Rich wrinklie marries teenbeauty queen;Summer reading;Books

30th July 1999 at 01:00
SURVIVAL OF THE PRETTIEST: the Science of Beauty. By Nancy Etcoff. Little, Brown pound;16.99.

It sounds like a tabloid headline, but Laurence Alster looks at a book that suggests it's an evolutionary imperative

Around this time of year, the beach beckons and we worry about how we look. Seizing their seasonal opportunity, the slimming and fitness industries feed our neuroses even more than usual. "Lose a stone for summer!" shout the magazine cover lines. Shops stock clothes intended to flatten, flatter or judiciously reveal for, like ourselves, others will be quick to deliver judgment on what they see.

Hard, surely, to think of a more invidious situation. Nancy Etcoff, on the other hand, would find it hard to think of a more natural one. In Survival of the Prettiest, she pulls together facts, maxims, ideas and observations to support her argument that the ranking of human beings in terms of their relative attractiveness is set not by culture but by biology. In order to benefit our offspring, evolution has programmed us to prefer beauties (of both sexes) to less blessed specimens. Tough but true, says Etcoff. Look at the facts.

Take the animal world. Peacocks with elaborate trains attract more mates than those with less flamboyant displays. Vividly-coloured sticklebacks breed more successfully because they guard their eggs better than their plainer peers. Male swallows with long, symmetrical tails attract more females than their shorter-tailed rivals.

Human beings are equally instinctive. Shown images of people of various ages and races, babies stare longer at those judged to be attractive. As these young subjects could not possibly have been affected by cultural convention, Etcoff contends, we can safely deduce that such preferences are innate and sustained throughout life. Which is why a whole raft of psychological tests show that, in almost any given situation, good-looking people are more likely to gain an advantage over those less so. "We face a world where lookism is one of the most pervasive but denied of prejudices," sighs Etcoff.

Hence the emphasis in our culture on looking young. For women in particular, to be young is to be fertile, and to be beautiful is to seek to gain from the fact. The pursuit of prolonged youthfulness - through clothes, cosmetics and plastic surgery (Etcoff refers to "procedures" or "age dropping") - has become ever more desperate. Beauty is, and always has been, a convertible currency.

While studies show that men value looks more than intelligence - "because appearance gives many clues about whether a woman is healthy and fertile" - women are more likely, where they can, to trade looks for status by marrying men with better prospects or from a higher social class than their own. Many such men are slightly older, of course, though not so old as Hollywood would suggest in films that pair distinctly middle-aged males with young and pretty females. The critics were not the only ones who complained that Woody Allen was pushing it a bit when he recently cast himself as an irresistible object of desire to Helena Bonham Carter and Julia Roberts.

As books on sociobiology go, Survival of the Prettiest is an entertaining and provocative read in the mould of Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape, and it will be the subject of much table talk. But the essential crassness of its challenge to the established feminist stance - which identifies male-dominated belief systems as the main reason for women's traditional subservience - will make many women choke.

Etcoff's identification of nature rather than nurture as the core determinant of attraction between the sexes rests on assumptions that are unusually simplistic. Seldom does she acknowledge the sheer complexity of the interplay between biology and social convention.

And if she does make some good points on the relationship between status, body shape and general economic circumstances, other observations on the supposed universality of expectations about beauty lack both breadth and depth. The baby recognition studies she adduces as proof that "infants come prewired with beauty detectors" are scarcely faultless in terms either of their methodology or interpretation.

And her frequent comparisons between animal and insect worlds almost totally ruled by instinct, and the infinitely more tangled world of human interaction, are reductive to the point of absurdity.

Still, Etcoff is good enough to close with what looks like consolation for plain Janes. She reports that, after meeting the 50-year-old George Eliot, Henry James (no beauty himself) described her as as "magnificently ugly - deliciously hideous". Yet such was the power of Eliot's personality and intellect, James later confessed to having fallen in love with her. From this Etcoff concludes that there is hope even for the least attractive woman.

Readers of Eliot's Middlemarch will recall Tertius Lydgate, the physician whose talents are wasted when he falls in love with and marries the local bimbo, Rosamond Vincy. This is after Eliot has wryly reported Lydgate's belief that "Plain women should be faced with philosophy and investigated by science". You feel that Etcoff wouldn't disagree.

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