Survival of the Prettiest: Harvard Cognitive Scientist Nancy Etcoff on the Science of Beauty
By Maria Popova
“That is the best part of beauty, which a picture cannot express,” Francis Bacon observed in his essay on the subject. And yet for as far back as humanity can peer into the past, we’ve attempted again and again to capture and define beauty. For Indian philosopher Tagore, beauty was the Truth of eternity. For Richard Feynman, it was the mesmerism of complexity. For E. B. White, it was the power of simplicity. For the influential early art theorist Denman Waldo Ross, it was a supreme instance of order. For legendary philosopher Denis Dutton, it was “a gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors.” But despite all these metaphysical explanations, we continue to strive for a concrete, tangible, material answer.
That’s precisely what Harvard’s Nancy Etcoff sets out to unearth in Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty (public library) — an inquiry into what we find beautiful and why that frames beauty as “the workings of a basic instinct” and explores such fascinating facets of the subject as our evolutionary wiring, the ubiquitous response to beauty across human cultures, and the universal qualities in people that evoke this response.
Etcoff begins by confronting our intellectual apologism for the cult of beauty:
Many intellectuals would have us believe that beauty is inconsequential. Since it explains nothing, solves nothing, and teaches us nothing, it should not have a place in intellectual discourse. And we are supposed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. After all, the concept of beauty has become an embarrassment.
But there is something wrong with this picture. Outside the realm of ideas, beauty rules. Nobody has stopped looking at it, and no one has stopped enjoying the sight. Turning a cold eye to beauty is as easy as quelling physical desire or responding with indifference to a baby’s cry. We can say that beauty is dead, but all that does is widen the chasm between the real world and our understanding of it.
Etcoff admonishes against confusing beauty with all the manufactured — and industriously exploited — stand-ins for it:
Madison Avenue cleverly exploits universal preferences but it does not create them, any more than Walt Disney created our fondness for creatures with big eyes and little limbs, or Coca-Cola or McDonald’s created our cravings for sweet or fatty foods. Advertisers and businessmen help to define what adornments we wear and find beautiful, but … this belongs to our sense of fashion, which is not the same thing as our sense of beauty.
“If everyone were cast in the same mould, there would be no such thing as beauty,” Darwin famously reflected, and Etcoff echoes his admonition in turning to the menacing domino effect of this proposition in action and what it robs us of:
The media channel desire and narrow the bandwidth of our preferences. A crowd-pleasing image becomes a mold, and a beauty is followed by her imitator, and then by the imitator of her imitator. Marilyn Monroe was such a crowd pleaser that she’s been imitated by everyone from Jayne Mansfield to Madonna. Racism and class snobbery are reflected in images of beauty, although beauty itself is indifferent to race and thrives on diversity.
One of the most fascinating aspects of beauty, however, is how bound it is with judgment, and self-judgment in particular. One of the products of our narcissistic bias, Etcoff argues, is that we greatly exaggerate the minute fluctuations in our outward appearance:
To the outside world we vary in small ways from our best hours to our worst. In our mind’s eye, however, we undergo a kaleidoscope of changes, and a bad hair day, a blemish, or an added pound undermines our confidence in ways that equally minor fluctuations in our moods, our strength, or our mental agility usually do not.
Equally, we direct our real-time assessments of appearance towards others:
We are always sizing up other people’s looks: our beauty detectors never close up shop and call it a day. We notice the attractiveness of each face we see as automatically as we register whether or not they look familiar. Beauty detectors scan the environment like radar: we can see a face for a fraction of a second (150 msec. in one psychology experiment) and rate its beauty, even give it the same rating we would give it on longer inspection. Long after we forget many important details about a person, our initial response stays in our memory.
She traces the cross-cultural, age-old extremes to which people go for “beauty” — or, really, for control of those judgments, whether by self or others:
In Brazil there are more Avon ladies than members of the army. In the United States more money is spent on beauty than on education or social services. Tons of makeup—1,484 tubes of lipstick and 2,055 jars of skin care products—are sold every minute. During famines, Kalahari bushmen in Africa still use animal fats to moisturize their skin, and in 1715 riots broke out in France when the use of flour on the hair of aristocrats led to a food shortage. The hoarding of flour for beauty purposes was only quelled by the French Revolution.
But our fixation on beauty is so profound that it even permeates the most elevated of human spirits. Etcoff gives Eleanor Roosevelt, one of history’s most remarkable hearts and minds, and Leo Tolstoy, enduring sage of human wisdom, as tragic examples:
When Eleanor Roosevelt was asked if she had any regrets, her response was a poignant one: she wished she had been prettier. It is a sobering statement from one of the most revered and beloved of women, one who surely led a life with many satisfactions. She is not uttering just a woman’s lament. In Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “I was frequently subject to moments of despair. I imagined that there was no happiness on earth for a man with such a wide nose, such thick lips, and such tiny gray eyes as mine.… Nothing has such a striking impact on a man’s development as his appearance, and not so much his actual appearance as a conviction that it is either attractive or unattractive.”
