January 2, 2007

Survival of the Prettiest

I just finished Survival of the Prettiest, a book by Nancy Etcoff, on the science of Beauty. This book has been out since 1999 and was extensively reviewed in detail elsewhere, see here and here. It does give very useful and practical information about the basics of human beauty and how it is not a cultural construct but a hard wired part of our human biological nature by which we are deeply influenced. Nature itself wants women to have babies as young as possible, and beauty is therefore so far been most often identified with the qualities of youth in women. But now that sexuality has become divorced from procreation, and science, specifically medicine and self and public health care, makes us very healthy and youthful well into middle age if we want to be, there is a new disconnect from that original Darwinian struggle for survival that human beauty has been part of. Men are also judged by beauty standards, even though culturally much has been done to suppress the importance of that aspect. There is a hard wired sense innately within us that is drawn to the beautiful, in both men and women. Another interesting thing was that it was found that we all, even as pre-verbal infants, spontaneously respond to human beauty, we all gaze much longer at the beauties than at the rest, and we are all instantly galvanized by the beautiful. And further, that beauty is really at bottom the most average. There is in every one's mind and instinct a basic idea of what is the ideal size and shape and placement of the features and the form of the body, and those that deviate too much from it are "too large" or "too small" "too fat" or "too thin" or not "right" in some way. There is an internal scale, and that turns out to be the middle, average size and shape. It seems that most beauties have much in common, across all races and cultures, as to basic placement and size of features within a very narrow range (see this drawing here). However, since no one, except certain statues, can be perfectly average, most all beauty does incorporate some flaw or strangeness, or extremity, in some small detail, which then makes it truly memorable. As to smells and fragrance, it says that smells can often be pleasant or unpleasant depending on intensity, which I have found to be true. The book notes that the sense of smell is connected to parts of the brain not directly involved with language. That scent is poorly captured in words, described mostly by analogy, or as Brian Eno once said, composed fragrances..."court the edges of unrecognizably, evoking sensations that don't have names, or mix up sensations that don't belong together." I think that is an accurate assessment. The mystery of a good fragrance, that seeming uncapture-ability, is the essence of the attraction. I think this book is well worth reading for those who are interested in any aspect of human beauty, or fashion, or cultural politics. The viewpoint of science gives it a common sense, down to earth spin that prosaically explains many aspects of certain male female relationship dynamics, such as the obessive interest of many much older men in women young enough to be their daughters. Because all that is basically derives from primally strong procreative drives, if then as thinking human beings, there are equally strong emotional and practical reasons not to keep procreating continuously, ultimately a sense of self understanding and informed choice would arise from the disasters of experience that can temper the blinding forms of instinctual appreciation of beauty. Ultimately the book reclaims human beauty in a way, helps rescue it from the realm of cultural construct. The processes of adornment and the appreciation of human beauty can then be enjoyed as less of a guilty pleasure, especially if lately there has been too much weight laid upon raw or cultivated beauty to carry status and meanings that compete with pleasure unalloyed with politics or power.

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