Friendly Faces Drove Human Evolution

Friendly faces are something we all look for in others. Now science confirms that they exist based on genetics and human evolution. Find out more.

I was sitting in a crowded food court the other day, and I indulged in some people watching. It occurred to me that, even though all of our faces have identical general features, we’re highly skilled at telling each other apart instantly.

Our minds seem to be fine-tuned to recognize and distinguish even the slightest variation between one human face and another. It’s so much a part of what it is to be a member of our species that we take it for granted.

We’re not amazed that we can tell everyone apart. Instead, we feel embarrassed if we mistake a stranger for someone we know. We’re also fascinated on those rare occasions when two people look alike.

Friendly faces attract us more than other features

Friendly faces attract us more than any other physical feature. When we look at potential mates, we must admit that we take in other body parts. I don’t need to get crude and say which ones. Even so, if we’re honest, most of the physical attraction we feel for others stems from their facial features.

Now, a team led by Matteo Zanella from the University of Milan has provided a scientific basis for what we all know intuitively. They dug into the human genome to explain how this facial fascination came about. It seems to stem from how we humans domesticated ourselves. They published their findings in the journal Science Advances.

The researchers looked at a gene called BAZ1B. When we domesticated wolves into dogs, this was one of the genes that we altered significantly. We’ve known for a while that the changes in BAZ1B in dogs made them smaller and more fine-featured with cuter faces than the big, bad wolf. We don’t talk about “puppy-dog eyes” for nothing.


Some humans have a rare condition called Williams-Beuren syndrome. It causes mild to moderate cognitive challenges, especially when it comes to things like drawing. People with the syndrome are usually very kind, friendly and extroverted.

They’re also a bit shorter and slimmer than most people. Sadly, they tend to have heart problems. What’s intriguing for our topic in this story, though, is that they have attractive, elf-like, friendly faces. They have this condition because they are missing about 27 genes from a chromosome that geneticists call 7s.

It’s usually just bad luck. Something randomly altered the sperm or the egg they came from and they missed out on some critical genetic information. One of the genes affected is BAZ1B, the same one that makes dogs more adorable than wolves.


The researchers applied this knowledge and looked into stem cell lines from patient records. These were people with deleted or duplicated genes in the Williams-Beuren area in their brains. They discovered that BAZ1B is vital to the gene for facial shape. There is such a thing as a friendly face.

Then, they went a step further. The team delved into paleogenic data from a sample of some early modern humans, two Neanderthals and one from another archaic human species called the Denisovans. Doing this allowed them to compare and contrast the differences in archaic human species.

They found that early modern humans had mutations in parts of their brains that depend on BAZ1B that distinguished them from the Neanderthals and the Denisovan in their sample. Their research proves that BAZ1B is a master regulator of the specialized cells behind our modern human facial features.


Their conclusions about friendly faces are consistent with a more substantial and even more fascinating hypothesis. It’s an idea anthropologists call “human self-domestication.” Many scientists believe that early humans started choosing kinder, gentler and more communicative mates as they adapted to changing conditions requiring more cooperative tasks. Even Charles Darwin mentioned this over a century ago.

The genes for these cooperative qualities happen to coincide with specific facial features. As the study authors explained to Newsweek, “We suspect the facial changes were part of a process of reduction in reactive aggression, boosting our prosocial, cooperative profile.”

There is a very famous quotation about evolution, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” People attribute it to Charles Darwin, but it was Leon C. Megginson interpreting Darwin’s work. It may be a misquote, but it’s still applicable to this discussion.

WE wrongly associate evolution with dominating

We wrongly associate evolution with individuals having dominating characters. The burly alpha male wrestling his rivals to the ground, or the cunning primitive innovator outsmarting his brutish competitors fill our imaginations.

That doesn’t seem to be how evolution worked with early modern humans. The individuals who were most successful at surviving and passing along their genes were the ones with the best social skills. Friendly faces are an important part of that. Individual strengths don’t drive human evolution. Group success does.

This idea of self-domestication relates to a process called cultural selection. When two rival cultures compete, as humans and Neanderthals did, the society that prevails will be the one with the highest social cohesion. That’s what made social skills so vital to long term survival.


It’s also what makes most modern humans inherently moral. People who were trustworthy and generous contributed to the success of the group. Since individual survival without group survival is impossible for humans, it’s these kinder, gentler, more decent instincts, which seem to be closely linked with friendly faces, that drive our success. They’re also much better mates in the long run.

That’s why the eugenics movement in the early 20th century was so misguided. It’s also what’s wrong with the ideas of libertarians and neoconservatives today. Human success derives from cooperation, not competition. In these troubled times, we need to understand that if we intend to survive as a species.

Penny Spikins teaches human origins at the University of York in England. She said to Newsweek, “Who knows, in a few years’ time we may be surprised that we ever considered that competition to be more ‘clever’ or more technologically advanced were the key drivers in our evolutionary past.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

Scientific American
Dosage analysis of the 7q11.23 Williams region identifies BAZ1B as a major human gene patterning the modern human face and underlying self-domestication
Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
Beauty and the Brain
Music is Universal After All
Can a Contest Solve Human Consciousness?


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