(It is especially ironic and demonstrative of the oppressive power of such ideals that Roosevelt famously wrote, “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.”)
Still, the mesmerism of beauty and its grip on us, Etcoff argues, is too deep-seated to be undone by its mere intellectual recognition:
Appearance is the most public part of the self. It is our sacrament, the visible self that the world assumes to be a mirror of the invisible, inner self. This assumption may not be fair, and not how the best of all moral worlds would conduct itself. But that does not make it any less true. Beauty has consequences that we cannot erase by denial. Beauty will continue to operate — outside jurisdiction, in the lawless world of human attraction. Academics may ban it from intelligent discourse and snobs may sniff that beauty is trivial and shallow but in the real world the beauty myth quickly collides with reality.
Framing beauty as a “basic pleasure,” Etcoff argues that our response to it is actually the sign of a healthy human mind. Conversely, the absence of such a response is one of the key symptoms of severe depression, one that goes hand-in-hand with anhedonia — the inability to take pleasure in things that once pleased us.
Although the object of beauty is debated, the experience of beauty is not. Beauty can stir up a snarl of emotions but pleasure must always be one (tortured longings and envy are not incompatible with pleasure). Our body responds to it viscerally and our names for beauty are synonymous with physical cataclysms and bodily obliteration — breathtaking, femme fatale, knockout, drop-dead gorgeous, bombshell, stunner, and ravishing. We experience beauty not as rational contemplation but as a response to physical urgency.
She offers some exquisite examples of beauty’s contemplation from the annals of literary history:
The most lyrical description of an encounter with beauty — solitary, spontaneous, with an unknown other—comes in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when Stephen Dedalus sees a young woman standing by the shore with “long, slender bare legs,” and a face “touched with the wonder of mortal beauty.” Her beauty is transformative and gives form to his sensual and spiritual longings. “Her image had passed into his soul for ever and no word had broken the holy silence of his ecstasy.… A wild angel had appeared to him, the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life, to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!”
Ezra Pound had a moment of recognition that inspired him to write a two-line poem “In a station at the Métro,” which comprised these brief sentences: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals, on a wet, black bough.” Later, Pound described how he came to write it. “Three years ago in Paris I got out of a Métro train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy or as lovely as that sudden emotion.… In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”
Etcoff argues that we each possess an intrinsic beauty “template” that we intuit, against which we measure everything we observe:
People judge appearances as though somewhere in their minds an ideal beauty of the human form exists, a form they would recognize if they saw it, though they do not expect they ever will. It exists in the imagination.
The human image has been subjected to all manner of manipulation in an attempt to create an ideal that does not seem to have a human incarnation. When Zeuxis painted Helen of Troy he gathered five of the most beautiful living women and represented features of each in the hope of capturing and depicting her beauty. There are no actual descriptions of Helen, nor of other legendary beauties such as Dante’s Beatrice. Their faces are blank slates, Rorschach inkblot tests of our imaginings of the features of perfect beauty.
But as unique as we would like to think we are, these inner templates turn out to be far more uniform. Etcoff cites the work of anthropometrist Leslie Farkas, who measured the facial proportions of 200 women, including 50 models, as well as young males and kids, and asked a large sample of participants to rate their appearance, then compared the results with the conventions of the classical beauty canon. The surprising findings, Etcoff argues, illustrates how measurement systems have failed at producing a formula for beauty and instead reveal something profound about the brokenness of the prescriptive canon:
The canon did not fare well. Many of the measures did not turn out to be important, such as the relative angles of the ear and nose. Some seemed pure idealizations: none of the faces and heads in profile corresponded to equal halves or thirds or fourths. Some were inaccurate—the distance between the eyes of the beauties was greater than that suggested by the canon (the width of the nose). Farkas’s results do not mean that a beautiful face will never match the Renaissance and classical ideals. But they do suggest that classical artists might have been wrong about the fundamental nature of human beauty. Perhaps they thought there was a mathematical ideal because this fit in a general way with platonic or religious ideas about the origin of the world.
And yet beauty is a very real piece of the human experience and bespeaks some of our greatest existential tensions, such as the mortality paradox. Etcoff writes:
Attitudes toward beauty are entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit. We view the body as a temple, a prison, a dwelling for the immortal soul, a tormentor, a garden of earthly delights, a biological envelope, a machine, a home. We cannot talk about our response to our body’s beauty without understanding all that we project onto our flesh.
Though at first glance borderline reductionist in its excessive reliance on evolutionary explanations, the rest of Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty goes on demonstrate why science and philosophy need each other and how the social sciences fit into the intellectual debate on beauty. Complement it with Etcoff’s compelling TED talk on the surprising science of happiness — a fine addition to these essential reads on the art and science of happiness — in which she explores the evolutionary explanations of beauty:
Published July 1, 2013