172 of 200 people found the following review helpful
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. In the past the symptoms had no commonly agreed upon locus such as "anorexia" or "bulimia" to adhere to, so we really do not know how prevalent they were. But more important in terms of being a public health problem is the enormous increase in obesity in this country, now often identified as an eating disorder due to "carbohydrate intolerance." The numbers of obese Americans hugely overwhelms the number of anorexics and bulimics, and obesity can hardly be blamed on "media images." We can point to the "super-sizing" of fast food dispensers if we want to fix blame. However--and this is one of Etcoff's important points--it is not the media or advertizing that is primarily responsible for our perceptions of beauty (or our tendency to eat too much), but an inborn, predisposition that has proven adaptive in the past that makes us find some people pretty and some others not so pretty.
Another "reader" claimed that Etcoff did not consider ideas of beauty in other cultures. That is incorrect, as anybody who has read the book knows. She devotes considerable ink to standards and ideals of beauty in cultures around the world and her observation is that ideals of beauty tend to be culture specific; that is, Ache tribesmen find their women and women of a neighboring tribe more attractive than European women. Indeed Etcoff reports that Asians typically find European and African noses not attractive because they are too large. Ache tribesmen actually made fun of the Caucasian anthropologists calling them "pyta puku, meaning longnose." (p. 139) Etcoff concluded that there were differences in standards of beauty, but that there were also similarities, and she goes into considerable depth detailing the studies. (See especially Chapter Five, "Feature Presentation.")
Etcoff is also criticized for her many literary quotes, references and allusions. But to my discernment they are a strength of the book and not a weakness. A very important part of our understanding of human nature comes not from the relatively new knowledge called science but from religion and literature. Etcoff is doubly wise to reference what great writers, statesmen and religions leaders have said about our ideas of beauty, first because what they say is worth knowing, and second because they express themselves so well. The anonymous reviewer who claimed to be a scientist perhaps ought to expand his or her reading to include wisdom from other sources, as has Etcoff. I just wish half of the writers writing today were one half as eloquent and readable as is Etcoff; and I'd settle for one-quarter as wise.
One of the significant things that this book does is to show that evolutionary psychology, despite the beliefs of its critics (and even that of some of its practitioners), is not limited to using insights from biological evolution alone, but from cultural evolution as well. Etcoff's book is a splendid example of this wiser, broader, synergistically more powerful employment.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Understanding Evolution and Ourselves"
74 of 86 people found the following review helpful
on December 4, 2002
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
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2002
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. Thus, although the book is about biology, the analysis it presents is sure to provoke thought among those who are interested in Darwinism, the media, and/or women's issues.
Etcoff's conclusion: Although we may be dissatistfied with the emphasis our culture places on beauty, our desire to seek out beauty is neither good nor bad. It just is. And that's a good thing to know.
37 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2004
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!] an "attractive" female body has a consistant waist-to-hip ratio around .7. That may be, but you can't deny that Mae West is a very different vision of pulchritude than Lara Flynn Boyle, and the one body type wouldn't have been considered desireable in the other's time period. If an idea of beauty is instinctive, we shouldn't expect it to deviate so widely over such a short evolutionary period of time.
A former professor of mine, David Wilson, published a study showing that ratings of each other's attractiveness increased after two people had worked together on a task successfully. This is just one of the many ways in which what most people consider attractive is modified by circumstances and interactions. So don't let this be a depressing read if you're a short bald man or a woman over 20 who's had a child and looks like it-- while Etcoff has written an interesting book, and perhaps even a factually accurate book, you need only look around at the couples you know to see that "Survival of the Prettiest" isn't strictly how things play out in the real world!
191 of 244 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2000
The main theme of this book is that the phenomena of human beauty have their roots in evolutionary adaptations. It's a good idea, but a very weak book. I am a scientist, and my working assumption is that every feature of human behavior has its roots -- on some level -- in evolutionary adaptations. But to locate the specific adaptations that underlie a given feature is extremely difficult, and it is very easy to lapse into "just-so" stories which sound plausible but could be hogwash. Dr. Etcoff seems unaware of this pitfall. Whenever she comes across a piece of beauty trivia that can be plausibly linked to some evolutionary adaptation, she mentions it, and the book often reads like a first-year doctoral student's lit survey. But almost nowhere in the book does she consider competing explanations or counterexamples. Dr. Etcoff also has a political agenda, which is to "debunk" feminist concerns about the effect of cultural pressures on girls' and womens' self-image. She seems to think that, since our beauty impulse is wired into us by evolution, there is no room left for a critique of the way our culture instantiates those impulses. One thing that particularly offended me was her smug dismissal of the role of media images in the rise of eating disorders. Her main point is that media images can't be the sole "cause" of eating disorders, since a majority of women (who are exposed to the same images) don't develop full-blown bulimia or anorexia. Technically, she is correct, but she has missed the forest for the trees.
