Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Since I spent two years in Germany as a student, I was familiar with Nazis - a handful survived into the 1960s - and their efforts to breed pure Aryans. So I was a bit shocked by the sale of supermodels' eggs in the US. It also seemed to be inconsistent with feminism, one of America's dominant ideologies. This column in Business Standard of 11 December 1999 was the result.


I have no doubt that eggs are auctioned in many places. But this auction is different. Ron Harris has advertised an auction of the eggs of supermodels. He has posted the photographs of some of them; not bad at all. Harris has been called a “soft-porn entrepreneur”. He regards himself differently. He says he is a fashion photographer – that he has published over 10,000 photographs of models in fashion magazines, and over 5,000 advertisements, and won over 450 awards. He has run a syndicated exercise show for television, shown in 57 countries over 15 years. He bred Arabian horses; more recently he was producer and director in Playboy Television. The eggs are pretty pricy; $100,000 is not a high price for one. So the trade is not likely to be booming at this stage. But words are much cheaper; Harris’s auction has unleashed a voluble debate in the United States.
There are those who scoff at the whole idea: what is the guarantee that the child of a supermodel will be beautiful? There is the famous exchange between George Bernard Shaw and Lady Astor, in which Lady Astor admired the beauty and intelligence of their potential offspring. “And what if it had your intelligence and my beauty?” Shaw is reputed to have asked. People’s children do not necessarily look like them; they often look like grandparents or ancestors even further removed. Some look like nothing at all. Some combine their parents’ features in innovative ways; the combinations of the nose, lips and ears can by themselves be myriad.
But the biggest worries in the US hinge on how much of a model’s body is her own. She may have had silicone implants, she may have her hips remodelled, her nose reshaped. It is unlikely that these cosmetic changes will be passed on to the egg, however much one may pay for it. The remedy suggested is that the buyer should ask for the model’s parents’ photographs. The history cannot be taken too far back since the photograph was invented only 150 years ago. Besides, whereas a model cannot fake her own looks, she can her parents’.
It is not a matter of looks alone; the mind enters the picture too. The model’s intelligence quotient can, of course, be measured, and there is some evidence that intelligence is inherited. But what about psychological abnormalities? Is the willingness to sell her eggs itself evidence of some kink? And how does one make sure that the egg came from the purported model? Verification of that face would require some elaborate rituals.
Some commentators, on the other hand, oozed sympathy and commiseration. USA Today thought the models were struggling actresses, who thought  selling eggs was better than prostitution. And potential buyers were infertile couples trying to conceive. Others worried about the child. If it turns out to be much prettier than the parents, it may be estranged from them. If she turns out to be a stunner, her parents may force  her to become a beauty queen against her will. She may attract the wrong kind of people, and have unhappy experiences. Just look at what happened to Marilyn Monroe.
Still others fear the success of the enterprise. Suppose the rich all acquire models’ eggs and produce stunning offspring. A time may come when all the rich are handsome and all the poor ugly. In multiracial societies, race alone can bless or condemn a human being. In South Africa till recently, it was lucky to be white, and unlucky to be black. Things are not so extreme in other societies, but all those where Africans were taken as slaves, whites tend to be richer and more privileged. This sort of difference would be greatly magnified if the rich were bred to be beautiful.
What is striking is how far the debate on models’ eggs has veered from the one on Nazis’ plans to breed Aryans. It was pilloried, and because of it, eugenics became somewhat of a forbidden subject in the western society. There is a fair amount of evidence that intelligence is inherited; but to work on this issue is to enter a dead end, and actually to assert it is academic suicide. Yet the same society is quite unshaken by eugenics of beauty. The assumption is hardly challenged that beauty is inherited. I guess it is everyone’s personal experience that children look like parents. When a child is born, the game begins of speculating whether it looks like its father or its mother; a third party is never considered. It may well be that we find resemblances between parents and children because they are the only ones we are considering and there is only a limited range of variations in human features.
Nor is there national concern about the breeding of beauty. The outrage against the breeding of blonde, blue-eyed Aryans by the Nazis was based on the implicit assumption that good looks could be bred. And yet, when the breed of supermodels is to be extended to the community of the rich, it does not evoke the same indignation.
This shows how beauty has been downgraded in the United States. Forty years of feminism has made it unfashionable to be beautiful. So few get upset if beauty is going to be auctioned and propagated: so what? Who cares for beauty but the rich and the spoilt?

Fashions may change on beauty and breeding, but I place my faith in a more durable rule of human societies: from rags to rags in three generations. A bold young man – pardon, person – makes his – pardon, her fortune. The next generation lives well on his or her inheritance; the third generation blows it all up and sinks back into the dregs. So beauty will return where it comes from. The great-great-great-grandchildren of supermodels will turn out to be supermodels, for they will no longer have the riches.