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Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty Paperback – July 11, 2000

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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (July 11, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385479425
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385479424
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (98 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #80,917 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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172 of 200 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 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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74 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Leonardo Alves on 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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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Rebecca on April 13, 2002
Format: Paperback
In "Survival of the Prettiest," Nancy Etcoff states that beauty is *not* (ahem) in the eye of the beholder. Instead, she claims that beauty exists beyond personal preference, and offers evidence that our "love of beauty is deeply rooted in our biology." This argument is quite convincing. Below is a summary of just two of the points she makes:
1. While the ideal of beauty changes with the times, Etcoff pinpoints similarities across time and cultures. First and foremost, people are attracted to those who are similar to them. For example, Brazilians might feel that beautiful Brazilians are more attractive than beautiful Asians. Yet when asked to pick attractive Asians out of a crowd, Brazilians will generally identify Asians who are considered attractive by other Asians. So, people who are very different in appearance can still agree on some level about beauty in others! This indicates that preferences are at work which transcend continent and culture, making "the role of individual taste is far more insignificant" than we want to believe.
2. All people everywhere are hardwired to think that babies are beautiful; after all, babies are so needy that their survival depends on their appealingness. Intuitive, yes -- but when the research on infant beauty is juxtaposed with research confirming the worldwide male preference for women who look young, lots of things begin to make sense. For example, it shows that the common male desire for women to be "infant-like" -- or helpless, weak, and in need of a caregiver -- is part of the same process.
These are just a two of the interesting points that Etcoff raises in this worthwhile book. It's well written, enjoyable, and unapologetic about its finding that instinct triumphs over common sense.
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