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Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 398-401 ( 19 September )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/sotp.html
Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
by Nancy Etcoff
London: Abacus Books, 2000
Reviewed by Megan Whaley, Undergraduate Psychology Major, College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University, St. Joseph, Minnesota, USA.
Nancy Etcoff has a M.Ed. from Harvard, a Ph.D. in psychology from Boston University, and has held a post-doctoral fellowship in brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. Etcoff has been studying how humans perceive and express facial emotion for over ten years. She is currently a faculty member at Harvard Medical School and a practicing psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
For some time now it has been all too easy to point a finger at the media for many of the world’s problems. One problem in particular is our obsession with beauty. In “Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty”, Etcoff attempts to portray an entirely new idea. She believes that appreciating beauty is not learned, but rather is a biological adaptation. Etcoff argues against the cliché “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” by suggesting that sensitivity to beauty is due to an instinct that has been shaped by natural selection. She criticizes the standard social science model argument that “beauty must be a matter of individual taste or cultural dictate” and instead, reveals both the things we find beautiful and why it is that we find them beautiful. Etcoff challenges the idea that the media are to blame for our obsession with looks, and stresses the fact that no one is immune to appearances. If the world were to eliminate every magazine and media form containing images of youthful, flawless bodies, we would still create and desire these images in our minds.
“Survival of the Prettiest” takes an evolutionary view and searches for what it is in nature that makes us susceptible to beauty and what qualities people possess that evoke these responses. Etcoff argues that, “The ability to perceive beauty and respond to it has been with us for as long as we have been men and women.” For the majority of human history we have been hunter-gatherers. In order to understand our own instincts, we need to look back and place our minds “in habitat”. The general questions that arise throughout the book deal with the present and why we find certain things beautiful. Etcoff reveals the answer: “Because in the course of evolution the people who noticed these signals and desired their possessors had more reproduction success. We are their descendants.”
The book opens with an introduction presenting us with "The Nature of Beauty" which gives us background information. The information given prepares us for the book’s following six chapters containing reams of research and facts about beauty in order to prepare us for what the rest of the book has in store.
The second chapter, "Beauty as Bait" focuses on how humans are born into the world with the ability to discriminate the beautiful. Children, even babies, prefer what adults recognize as beautiful. Research on infants’ perception shows that children as young as three months are staring at attractive faces longer than at unattractive ones. Thus, beauty preferences are not learned; rather, we are born with beauty preferences, or as Etcoff believes “beauty detectors”.
While babies are "rating" adults for attractiveness, adults are doing the same to babies. Infants are helpless and need a huge amount of care. Thus, they had better be adorable and irresistible. Babies have triggers that set off emotions to stimulate adults to care for them and love them. These triggers are called The Kinderschema: soft skin, big eyes, a button nose, soft hair, and all the other features most babies possess. Perhaps because of this, human adults retain a preference for infantile features even in other adults.
Chapter three, "Pretty Pleases" depicts the powerful impact beauty has in everyday life. According to Etcoff, beauty influences everything from our perceptions and attitudes to our behavior toward others. This chapter begins with the initial attraction between potential mates. Fertility is basically written on the female body. We know that the peak of fertility is age 20-24. By the end of a woman’s 30’s, her fertility has declined drastically, and by about 50 years of age a woman reaches menopause. However, for men there is no visible sign of a “good sperm carrier”. Most men are able to have children until they die. The difference between the sexes remains the main reason for male preference for women in their teens and twenties. Women on the other hand, don’t seek older men; rather, they prefer a man with signs of resources and one who is willing to invest in her and potential offspring.
Throughout chapter four, "Cover Me", Etcoff focuses on how people place a great deal on appearance and hate to go anywhere without looking their best. Flawless skin is universally the most desired physical feature in humans, and healthy hair is a close second. Skin and hair when not healthy are completely repellent. Bad hair and skin during medieval life were signs of sickness. Thus, it has become very important to make a ritual of daily grooming, and there is a huge industry to help - hairdressers, manicurists, barbers, and many more. However, the cosmetic industry is not a modern invention; the Egyptians had most of the cosmetics we have today.
