mammals, the upper lip clings tightly to the gums. That's why no real cat will ever grin like Garfield, and why a title like The Jaguar's Smile implies fantasia.
But in monkeys the upper lip is free and moves about deftly. It lets the countenance take a plethora of shapes, and each can be a signal. The face thus grows more articulate. And since these signals must be visible, the fur withdrew. Our faces are bare so others can read them.
Prosimians show the alternative. They communicate mainly by odor. A ting-tailed lemur (Lemur catta), for example, will scent its tail and swift it about to disperse messages. The aroma wafts out slowly and it dallies. The signal is a drone.
But the naked face is a dance of meaning. For instance, a monkey ready for fun will show a "play-face," a near-grin that displays the lower teeth. Others see it instantly, and a second expression can follow at once. Hence these animals convey far more every minute. It's like the difference between smoke signals and live video.
The earth abounds with social creatures like dogs and lions, and they too have face signals. But the smooth face greatly expanded the vocabulary, made messages clearer, subtler, and more varied. It hooked monkeys into a dense, rapid information web and led to supersocial creatures. Chimps console each other and play intricate political games, for instance, and we humans are virtuosos of cooperation. Our ability to gauge trust and work with others depends .partly on the face, and it has let us farm, mine, and wire the earth, beat back predators and disease, and dwell in rich cities and suburbs. The hairless face was a first step to civilization.
The Great Resculpting
Few ideas jarred the nineteenth century quite like natural selection. Many thinkers felt an ape ancestry was impossible, even insulting, given our broad minds and deep souls. In one notorious jibe, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce wondered whether evolutionist Thomas Huxley had descended from apes on his grandfather's or grandmother's side.
Yet suppose apes' faces looked like ours. Would the bishop have ventured this jest? Would fundamentalists be quite so sure Darwin was wrong if they could see the spitting image of themselves beyond the moat in a zoo, calmly stripping leaves off a branch?
Our faces don't resemble those of apes or of any other animal, and it's one reason we've deemed ourselves so singular. Indeed, the recent remake of the human countenance is the most arresting part of its history, and unprecedented in evolution. For our faces stem partly from the products of our minds. Each of us has a smart-face, bred of weapons, fire, and desire.
The steppingstones to humanity lie in Africa. They begin with walking apes, like the famed fossil Lucy, who dwelt in transitional woodlands between 5 and 1.3 million years ago. Known as australopithecines, these creatures looked much like chimps, with their swooping muzzle, chunky teeth, and wisp of forehead.
Yet their upright stance demilitarized the face. A four-legged animal's jaws and teeth reach forward, like a spearpoint, and make the face a natural weapon. A wolf, for instance, lopes along with fangs in front, and even chimps routinely nip their rivals. On two feet, with head poised atop shoulders, the australopithecines not only lost this protective design, but left their whole bodies open to attack.
So how did they fend off the sabertooth cats and hyena packs of the transitional forest? Did they have a vicious kick, like the ostrich and kangaroo? Perhaps they had sharp claws, or wielded wooden sticks. In fact, they probably fled up trees. They were not pure bipeds. Their curled feet and apelike semi-circular canals, or balance sensors, suggest they lived part-time in the boughs like chimps. They may have evolved a two-legged stance to cross the ground from tree to tree more quickly.
The australopithecines lived for eons, but by 2.5 million years ago the globe was cooling and the current pattern of seesaw ice ages had commenced. Africa dried and the trees thinned out, and these creatures may have become easier marks as they raced between them. They dwindled away and a new animal appeared: Homo habilis, the first member of our own genus.
Here was a radically different creature. Homo habilis didn't scurry up trees. It was strictly two-footed. How did it stave off carnivores? It almost certainly used weapons. It could hurl rocks at them, but more significantly, it made stone tools. Some were sharp flakes that could have drawn blood from predators and cut tough hides, possibly letting Homo habilis dine on meat.
Homo habilis was novel in other ways. Its brain grew 50 percent, an astonishing development. And its face began drifting toward the human. Its forehead lifted a bit, its muzzle slimmed, and its teeth shrank, perhaps because they mattered less as weapons. Some had heavy browridges, which anchored the jaw muscles, and the first nub of a projecting nose.
From Homo habilis through Homo erectus to us, the four key changes occur: The face flattens. The forehead rises to house the ballooning brain. The nose juts out. And the chin appears. The first three commenced early, and the chin debuted almost yesterday.
The true human face appeared at the end of a deep ice age 130,000 years ago, with modern Homo sapiens in Africa. It differed strikingly from that of even the Neanderthals, our closest cousins. Indeed, when archeologists want to tell the latter from us, they look first to the face. The Neanderthals had bulging browridges; we just have eyebrows. They had moonlike skulls; ours more resemble short loaves of bread. They possessed long, narrow jaws and massive teeth they apparently used as a clamp. Their noses were great fleshy sodbreakers. They had cavernous eyesockets and virtually no chin. And, notably, they retained a modest muzzle. Our faces are flat.
