Perfect Forms: Typological vs. Population Thinking in Media and Industrial Agriculture

by Kevin S. Baldwin

One of the more anticipated and dreaded publications of the year is the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue (SISI). It arrived again this year with the usual fanfare and condemnation. The battle lines are familiar: To some it is a celebration of idealized feminine beauty, to others its representations of women are so far removed from reality as to be laughable, except that some consequences are so serious.

SportsIllustratedSwimsuitIssueCover2011 What may not be obvious at first glance is that this tension is a very old one: What is perfection and how do we as individuals compare to these perfect forms? It is well represented in Raphael's 1509 painting, The School of Athens. At its center, Plato is pointing up to the heavens where perfect, transcendent forms reside, while his pupil Aristotle is pointing to the earth, where we live our lives. Though Aristotle was closer to our modern conception by focusing on what “is,” he was still guilty of typological thinking. That is, he recognized organisms as belonging to abstract classes or representing idealized forms. As an example, Ghiselin (1969) makes a distinction between seeing “the horse” as opposed to “this horse” or “that horse.” The recognition that populations are composed of individuals that have variation in traits is a recent one, only going back to the time of Darwin. Before then, Platonic Essentialism, Aristotelian typology, and their Christian derivatives held sway over much of Western thought (Mayr 1982). Plato

The Neo-essentialism and typological thinking provided by the SISI is not subtle and provides wonderful opportunities to market wares and services. Not blonde enough? Here is some peroxide. Bust not measuring up? Push-up bras or implants can be yours! Nose too big? No problem. We can trim other parts too (If you really want an eyeful, try Googling “labioplasty before after” with SafeSearch toggled off). Overweight? Here's a diet; or how about liposuction? Razors, depilatories, & wax can mask your mammalian characters. And so on.

The thinking behind SISI doesn't do men any favors either. How many of them are waiting for “the one” who looks like a supermodel while barely acknowledging the existence of fabulous women around them who happen to dwell in something other than so-called perfect forms?

One of the amazing things about industrial capitalism is that it simultaneously promotes both narcissism and self-loathing. If Helen of Troy's beauty was sufficient to launch a thousand ships, over the years, SISI's beauties have probably launched a million bulimic lunches. Did the greatest generation fight fascism in part to stop genocidal starvations so that their granddaughters and great-granddaughters could have the freedom to voluntarily starve themselves (see below: Anorexic model Isabel Caro, who recently died of complications from her illness)? Industrial capitalism is also incredibly efficient at offering solutions for the problems it has created. Unfortunately, it is less adept at reflecting on its own role in creating those problems. Caro

How then can we escape from this way of thinking? Rather than see ourselves as imperfect copies of perfect transcendental forms (or heavily photoshopped images), we can embrace population thinking. Examine just about any trait in a population and it will have a central tendency with some variation around that average. Think bell curve. This variation is the raw material for natural selection. Population traits that have no variation cannot evolve. From this perspective SISI's homogeneity is an evolutionary dead end. It also makes for a pretty boring read.

The absolute necessity of variation to evolutionary biology is in stark contrast to the minimization of variation practiced in manufacturing via rigorous quality control that even extends to food production. At the local slaughterhouse I am awed by the uniformity of the pigs that are trucked in to be processed. Same size, same age, same color: Aristotle's “the pig.” It is very likely they are genetically similar because champion boars have the opportunity to spread their seed far and wide through cryogenic preservation and artificial insemination. The hog confinement facilities they are raised in are also homogeneous. Little genetic variation plus little environmental variation equals little phenotypic variation (i.e., variation in observable organismal traits). Any pathogen or parasite that can gain a toehold in this situation has got it made because if it can infect one of these animals, it can likely infect all of them. One of the reasons we use so many antibiotics in raising livestock is to guard against this possibility. Control at one level creates dependencies at others.

Essentialist/typological thinking also extends to other foods. My great uncle, who grew citrus, didn't like using pesticides but felt he had to because shoppers expected the oranges to be uniformly colored and textured. When I see a perfect-looking piece of fruit I am able to appreciate its perfection as an example of our near absolute control over every aspect of its production and distribution, but I wonder how toxic it and/or its environment was made to render it unattractive to pests. Organically grown fruit may not always look as pretty as conventionally grown, but its pest-caused imperfections indicate it is non-toxic to both bugs and people.

The quantity and quality of food that industrial agriculture produces is not without its complications. Obesity as a trait has both genetic and environmental components. Conserver genotypes have been selected for by past famines and produce people who are amazingly stingy with their use of calories. Put these genotypes into a calorie-rich environment and the result is morbid obesity and type II diabetes.

The world we have created especially over the last 60 years is very unusual in the context of our evolutionary history. We are simply not used to having lots of high calorie foods available around 24-7-365 while doing relatively little in front of our TV's or computer screens, which are bombarding us with essentialist/typological images of what we are supposed to look like. Realizing that both ancestral history and the current food environment are in effect both conspiring against our health may give us more productive approaches to dealing with weight and boy image issues. Rather than feel shame at being overweight, conservers could take some pride in the thought that in a future famine, they will be able to clean their teeth with the bones of SISI models who have long since perished from starvation. The homogeneity we impose on our systems of food production and ourselves need to be reconsidered.


Michael T. Ghiselin. 1984. The Triumph of the Darwinian Method. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago.

Ernst Mayr. 1982. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution and Inheritance. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.