Decorated bodies, such as tattoos, scars, and piercings have also become popular. These decorations many times carry important messages. In many parts of the world, they may symbolize an adolescent’s initiation into adulthood, or they may serve as symbols of high status. The person with tattoos, piercings, and scars is revealing that he or she has faced and conquered physical challenges.
In chapter five, "Feature Presentation", Etcoff reveals that certain faces are more important to us in our lives, and most often these faces belong to our family members. This may be an explanation why many people are attracted to others who resemble them - a phenomenon called assortative mating.
In chapter six, “Size Does Matter”, we are shown that in order to attract a female, a male will display his beauty. Just like in other animal species, human males display flashy mental and physical ornaments; however, costs always accompany ornaments. A male who displays his ornaments participates in a form of “handicapping”: he is making it clear that he is healthy enough to maintain his ornaments and is therefore a good candidate for reproduction.
As with beauty, we also have an unconscious association between height, power, and status. Studies show that height has a significant impact on salary. Statistically, men who are above average height accumulate more resources than shorter men do.
The penis, too, is considered to be a symbol of a man’s power. Many men feel insecure about the size of their own penis, usually wishing it were larger. This is ironic due to the fact that when compared to most primates; the human male is enormously endowed. Etcoff makes the controversial suggestion that men may use their penis to attract and lure women. Thus, they feel the larger their penis, the more likely they are to win over a potential mate.
In the seventh chapter titled “Fashion Runaway”, the difference between a sense of fashion and a sense of beauty is portrayed. Fashion can help accentuate that which we find beautiful, but it is different than beauty itself. Fashion, according to Etcoff, is a form of art, personality display, and a sign of status. Many people use fashion to appear younger, taller, and richer. Many wealthy people resculpt their entire body through workouts with a personal trainer and plastic surgery. As a status marker, fashion reflects one's wealth and draws attention. Status is also shown by conspicuous waste, which occurs when wealthy people don't hesitate to spend money because they know “there is always more where that came from”.
Despite all this, Etcoff stresses that beauty doesn’t necessarily make a person happy. Happiness deals more with personal characteristics such as optimism, high self-esteem, and finding comfort in affection for people rather than in looks or money. Etcoff believes the key is to stop always wanting more and to be grateful for what you do have.
Altogether, Etcoff was successful at depicting the message that beauty is not entirely in the eye of the beholder; however, she was rather unsuccessful at convincing me that our perception of beauty comes solely from something we biologically possess. I found it extremely difficult to accept Etcoff’s ideas that all cultures have the same ideals of beauty regardless of their nationality or race. On the other hand, by using a great deal of scientific research in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, Etcoff was able to convince me that part of our beauty perception may be programmed into our brain circuits and has been throughout the history of humankind. She pulls together recent research on evolutionary topics to back up her suggestion that being attractive has survival value, and this is the reason humans’ reaction to beauty is not completely attributable to conditioning processes of our environment.
Throughout my last three years of college as a psychology major, I have been exposed to many different psychology courses including one evolutionary psychology course. Many of Etcoff’s ideas on beauty complemented what I learned throughout my evolutionary course. In all of my psychology courses, the “nature vs. nurture” controversy is unavoidable. Again and again the argument’s conclusion ended with both sides receiving credit. However, Etcoff’s focus on the "nature" aspect allowed her to ignore the "nurture" side of the controversy. I feel it may have been helpful to compare and present alternative points of view to more strongly support her thesis. However, Etcoff's ideas were backed up by an astounding amount of evidence. She certainly led me to disavow my belief that images in the media and culture are the sole reasons for our obsession with beauty.
“Survival of the Prettiest” is a valuable book for anyone searching to find an explanation to our obsession with beauty. It would be a very helpful guide in a college evolutionary psychology course to better understand the field’s ideas of humans’ beauty and attraction. Women who read this book will see more clearly why their beauty is in many ways emphasized much more than any other asset they possess. Men will also be surprised to find they are judged by their appearance as well. However, feminists who have been arguing that culture and media often times have negative effects on women will be outraged by Etcoff’s ideas. I also believe psychologists, especially evolutionary psychologists, will be moved to search for further answers regarding Etcoff’s evolutionary motives. Etcoff’s book will certainly ignite discussion in people everywhere on a topic that has until now been ignored.
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© Megan Whaley.
Whaley, M. (2002). Review of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy Etcoff. Human Nature Review. 2: 398-401.