Survival of the Prettiest

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9780385478540: Survival of the Prettiest

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.

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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 the Back Cover:

Advance Praise for Survival of the Prettiest:

"Sparkling prose, dazzling insights on a subject which inherently attracts us, make this scientific page-turner irresistible."
--Paul Ekman, Professor, University of California, San Francisco

"Although I did not enjoy being called a 'genetic freak,' I did find Nancy Etcoff's book thought-provoking and a good read--yes, we can read too. Her writings explore the existence of aesthetic beauty, without placing judgments upon it. Rather, she looks at our reaction to it."
--Cindy Crawford

"Erudite, pithy, witty, and indeed beautiful, Nancy Etcoff's prose brings sense at last to the study of beauty. She demonstrates that beauty evolved in the brain of the beholder and the body of the beheld for fascinating evolutionary reasons."
--Matt Ridley, author of The Origins of Virtue and The Red Queen

"Forget the myths about beauty; it isn't skin-deep, or in the eye of the beholder, or 'culturally constructed.' Our notion of beauty is ancient and universal, embedded in our genes--a Stone Age body scan brimming with information about health and fertility. Nancy Etcoff provides a lucid, authoritative guide to these latest insights of Darwinian science. At last, a book about beauty that won't go out of fashion."
--Helena Cronin, London School of Economics, author of The Ant and the Peacock

"In this fascinating book, Nancy Etcoff makes a compelling argument that our fascination with beauty has deep roots in our genes. As a pioneer in this cutting-edge field, she writes with authority, clarity, and no little wit." --Dean Hamer, National Cancer Institute, author of Living with Our Genes and The Science of Desire

"Nancy Etcoff deftly and fatally skewers one of the most enduring pretensions of the intellectual class: that beauty is only a cultural artifact, a distraction and temptation for weaker minds. With volumes of hard data and loads of humor, she shows that the experience of beauty is on a par with that of hunger or pain--an evolutionary adaptation complete with universal attributes and interesting psychology."
--Alex P. Pentland, Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"This is a spellbinding book. Dr. Etcoff raises--and often answers--fascinating questions about how the brain responds to the beauty of the human form."
--V.S. Ramachandran, Professor and Director, Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego, author (with S. Blakeslee) of Phantoms in the Brain

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Nancy Etcoff
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Etcoff, Nancy
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Etcoff, Nancy
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