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We have modern humans found in a near future, first world country on Earth. The primary technological advancements are in the form of extremely cheap and fast genome sequencing ($10USD/genome) and in the inexpensive use of CRISPR gene manipulation to fix any and all defects. This gives everyone the capability to know what their genome contains and a means to make any changes to that genome.

Gene manipulation techniques become quickly and highly regulated. For the first few years after this treatment became available, only fixes to genes considered defective or disease causing are eligible for correction. Changes to appearance or musculature are not permitted. Those found to receive these treatments are punished by resetting to their previous state. Organization such as WHO and other NGOs have successfully made this treatment available to 99.9% of the world population. (Yeah, a miracle.) Now, the world is healthy and free of all genetic diseases. As children are born, they are tested and treated so no diseases are reintroduced into the gene pool.

Under considerable pressure from cosmetic surgeons and the populace in general, the regulatory body for gene treatments has permitted the genetic manipulation of appearance. As the treatment is ubiquitous across the world, anyone can manipulate their genes to alter their appearance to anything they please. Therapies that alter a person's brain or brain chemistry are forbidden (let's assume perfect enforcement).


Now, the implications of this kind of technology will touch practically every aspect of society. Every single one. I'm only interested in one particular aspect though, dating, specifically mate selection in cultures where individuals are able to choose their own mates. Arranged marriages are not up for consideration in this question.

When everyone can look like a Greek god (or the local physical ideal), how will mates be chosen if physical appearance is eliminated from the list, leaving material wealth, social status, smarts and emotional intangibles as the remaining criteria?

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    $\begingroup$ Wow, people might have to talk to each other and base decisions on something more than superficial appearances. Bizarre. $\endgroup$ – Dan Smolinske Jul 23 '15 at 14:47
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    $\begingroup$ Are you implying that looks are the only / primary selection criteria today? Most people already look for more useful traits for a real relationship. And even for short-term relationships, confidence, posture and smile are worth more than simple good looks. $\endgroup$ – Erik Jul 23 '15 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Erik, there are other criteria certainly, smarts, material wealth, social position, etc, etc. I'm curious about what happens when appearance no longer plays any role in mate selection. I'm anticipating an increased reliance on those other factors. I suppose I should clarify. $\endgroup$ – Green Jul 23 '15 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ You might have to consider that not everyone will want to change their apparance. In a way, this is the society presented in Surrogate. $\endgroup$ – clem steredenn Jul 23 '15 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ Wait, why would everybody end up looking like a greek god? People already go out of their way to look different through the use of tattoos, piercings and what not, and nobody has the same beauty ideal. My guess is that before you know it, you have Orion slavegirls and smurfs popping up all over the place and people will end up all looking drastically different from one another. $\endgroup$ – Theik Jul 24 '15 at 7:57

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Other answers address the obvious importance of elements other than appearance in courting behavior, so I'll ignore all that and focus on the core of your question: how does valuation of appearance change when people have complete control over it?

The answer is: we'll be judged by our choices and the motivations behind them. You can already see this in the way people judge clothing choices: "that woman's clearly wearing a shirt meant to make her breasts look big" or "that guy's jeans are tight, he must think he has great legs".

Natural features are currently met with disgust/pity or awe/jealousy: "I wish my nose was like hers" or "his feet are too big, poor guy". With your technology, people choose how they look, so the observations might become: "why does she raise the tip of her nose so much?" and "he must want to swim fast to keep his feet so big".

Each person will become far more critical of appearances because of the level of criticism and control they direct toward their own bodies. If one person sees another making body shape choices they themselves actively avoid, the former is more likely to judge the latter more harshly and negatively. Appreciation of beauty, meanwhile, diminishes as it's commonplace and based on cultural standards leading to uniformity.

With all of that pressure and the power to respond to it, we'll also see a lot of frequent adjustment. Consider the way people change their style of dress and even attitude when they meet someone they like, in order to match that person's tastes. Or how strongly some people react when they're judged negatively to their face. Cheap genetic manipulation would drastically impact those social dynamics. The concept of identity as it relates to physical appearance would become much more vague and amorphous. That will undoubtedly make conventional romance as it's presently understood far more difficult to maintain - how would you feel if the person you love the most was frequently and wildly changing? It's hard to picture the face of a loved one if it changes all the time.

