By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated April 30, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Survival of the Prettiest

What inspires a woman to endure needles filled with fat injected into her lips? What profiteth a man to have the ligaments at his pubic bone snipped, thereby letting out an extra inch or two of valuable penis? According to psychologist Nancy Etcoff in Survival of the Prettiest, Vogue, Jerry Springer, failed feminism, and irresponsible advertising aren’t to blame for our fetishistic pursuit of culturally approved beauty: It’s in the DNA, stupid. ”Beauty,” Etcoff writes in the introduction to her sprightly, spunky, well-written treatise on the Darwinian science of looking good, ”is a universal part of human experience…that…provokes pleasure, rivets attention, and impels actions that help ensure the survival of our genes.”

So enjoy! Buy those magazines filled with celebrities celebrated for being pretty! Let the gorgeous be gorgeous — especially since studies show that highly desirable physical symmetry is a sign of parasite resistance! Oh, and P.S., ”One sniffs sexual prudery among the beauty bashers and a denial of men’s and women’s basic sexual natures”!

Naomi Wolf, author of that women-are-screwed 1990 media sensation The Beauty Myth, ain’t going to be pleased. Neither will science journalist Natalie Angier, who, in the equally newsworthy Woman: An Intimate Geography, does a brisk debunking of the extremes of evolutionary psychology. Survival is one of those irresistibly persuasive, well-timed, fun-fact-filled theses that, while encouraging us to give in to our natural instinct to ogle, can leave a less than symmetrically shaped reader feeling depressed: What comfort is there for the wrinkled, balding, or zit-afflicted to read that ”flawless skin is the most universally desired human feature, according to zoologist Desmond Morris, and flowing, healthy hair runs close behind”?

Etcoff, who teaches at Harvard Medical School (and who, judging from her attractive jacket photo, is chic enough to sit at a TV roundtable next to Wolf and the inevitable Camille Paglia), shows, with considerable scholarly backup, that ”whether or not the beautiful is good, beauty seems to bring out goodness in others,” even when it comes to babies and schoolchildren. Still, how does the 99 percent of the population that doesn’t look like Catherine Zeta-Jones, John F. Kennedy Jr., or (insert your favorite hunk or babe here) accept the inequities the author claims are ”hard-wired” into human existence?

”In a world where men and women try to stave off pregnancy for the majority of their sexual encounters,” she writes, ”sexual preference is still guided by ancient rules that make us most attracted to bodies that look the most reproductively fit.” Should everyone over the age of 35 kill themselves, or just shoot collagen into their aging, thinning lips? The author draws no comforting conclusions. Unlike, say, Deborah Tannen, who, in her erudite but mass-market-friendly studies of contrasting communication styles between men and women, suggests that we should all listen more carefully to one another, Etcoff skips the palliatives. ”We can…educate our eyes to see beauty in forms that do not automatically push the ancient gene-replicator buttons” is about all she can weakly proffer.

That, and the old news that George Eliot was ugly but ”she wrote some of the most profound novels in the English language.”

With brush-offs like these, grooming and exercise tips from Jennifer Love Hewitt and Tae-Bo master Billy Blanks are small consolation. Still, the author provides moments of comic relief. Discussing the sexual importance of male preening throughout the animal kingdom, she reports, ”Great snipes whose white tail patches are brightened with Wite-Out and male swallows whose tails are fitted with glued-on tail extensions have more mating success than normally endowed males. This suggests that females prefer traits that are exaggerated beyond what is found in nature.”

It also suggests why Fabio’s chest, Marv Albert’s toupee, and Dennis Rodman’s maquillage are part of a grand plan Darwin could explain, using monkeys as models. B+

Episode Recaps

Survival of the Prettiest

  • Book
  • Nancy Etcoff