30 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on February 8, 2005
My feeling about this book is that there was little new here; it's basically a compilation of studies that have been reported on widely in the media. Being moderately interested in the science of beauty, I will usually read articles on that subject when they appear from time to time in the science section of the paper. Based on my very passing level of familiarity with the subject, I felt there was nothing here that I hadn't already read somewhere else. Babies stare longer at pretty faces? Check. Clear skin is universally considered attractive? Check. Etc, etc. The information is presented in a straightforward, not especially creative fashion. But if you're not at all familiar with the topic you might find it interesting.
To the extent that the author has an agenda, it seems to be pushing beauty acceptance, which seems a bit strange to me. She creates a sort of straw man argument about how feminists think that appreciating beauty is somehow succumbing to the patriarchal agenda. Most of the people I know would describe themselves as feminists, and I haven't really heard this opinion expressed. It seems most humans have quite a healthy respect for beauty, which is, in a way, her entire point. So it seems like she needed to create this straw man in order to have a reason for writing the book in the first place. That seemed a bit academically sloppy to me.
The last thing I will add is that the author consistently reports that "glossy" hair is universally seen as attractive and as the standard people wish to attain. People of African heritage in general do not have that hair type and I thought it was strange that she never mentioned that she was focusing on a racially exclusive ideal. Although she tries to point out that she is not being ethnocentric in her description of beauty ideals, there are several areas in which she does, in fact, report a racially or ethnically exclusive ideal as if it were universal, and I found that somewhat troubling.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on August 6, 2007
About: Guide to what humans find beautiful and attractive about each other
Pros: Interesting, very thorough, well researched.
Cons: Almost a bit too well researched, the multitude of facts and studies thrown about can bog the reader down. You're pretty much guaranteed to feel worse about at least one part of your appearance after reading this book.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2001
This book is readable and interesting. I recall a "20/20" program where they put hidden cameras on a man and woman who were beautiful, and on a man and woman who were plain, and sent them out for job interviews WITH THE SAME RESUMES. The attractive man and woman got MANY more job offers than the plain pair. And these were not fashion-model jobs, but stock-brokerages etc.,
I used to work in a plastic surgeon's office. One woman brought her baby in to have a cleft-lip repaired. The mother used to sit and read magazines in the waiting room while the baby cried next to her. After the baby's lip was fixed, and he now looked like a normal baby, that mother never touched a magazine in the waiting room, but cooed and cuddled him the whole wait.
BUT if looks were everything, how come John Lennon and Paul McCartney both in 1969--when John and Paul were arguably the most desirable men on the planet--married Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney?! Yoko and Linda were not that attractive!! But they snared two Beatles. I mean, I'm a nobody, and I don't think I'D even go out with Yoko or Linda. To each his own! So looks matter, but they ain't everything.
Anyway, this book delves into the appearance aspect of our species in an accessible manner, and I recommend it.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2010
Here's the skinny on it:
- It's not similar to Naomi Wolf's Beauty Myth. So, if you read that one and didn't like it, don't apply analogy;
- it takes an evolutionary approach (which to me, is the only one worth discussing), but with the necessary consideration for cultural influences;
- her style is highly enjoyable. It's like a walk in the park;
- it doesn't try to either justify or deny the importance of beauty for everyday affairs. Doesn't really try to coerce you into taking sides on the issue, just to explain the facts;
- it does make a clear point: we may appreciate beauty. We do not have to be overwhelmed by it.
All in all, I strongly recommend this book.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2009
I didn't like this book. Not only was it poorly edited and organized, but while it did open my mind to the concept of beauty as a biological adaptation, I found that it jumped to conclusions from minimal evidence. Much of the material that Etcoff cited to prove the biology of beauty seemed to clearly indicate that beauty is significantly influenced by culture. Despite these studies, the idea of beauty being at least partially constructed by culture was for the most part denied or ignored. Furthermore, the book often contradicted itself, asserting vastly different ideas from paragraph to paragraph, with no explanation for these conflicting messages. Lastly, some of Efcoff's assertions were just down-right wrong. For example, presumably to illustrate the instinctual power of beauty, she writes that, "we do not introspect about beauty or think about other things in it's presence." Really??