The vanished muzzle may be the most beguiling evolutionary fact of all. A projecting mouth is essential equipment in almost all vertebrates, from pike to polar bears. It lets them snare, gnaw, and nip. Yet we don't need it at all. As Darwin suggested in The Descent of Man, our brains made the muzzle obsolete.
A muzzle thrusts teeth outward so they can close like a trap, killing and wounding. Leopards maul prey and camels bite attackers. But our teeth he within the skull and they make awkward weapons. We manufacture better ones instead, and our hands have evolved myriad grip positions to handle them and other tools.
We also gnaw food less, since we gained control over fire. Hearths first appear around 300,000 years ago, though they don't become common in archeological digs until around 40,000. Cooking softens food, reducing the need for strong jaws and teeth, and if we used fire more than the Neanderthals, it might also explain our loss of browridges.
And we rarely nip our fellows, as chimps do. We fling words instead and the fight ones can sting, as witness the Wilberforce-Huxley exchange. They won't stop a grizzly, but they do very nicely with other people. If the muzzle lingered on for nipping, language could have obviated it.
These advances made the muzzle pointless. But it might still have persisted, a genetic free-rider like the appendix. It didn't, and archeologists have wondered why.
The reigning explanation invokes desire, and centers on the allure of the childlike face. We find babies winsome, since ancient folk with this trait paid more attention to their children, raised more healthy adults, and thus spread the gene that makes us google at infants. The attraction carried over to babyfaced grownups. They looked more appealing, reproduced more often, and passed on more babyface genes. The muzzle sank as if punctured and the face came to look infantile. The theory may be right. It's hard to test.
The individuals of 130,000 years ago were anatomical us. They had our foreheads, cheekbones, and flashing teeth, and if we could have looked them in the eye, we would have understood what we saw.
"O! What a life is the eye! what a strange and inscrutable essence!" wrote Coleridge. Indeed, the eyes are far more than tools of sight, and we have just begun penetrating their glittery mysteries.
Nothing else shows thought like the eyes. They are the psychological center of the face, Pliny's "window to the soul," whose glow can speak intelligence and love. They are little pools of being, and they can bewitch us.
The eyes are as close as we get to seeing a mind. They can be dreamy, contemplative, vague. Elfride Swancourt's in Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes are "a misty and shady blue, that had no beginning or surface." Eyes can glint like laser pricks; one can "look daggers" at another. They can dart about like a trapped animal or twinkle with mirth. They can perform immelmanns of scorn. A look in the eye is human contact, and as Claude Levi-Strauss found in India, can instantly spur beggars to solicit. Eyes can murmur sweet enticements; one can have "bedroom eyes." And when thought and feeling are absent, they can look hard as marbles, or even rubbery, like Popeye's in the Faulkner novel Sanctuary (1931).
Subjectively, we exist just behind our eyes, which form a transparent scrim on the world. We both oversee the outside and lie exposed to it. Hence the eyes are the most powerful and most intimate part of the face. In anger they flare, as if thought alone could scorch a target, while in shame people avert them, hiding the mind from view. And in delight and love the eyes sparkle, beckoning people to peer in. Indeed, lovers gaze into each other's eyes and feel a dizzy freefall.
The eyes seem alive, and when a razor slits an eye in Un Chien Andalou (1929), the audience always gasps. Photos of eye surgery are notoriously hard to look at. Some peoples have mutilated eyes from fear of their power. The Ainu of Japan dug a knife into the orbs of a slain bear to keep its spirit from seeking revenge, and the Parintintin Indians of South America ate the eyes of dead foes, to blind their ghosts. Images fare no better. Muhammad aimed first at the eyes when he attacked the idols in the Kaaba. During the Reformation, Dutch iconoclasts gouged at eyes in paintings, and when Easter Islanders toppled the basalt faces in their grim civil war, they methodically shattered the eyes.
For centuries many criminals believed murder victims retained an image of the killer's face on their retinas. Hence, after Frederick Guy Browne slew a constable on an English roadside in 1927, he leaned over and fired one shot into each of the dead man's eyes. Police caught him anyway.
The eye long seemed to mock evolution. How could such a splendid tool have appeared in stages? What good is half an eye? Yet the evolutionary stages are out in plain view. Protozoa have dotlike "eyes" or photoreceptors that register the mere presence of light. Limpet eyes have receded into pits. In abalones, the pit has almost closed over, forming a pinhole eye like a camera obscura. And squids, octopi, and most vertebrates have full camera eyes, with lenses that form sharp images. Using computers and cautious assumptions, biologists Dan Nilsson and Susanne Pelger have estimated that an animal could go from a flat skin-eye to a camera-lens eye in 364,000 generations, or in most cases less than 500,000 years.
We possess two orbs, like every other sighted vertebrate except the four-eyed fish. Monoculars like the bloody Cyclopeans of The Odyssey and the griffin-fighting Arimaspi in Herodotus live only in myth. Even primitive worms like the half-inch Planaria, which dwells under rocks and in streams, have paired eyes. Two eyes show an item from separate angles, so it appears against a slightly different background on each retina. The brain assesses this discrepancy and thus gauges distance, a trick called parallax. Two eyes also provide backup. If some Odysseus drives a hot pike into one, we, unlike Polyphemus, have another.