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I don't think things would change as much as you think they might.

Looks would still play a part. Just because someone has great genes doesn't mean they take the time to maintain their body - selection would still occur based on metrics such as this. However, ask couples what attracted them to their mate, and you may find that only a tiny fraction of the answers you will receive will be "their body". It's always something they did, or some indescribable aura/aire that they have. For example, dating companies usually advertise healthy relationships by having the subjects say things like, "s/he makes me laugh, and that's why I love them".

Another thing to consider is that clubs often hire Asian bouncers because they can better distinguish the faces of other Asian people. I have not confirmed this story myself, but it makes sense. In a culture where the differences between individual facial structures is smaller, they have simply become more in tune with those subtle differences.

Heck... for most of us, our legs are roughly the same length. Did you ever stop to give credit to genetics for pulling that one off? Think about how hard it is for the body to measure leg length and ensure they grow evenly! Do we spend more than a passing thought on leg length when choosing a mate? There's plenty of beauty there, even before cosmetic surgery!

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    $\begingroup$ I agree. Looks may get many good looking people their first date but I think long-term relationships are based mostly upon other factors. At least that was true for my wife, lol $\endgroup$ – Jim2B Jul 23 '15 at 17:58
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    $\begingroup$ "Just because you have the genes doesn't mean you take the time to maintain your body." Of course, really good selective genetics will select for the traits that cause you to maintain your body... $\endgroup$ – T.J. Crowder Jul 23 '15 at 21:23
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    $\begingroup$ @T.J. Crowder: But are those traits genetically determined? I doubt that they could be. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jul 24 '15 at 0:12
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    $\begingroup$ I think that may be a nature vs. nurture discussion, which could be very long. I suggest we convene at one of our houses, and bring sufficient libations for a 4 day debate! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Jul 24 '15 at 0:30
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf: I'd expect there to be a significant genetic component in them, yes. There's also likely a significant environment component as well, but I bet a bit genetic factor. Cort - LOL $\endgroup$ – T.J. Crowder Jul 24 '15 at 7:08
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This already happened. I married my wife, who I met on an MMO, and I am far from being the only person this has happened to. Many, many people meet on the Internet and fall for each other online, without their physical form being relevant.

Even prior to that, it happened, with arranged marriages, marriages between those who had hitherto only been pen-pals, and so on and so forth.

In a computer game like, say, Second Life, you have full control over your looks... and people's looks still vary. People's tastes still vary. With full control over your looks, your looks just become a full expression of your personality, rather than something over which you have at best only tangential control over.

So in those environments, everyone's looks don't become homogeneously "perfect" because there is no one version of "perfect": instead, people become more unique, more different, each struggling to find the most different and standout version of "what makes me, me".

Your "looks" (whether you're an insanely-endowed crocodile-man or a tinkerbell pixy who propels herself by farts) in some sense can be argued to actually matter more in the way people evaluate you, but that's OK because you chose them.

As a side thing: it already happened IRL too. We are currently freaking gorgeous by some historical standards. Nothing has changed. You get used to stuff. They become commonplace. If everyone is very close to the ideal, we'd get used to that, and just notice the smaller differences more. And use tattoos, piercings, jewellery, perfume and clothing to customize our looks.

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    $\begingroup$ / I married my wife, who I met on an MMO, and I am far from being the only person this has happened to/. What did your wife say when you found this out? $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 22 '17 at 0:59
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    $\begingroup$ @will Ouch! :D Rereading it, that sentence nail-on-chalkboards my grammar senses... but I'll leave it, as your comment makes it worth it :) $\endgroup$ – Dewi Morgan Jul 24 '17 at 14:21
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You've listed genetic manipulation for the sake of disease eradication and physical appearance. As you've said, that leaves several, seemingly less tangible, options for choosing a mate such as skills, mindset, and net worth. However, I propose that finding a mate would not be that different from today.

Human cultures typically create class systems. We are all of and in a social class. We are in the class that we rose to or fell to as adults, and children are in the class that their parents occupy. Class has a strong influence on how you interact with others.

