In the latter part of the 20th century, the adage "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" has evolved far beyond its original intent as an admonition against false vanity to become a cultural manifesto used to explain phenomena as diverse as the art of Andy Warhol and the rise of a multi-billion-dollar cosmetics industry. But is there something more to human reaction to beauty than a conditioned response to social cues? Yes, says Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff. Survival of the Prettiest
argues persuasively that looking good has survival value, and that sensitivity to beauty is a biological adaptation governed by brain circuits shaped by natural selection.
Etcoff synthesizes a fascinating array of scientific research and cultural analysis in support of her thesis. Psychologists find that babies stare significantly longer at the faces adults find appealing, while the mothers of "attractive" babies display more intense bonding behaviors. The symmetrical face of average proportions may have become the optimal design because of evolutionary pressures operating against population extremes. Gentlemen may prefer blondes not so much for their hair color as for the fairness of their skin--which makes it easier to detect the flush of sexual excitement. And high heels accentuate a woman's breasts and buttocks, signaling fertility. Is beauty programmed into our brain circuits as a proxy for health and youth? In marked contrast to other writers like Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth), Etcoff argues that it is, noting, "Rather than denigrate one source of women's power, it would seem far more useful for feminists to attempt to elevate all sources of women's power." --Patrizia DiLucchio
From Publishers Weekly
In riveting style, Etcoff, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, demolishes the belief that beauty is a cultural construct, arguing instead "that beauty is a universal part of human experience, and that it provokes pleasure, rivets attention, and impels actions that help ensure the survival of our genes." By drawing widely from anthropological, psychological, biological and archeological literature, Etcoff discerns surprising similarities in the ways humans have perceived and responded to beauty across diverse cultures throughout the millennia. For example, cross-cultural research comparing two isolated Indian tribes in Venezuela and Paraguay to people in three Western cultures demonstrated a remarkable similarity in what is considered beautiful. And evidence that red pigments were used as lipstick as long ago as 5000 B.C. suggests that media images are not the sole reason that "in the United States more money is spent on beauty than on education or social services." The most important message in this book is that we cannot ignore our evolutionary past when attempting to understand our current behavior, even as we should recognize that we need not be slaves to our genes. Topics as wide-ranging as penis- or breast-enlargement surgery and the basics of haute couture are treated with wit and insight. Etcoff's arguments are certain to initiate a great deal of discussion. Photos and illustrations. Author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.