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Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty [Kindle Edition]

Nancy Etcoff
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (93 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $16.00
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Sold by: Random House LLC

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Book Description

Beauty is not a myth.  According to scientist and psychologist Nancy Etcoff, the pursuit of beauty is neither a cultural construction, an invention of Madison Avenue, nor a backlash against feminism.

Survival of the Prettiest, the first in-depth scientific inquiry into the nature of human beauty, posits that beauty is an essential and ineradicable part of human nature, from what makes a face beautiful to the deepest questions about the human condition.  Every human civilization has revered beauty, pursued it at enormous costs, and endured both the tragic and the comic consequences of that pursuit.

Provocative, witty, and insightful, Etcoff sheds light on every aspect of human beauty, including why we devour  fashion magazines, check our waistlines, and gaze longingly at objects of desire.  Informed by state-of-the-art theories of the human mind from cognitive science and evolutionary biology, Survival of the Prettiest tells us why gentlemen prefer blondes, why high heels have never gone out of style, why eyebrows are plucked and hair is coiffed.  Etcoff also explains how sexual preference is guided by ancient rules that make us most attracted to those with whom we are most likely to reproduce.  Research on why we find infant features irresistibly attractive, as well as controversial new work that suggests parents show more affection to attractive newborns, is part of a broad investigation that includes insights into how beauty influences our perceptions, attitudes, and behavior toward others.

When the attainment of beauty is viewed in the context of a Darwinian struggle for survival, many of the most extreme practices surrounding our looks, such as body piercing and serial plastic surgeries, suddenly seem less outlandish.  In fact, those very practices may ensure the survival of our genes.  Agree or disagree, you will never think about human beauty the same way again.


From the Hardcover edition.


Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

Product Details

  • File Size: 2059 KB
  • Print Length: 337 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (February 2, 2011)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004G5ZYLA
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #165,801 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
168 of 196 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Readable, exciting, persuasive September 20, 2002
Format:Paperback
The Survival of the Prettiest is an eminently readable, wisdom-filled, witty and very well-documented report on the human concept and experience of beauty and its utility, especially human beauty, or the perceived lack thereof. It is an example of a way of looking at ourselves that is becoming increasingly of value, both in terms of the insights it affords, and in the way it frees us from the muddled delusions of the past. This point of view is from the fledgling science of evolutionary psychology of which Professor Etcoff is a very persuasive spokesperson and practitioner.

"Pretty is as pretty does" and "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,-that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (Keats) are two widely differing attitudes toward beauty, but each in its way contains an essence of truth. However, rather than bring these or other presuppositions to what Etcoff has to say (as some readers have), I suggest we actually read what she has to say, and then draw our conclusions. What I predict will happen is that even the most ardent beauty-phobe will find something of value and enlightenment here.