As the Sociology textbook "Society in Focus" says:

Class position has a pervasive influence on almost everything… the clothes we wear… the television shows we watch… the colors we paint our homes in and the names we give our pets… Our position in the social hierarchy affects our health, happiness, and even how long we will live.

So it is likely people will desire a mate that is of a similar social class or higher. The question becomes: where are class divisions drawn in this near-future world? Will people marry based on wealth? Education? Occupation? Religion?

A 2008 study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology found individuals desired a partner who resembled them in terms of personality. Much like your perceived social class, personality is often visually identifiable by clothing, grooming, hangouts, music, etc.

Just as in today's world, a person would find a mate by looking for desired traits, and attract one by exhibiting said traits.

Even though people can appear as beautiful as they desire, there will always be multiple ideals of beauty. What is the perfect nose? The perfect eyes? A 2006 study showed that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder"—taste in facial attractiveness is not largely shared across a population. Additionally, no matter how visually alike people get, there will always be perceivable differences. As long as there are differences, people will be able to have preferences.

Suffice it to say, appearances would likely still have a huge role in meeting and choosing a mate.

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It means personality would become a much more obvious differentiater. If you have two Greek gods, and one is an a$$/B!tc# and the other is a pleasant person to talk to which one would you be more willing to spend time with?

Of course, there will still be plenty who are happy to take anything home, and of course plenty will still be looking for a rich partner...

However, if you are rich, while you can still be a jerk, you'll be more likely to pick someone who doesn't grate on your nerves all the time, just because he/she meets some visual requirements. It means they are more easily replaced by someone who looks just as good.

This of course mostly affects those who already base most of their dating criteria on physical attractiveness. Those who actually like to get to know their partners will still do it by learning who they are and finding someone they like spending time with.

Oh, and even though everyone looks 'amazing' we don't all agree on what 'amazing' is either...

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    $\begingroup$ "If you have two Greek gods, and one of them behaves like a Greek god and the other is a pleasant person to talk to..." FTFY ;) $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jul 23 '15 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ :) of course! tomaato, toomato... $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Jul 23 '15 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ Nono, tomaato, twomaatwo $\endgroup$ – Jazcash Jul 24 '15 at 10:44
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personality, and intellect, to name a few important criteria.

Physical appearance is only one of many factors we use when choosing a mate, and arguably in the modern era it is less important to the overall fitness of our children then other criteria; evolution just hasn't gotten around to 'catching up' on that fact.

Once everyone was beautiful we would simply fall back on the many other things that we use to determine who to date. Personality and how much we get along with them, how intelligent they are, how good of a provider they would be, how good a parent they would be etc etc. There are many things that effect who were attracted to. Were not all so superficial as to only care about looks. If your beautiful and a jerk, or even just slow and uninterested in learning, I would not be interested in you.

I would imagine that a higher emphasis would be placed on intellect and ability to provide (which yes, means how much money you have/make) in such a society. Since money can now buy better genes money is even more important. It's okay if your husband/wife has some health issue, if they have enough money they can treat that issue in their child before it's born etc. The culture would likely grow to focus even more on ability to provide, direct income, and intellect (which almost always leads to higher potential income; especially once you can no longer rely on being beautiful to help you excel).

In addition people would choose mates based off of...appearance. Just because everyone is beautiful doesn't mean everyone is equally beautiful to everyone else. We will all have our preferences, perhaps someone loves redheads, another person prefers tall women, and another things a specific ethnicity has beautiful facial features. Even if each person was an ideally sculpted appearance some would still be more attracted to certain men/women then others based off of their personal definition of beauty.

Also, remember you only mentioned genetic control of appearance. Environment has an effect on appearance as well. Perhaps someone was malnurted when young and so is tiny despite genetics for height? Maybe someone over eats (or under eats) and thus a physical heavy/bone thin body? Maybe one man works out and builds muscles, and another doesn't. Maybe one person has better fashion sense while another refuses to use makeup. Environment will effect physical appearance as well.

Thus, people will still be partially controlled by physical attraction, even as all the other things that lead to a romantic relationship will still drive them as well.