The visible eye is about one-sixth of the entire ball, and its fascinating effect stems from its three interacting parts: white, iris, and pupil.
The white is part of the overall eyeball sheath, the sclera, which becomes transparent over the iris and pupil. Its gleam resonates with the teeth, and in a brilliant glance the two can seem to swap electricity.
Does it matter that it's white? Would blue suffice, or ochre? In fact, the ivory color is crucial. Since it contrasts with the darker iris and pupil, it highlights eye movements. If the sclera blended in with the iris, we would have trouble telling where people were looking and flail about socially.
Detecting gaze direction is a vital ability and our brains have special wiring for it, a weathervane for glance. It tells us whom individuals are looking at, focusing on. Hence if we see that a person is angry, we know whether he's menacing us or another. When we enter a group, this skill rapidly builds a social map, showing who is heeding whom. One scientist suggests this "attention structure" quickly clues us to hierarchy and fosters social coherence. It organizes us.
Our sensitivity to eyes yields other boons. Gaze implies one's next movements, and thus can signal purpose or desire. For instance, gorillas in the zoo will look to an object they want, then beseechingly toward a human. We say "with an eye to" and "with a view to" to denote goal, and the Zulu phrase is is a liwela umfela ugcwele, "yearning reaches the impossible," means literally "the eye crosses a flooded river."
In fact, eye movement sends a constant stream of messages, and it may lie at the core of the striking eloquence of the eyes, as we'll see. But without a backdrop like the white, this language would simply elude us.
Between white and pupil lies the iris, a chromatic ring. It is not one fiat hue, but a riot of spots, wedges, and spokes. Its color also changes from pupil to perimeter. Each iris pattern is unique, and experimental ATMs are already using them to identify customers.
The jumble of hues in the iris can make eye color a matter of opinion. Novelists have shamelessly exploited this latitude, ballooning interstitial tints and using the results in a subtle color-code of character. For instance, yellow eyes invoke the feral. The Phantom of the Opera and Frankenstein's monster have yellow eyes, and Rosemary's baby has orbs of golden yellow, whites and all, with black-slit pupils like a cat's. Gold hints at greed and allure. Balzac endowed the miser Grandet with such eyes, and the bisexual houri in his The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1835) has eyes of "living gold, brooding gold, amorous gold." Gray eyes suggest inscrutability, and bedeck such fairly opaque characters as Homer's Athena, Flem Snopes, Lolita, Buck Mulligan, and Bartleby.
Colored contact lenses opened a Pandora's box, enabling iridescent eyes, mirror eyes, square pupils, written messages over the entire cornea. They allowed designer eyes and FX specialists exploited them. For instance, Linda Blair's vivid green eyes in The Exorcist lent an extra jolt to her possession. Today, computers can make actors' irises change color and even show little films.
The iris is actually a pair of muscles, the most beautiful ones in the body. They work like a camera diaphragm to change the aperture of the pupil, letting more or less light reach the retina. One set of fibers radiates out from the pupil. If you enter a dark theater, these marionette strings pull the pupil open. The other fibers coil round the pupil like a noose. Return to the glare of sunlight and they contract, shrinking it. Without the iris, we would often be blind.
We come at last to the black heart of the eye, the pupil. It is the object of the iris's embrace and the opening onto the wonders of the retina. One out of every five people has pupils of different diameter, which can actually change size independently and alter the balance in a few hours. Blue-eyed individuals possess larger ones, on average, than brown-eyed. The pupil is not uniformly circular in humans, and in animals it varies from the keyhole slit of the lemon shark to the horizontal blob of sheep or cattle. Shape doesn't matter. They can all control the amount of light entering the eye.
In people, the pupils take on an extra role. They are profoundly expressive. These obsidian disks widen not only in dim light, but before an image that excites us, as shrewd poker players and bargainers know. Men's pupils dilate when they look at photos of sharks and female nudes, women's when they see pictures of babies, mothers with babies, and male nudes. The pupils mirror our level of awareness overall. Fear, surprise, joy, anxiety, loud noise, and even music will expand them, and boredom and drowsiness shrink them.
We tend to like those who care about us, so big pupils attract us. Researchers showed men pairs of photos of women identical in every way except that retouchers had enlarged the pupils of one, and found men preferred her but couldn't say why. Hence dark eyes seem romantic. Rochester and Hester Prynne have deep black eyes, as does Lotte in The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Our pupils reach peak size in adolescence, almost certainly as a lure in love, then slowly contract till age sixty.
The eye dances with profound little messages, the source of its life. Movement and pupil size are two of these signals, and a third is even subtler.
|1||A Tour of Parts Unknown||11|
|2||The Genes' Signature||77|
|3||Emblems of Self||109|
|4||The Skin Code||163|
|5||The Lie and the Veil||239|
|6||Constellation of Desire||275|