Unfortunately (and understandably) not all readers have been able to approach the subject with an open mind. I noticed that an anonymous "reader" brought anorexia and bulimia into the discussion and blamed the rise in their instance on "media images" of beauty. No doubt media images are partly to blame (if indeed these disorders have become more prevalent). But it is more likely that the apparent rise in anorexia and bulimia is the result of the fact that the counseling professions now recognize that these eating disorders exist.
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70 of 81 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting although not necessarily original. December 4, 2002
Format:Paperback
After reading "The Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolf and writing for that book a nasty review I felt relieved by reading Nancy Etcoff's "Survival of The Prettiest". My original outrage in reading Wolf's book and my reaction to Etcoff's book weren't fortuitous as the following excerpt from "Survival of the Prettiest" shows:
"The idea that beauty is unimportant or a cultural construct is the real beauty myth. We have to understand beauty, or we will always be enslaved by it."
"Survival of the Prettiest" is not necessarily an original book. Most of what's on the book was previously published on Desmond Morris' "The Naked Ape" and "Intimate Behavior" and Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", among others. Etcoff's most original contribution is to put the more hardcore scientific views in a cultural context by extensively referencing from Plato to "Sleepless in Seattle".
The book is short (maybe too short) and to the point. It includes the biological context of beauty with the idea of sexually selected handicaps such as the peacock's tail or the deer antlers (explained in much more detail in Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene"); the historical context of beauty from the Greek and Renaissance canons to high fashion; extremely short sections on the beauty of the human voice and the attractiveness of smells; and results from several studies showing how beauty is perceived and rewarded in our society.
It's a very well written book by an author with exceptional credentials. Male and female attractiveness is discussed though with more emphasis on female beauty. I wish the small sub-sections on human voice and smell were entire chapters. There's even a short and funny dustjacket praise by no one less than Cindy Crawford herself!!
It's worthwhile reading it but if you want a more comprehensive study you'll have to check the originals such as the ones mentioned above.
Leonardo Alves - Houghton, Michigan - December 2002
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36 of 42 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars There's still hope for ugly people! November 2, 2004
Format:Paperback
I found this book an interesting compiliation of facts and studies, one of those that you can pick up, open to a page, and find out some fun thing to share with your spouse. However, coming from a biology background, I saw again why biology is still the "softest" of the "hard" sciences (and psychology isn't a science at all!)--human beings, and all living organisms, are systems that are too complex to follow hard and fast rules. In chemistry, you combine hydrogen and oxygen in the right proportions and conditions, and you will always get water. But in behavioral biology, you combine a clear-skinned, symmetrical, 36-24-36 20-year-old blond with a slightly older, tall, muscular, well-dressed man...and you're not always going to get even a phone number exchanged. While this book talks about what the average person finds attractive, if sexual selection went strictly by these rules, Marilyn Monroe should have had 10 children (in biology, # of children=fitness) and the toothless potato-woman down the street should have none--and we've all seen how that doesn't work! Etcoff does briefly address the phenomenon of people ending up with others at their same level of attractiveness, but doesn't explain how that happens, and how these end up as happy, successful unions if, according to these studies, neither partner could ever find the other attractive!

One thing that did disappoint me is that Etcoff didn't explain the varying "fashions" of women's body shapes, compared to the consistancy of what's found attractive in men (Venus de Milo looks rather paunchy, but David's still a hottie!). She actually seemed to deny its reality, saying that whether what's deemed attractive in a woman is voluptuous or reed-thin, [spoiler alert!
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written, enjoyable and well researched account of the science of...
Contrary to what many people think there are certain features of the human body and face that have always been considered attractive, in all cultures. Read more
Published 24 days ago by Neuron
5.0 out of 5 stars Love this! Informative and so very interesting
Love this! Informative and so very interesting. I highly recommend this book!
Published 2 months ago by Neva
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative and Interest Inspiring
This book was well written for anyone who has any interest in the topic. As a non-expert, I was able to understand Etcoff's explanations.
Published 8 months ago by kate
5.0 out of 5 stars a deep book on a superficial subject
a book that combines erudition, sharp observation, and a quirky sense of humor. not just stimulating but also amusing, but never cheap or populist. too good a read.
Published 10 months ago by Lin Liu
5.0 out of 5 stars life changing read
Are you a female? Read this book. Favorite quote " Every Woman finds herself , without her consent, entered into a beauty contest". Read more
Published 11 months ago by Nancy White
5.0 out of 5 stars Well Written, Very Interesting.
Love this book. It's very interesting, well written, well researched, and fun to read. I frequently find myself citing info I have learned from reading it and find it applicable in... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Shea
3.0 out of 5 stars good read though restricted view of beauty
Part of the tittle summarizes the book well: it is an analisys of corporeal beauty and its consecuences in everyday life from the perspective of darwinian evolution. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Paul Zink Yi
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
This book was really interesting, but somehow I felt it was really boring at times. It took me like 5 weeks to read it (that's way too much for me) but I just couldn't stop... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Cliente de Amazon
4.0 out of 5 stars Science it is
Overall a good, informative read. A lot of interesting chapters on how we have developed our views about what is or what is not considered "beautiful" and the experts who... Read more
Published 22 months ago by fitzi
5.0 out of 5 stars Delighted!
Great examination of psychology and human behavior. Etcoff has a keen understanding of beauty and its relationship to society and cultural norms. Fantastic read!
Published on June 5, 2012 by Elwood
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