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You mention

As the treatment is ubiquitous across the world, anyone can manipulate their genes to alter their appearance to anything they please

With this advanced technology will every person want to look like 'a greek god'. I think people would branch out and get other body modifications so that there is still physical diversity. It would be the new piercing or tattoo of society. Maybe people would get tails, elongated ears, colored hair, glow in the dark skin, etc. Possibilities are endless and people would definitely go to the extremes.

--EDIT--

With changes to one's "physical appearance" being open to anything related to one's genes, one's physical appearance would still take a part of dating/mate selection. Even if everyone looked like a 'greek god' would everyone wear the same clothes? Assuming people continue to remain unique then the style of one's clothing would also distinguish people from each other, and opinions would be formed. If people all look the same and dress the same then it would come down to personality.

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  • $\begingroup$ c.f. Orphan Black season 1 :) $\endgroup$ – KutuluMike Jul 23 '15 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ never watched it $\endgroup$ – depperm Jul 23 '15 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ I suspected as much, but in the show, the kind of generic engineering the OP is talking about exists, and one of the characters gives himself a tail. $\endgroup$ – KutuluMike Jul 23 '15 at 16:27
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This already happens in Second Life where people can design their own appearance.

Returning to Real Life though:

Movie stars do live in a world of beautiful people. Some hook up with equally beautiful people, but presumably they have their own standards of who is more attractive.

Line up a row of stars and then compare them in pairs. You will come up with your personal winner. Not everyone will agree with your choice.

Not all men like blondes. Not all women like conventionally handsome men.

Unless the world is full of identical clones there will always be something to compare, something to prefer.

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In all honesty, probably the same way people select their partners now: partly by appearances, but ultimately by psychology or for financial reasons.

Let's face it, your concept of the physically ideal partner is going to be different from Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Tim B, your siblings (if any), or me. That's one thing that makes us human: our individuality. I'm not suggesting that physical appearance is the first thing everyone uses to identify a potential mate, but it is for some people. I'm sure there are some who only care about physical appearance, but these individuals (there's that word again) probably care less about long-term relationships (at least at that point in time). Let's face it, someone even wrote a song about liking the gluteus maximus.

Beyond the physical, however, are the things that really matter in a long-term relationship: the psychological factors. Finding someone who looks like Aphrodite is all well and good (if you're into Greek beauty goddesses), but if she is a psychopath, you're probably going to seek a partner elsewhere. If you hook up with someone who looks like Zeus (if you're into Greek sky gods) and he is so vain he doesn't care one jot about you, you'll probably look elsewhere (especially if you are the Aphrodite and he's just using you as arm candy to get everyone else to look at him).

As bowlturner points out, money can also play a role in selecting a partner. I don't really expect that particular interest to change just because we can freely alter our DNA. Still, if money is a motivator for an individual (again with this word!), there's a greater chance that physical appearance will play less of a role from the outset.

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When everyone can look like a Greek god (or the local physical ideal), how will mates be chosen if physical appearance is eliminated from the list

I think this is false. When people can change their appearance as easily as they might change their wardrobe, people will still be judged and selected based on their appearance - only now the judgements are more about one's choices in this manipulation than one's genetic lottery.

Keep in mind, however, that most of the people that are generally considered universally attractive have spent a lot of time and resources learning how to present themselves, dress themselves, use makeup, etc to portray beauty and attractiveness. There are a multitude of pictures of such people in their "natural" state which make them appear quite normal.

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I'm surprised no one said it yet: Pheromones! One of the things that make you attractive is pheromones!

This will pan out in two ways:

  • People will just find the “best” sequence and everyone will be the same.

  • People will start doing a ton more in-person, social dating.

The first is extremely unlikely, since each person’s base receptors are different, so there probably isn’t one best emission. So I feel we can disregard this possibly. I’m sure it will be attempted, but those people will get regarded the way people who wear AXE body spray are now – posers, and lame douchebags.

That leaves the in-person stuff. I think that what you will see is more of a group-date, casual encounter setting, people going to events where the atmosphere is quiet enough for people to talk with each other and flex their personality, since no body needs to flex their biceps anymore. You see some of this now in larger cities in the US (at least, maybe more places) where bars are set up to play board games and tabletop rpgs, comic stores have reserved space for tables and tournaments, stuff like that. Noisy nightclubs and seedy bars are designed to mask undesired physical traits, whereas in the new world, attractive is the norm.

