Etcoff, Nancy 1955-
ETCOFF, Nancy 1955-
Born 1955. Education: Ph.D. (psychology).
Office—Harvard Medical School, 25 Shattuck St., Boston, MA 02115-6092.
Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, professor of psychology; Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, psychologist and neuropsychologist.
Postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neurosciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1999.
As a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and a psychologist and neuropsychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, one might think that Nancy Etcoff would approach the subject of beauty from a cultural perspective. However, due to postdoctoral work in cognitive neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her research into brain differences between the genders, she explores the evolutionary roots of beauty in her first book, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty.
Etcoff contends that in contrast to notions put forth by authors such as Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth and Natalie Angier in Woman: An Intimate Geography, cultural ideas of beauty are biologically based and "a universal part of human experience." Youth, clear skin, shiny hair, ample breasts, full lips, and shapely hips may all be signs of an attractive woman, but they also signal something else: fertility. In men, a muscular body, tall stature, broad shoulders, and a square jaw not only indicate good testosterone levels but an ability to protect and provide as well. Karen Lehrman, reviewing Survival of the Prettiest for the New York Times Book Review, wrote, "Etcoff must be commended for (one hopes) putting the kibosh at last on the notion that attractiveness is determined by men out to keep women ensconced in a beauty rat race."
As evidence of her theory, Etcoff points to a range of data showing the similarity of beauty ideals across cultures and throughout time. For example, some of the scientific studies Etcoff uses as support include the tendency of infants to look longer at traditionally "pretty" faces. And she points out that it is not just the human species who act in this way: rituals in the bird kingdom show that using White-Out to brighten a male snipe's tail spots increases his mating success, as do other similar studies. Etcoff asserts, though, that humans are not entirely subject to the biological imperatives programmed into their genetic makeup. While the urge to pass on our genes is a powerful and natural force, a person's will and intelligence can override such influence. She also maintains, however, that humans need not fight the impulse toward beauty. As she writes in Survival of the Prettiest: "To tell people not to take pleasure in beauty is like telling them to stop enjoying food or sex or novelty or love." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called the style in which Etcoff presents her case "riveting," and commented that the author's "arguments are certain to initiate a great deal of discussion."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Etcoff, Nancy, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1999.
Entertainment Weekly, April 30, 1999, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, p. 85.
New York Times Book Review, March 21, 1999, Karen Lehrman, review of Survival of the Prettiest, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, January 18, 1999, review of Survival of the Prettiest, p. 319.
Time, March 15, 1999, Anita Hamilton, review of Survival of the Prettiest, p. 92.*