978-0-385-47942-4 / 9780385479424

Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty





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About the book:

Nancy Etcoff's synthesis of up-to-the-minute evolutionary biology, neuroscience, social science and literary criticism is the very model of good popular science. So why is her account of physical beauty so damned titillating? There is nothing salacious here: Etcoff simply describes where beauty comes from, what it is for, how it is exploited and controlled today and who stands to gain and lose from its presence in the world. There is much here that is shocking, but such shocks and surprises are intellectual, rather than erotic. "In Brazil there are more Avon ladies than members of the army," Etcoff observes. "In the United States more money is spent on beauty than on education or social services ... and in 1715 riots broke out in France when the use of flour on the hair of aristocrats led to a food shortage."

Why is reading Survival of the Prettiest such an illicit pleasure? Perhaps because, in a society informed by Christian ethics and more recently by feminism, we feel uneasy with the manifest injustice of physical beauty and the way it runs roughshod over modern notions of virtue, democracy and the dignity of the individual. It's like the joke about the mother-in-law--as irresistibly funny as it is politically unacceptable. Why, then should we take beauty seriously? Because, Etcoff argues, beauty exists. It is not, like mother-in-law jokes, a product of the social fabric. It is information, there to aid procreation and species survival. We may disapprove of the ways we are manipulated at so visceral a level by so primitive a mechanism. But to deny beauty its social and political force is an act worthy of Canute. "How to live with beauty and bring it back into the realm of pleasure is a task for twenty-first century civilisation," Etcoff writes, and, thanks to her, we are off to a good start. --Simon Ings

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