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Consider the typical college campus from the viewpoint of a heterosexual male*. At least 50% of the women qualify as "amazing" in appearance, at least by my not overly picky standards. Yet going by my experience, only a small fraction of those are compatible enough for me to consider forming long-term relationships with them.

Another point is that genetics is not the only determiner of looks. A woman might have the genes for amazing looks, yet over-eat, become anorexic, cover herself with tattoos, &c, all of which would render her unattractive to me - though of course tastes differ.

*Perhaps a female could add her viewpoint?

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  • $\begingroup$ Obligatory Inigo Montoya quote: I do not think that word means what you think it means. "Amazing" would be where if you're in a social environment surrounded by members of those 50% you refer to, and then a woman walks past whose looks are so good that she distracts you from noticing the ordinary good-looking girls around you--that's someone amazingly good-looking. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jul 23 '15 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Mason Wheeler: I'm simply using the word the OP chose to use. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jul 24 '15 at 0:13
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Current research shows that mate selection happens based on traits that we think will provide the best chance for the production and survival of offspring.

Men choose women who we think will produce good, healthy, strong children. Then be able to care for those children. Good Providers and good mothers.

Women choose men who they think will be good protectors, providers, and produce good strong children.

In that venue, once aspect that will likely change is screening of genes before choosing a "mother/father of your children". We already do this now. When my wife and I were starting to try to have kids we sat down and reviewed our family histories to make sure we knew what possible situations would arise. With that data more prevalent, I would imagine it would become more important.

A lot of other things would not change. Everybody's idea of a Good mother or good father is different. Some people like physical appearance. Some, mental stability, some confidence, some strength. If you remove one of those aspect the others (and there are more then listed here) are still used. Even today physical appearance doesn't play "that" big of a role in choosing a mate. Other aspects are measured and considered.

To top that off not everyone can or would choose to look identical. Some people like taller, some shorter, some larger, some smaller, etc. Everyone's ideal of "perfect" is different.

Most people look for balance. If I am strong in one area in week in area 2, then I want my wife to be strong in area 2, and if she is a bit week in area 1 then it's ok. We end up balancing each other out, and as a family unit we are stronger. This would not change either.

To sum it up.. Looks are not "that important" today. In the future described they would be even less so. People would start to choose from the other traits to make mate selection.

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    $\begingroup$ Current research has some major blind spots, then. For instance, what about people who have no desire to have children? Even for those who do, there can easily be many recreational sex partners before (and after!) choosing one or more with whom to produce offspring. And even today, looks are the first selection criterion: the person who doesn't look attractive simply isn't considered. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jul 24 '15 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ I took mate, in this case to be "with the intention of producing offspring". But even if that's not the case, "...person who doesn't look attractive simply isn't considered." seems incorrect. Even just for "casual encounters" there are more qualifiers then simply looks. It's not even the primary selection criteria, as you suggest. $\endgroup$ – coteyr Jul 24 '15 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ oh and "...what about people who have no desire to have children?" - The concept of attractiveness is still based on the desire and ability to have children, even if you don't want them, it still drives the choices. So "they" say. $\endgroup$ – coteyr Jul 24 '15 at 15:32
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Would it really be painless, instant, zero-cost and entirely friction-free? No. So people would stick with their looks for a while. There's an entire other discussion to be had about what this capability would do for society - photo ID becomes meaningless, race and gender-presentation entirely fluid, and so on.

In the initial excitement of the technology, people would make themselves look like a narrow set of beauty ideals. However, that gets boring. There's already a taboo for women against coming to the same party in the same dress; how bad would turning up with the same face be seen as? (Note that there's no similar taboo for men, who are already subject to selection on non-physical factors). People would be socially expected to be different enough to be interesting. And then it's down to individual and socially-conditioned taste.

Most likely relationships would be more economically assortative. If everybody is equally attractive, why not choose the highest-earning? Or if you've also eradicated income inequality, most respected/most moral/greatest musician?

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With everyone looking as they want to and everyone being able to find someone that looks like they want them to look people will become bored and depressed. While people will still seek mates based on appearance the challenge/reward of doing so will be removed and thus relationships based on appearance will become less satisfying.

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