Book Reviews

The Human Face
by Brian Bates, John Cleese
Hardcover - 240 pages 1st edition (July 1, 2001)
ISBN: 0789478366

Editorial Reviews
Review by William  A.  Spriggs,  July 10,  2001

This is a large picture-book suitable for libraries and coffee tables that makes an excellent introductory book for young adults or grown adults who may be curious about the science behind the face. Similar in layout and size to the Manwatching: A field Guide to Human Behavior, the 1977 book by Desmond Morris, (which was the first book ever to draw my attention to the connection between primate and human behavior), and it is written in non-academic and lucid language. With John Cleese on board one is occasionally presented with a humorous one-liner, but overall the book takes its subject very seriously, is well researched, and what surprised me, was its total commitment to the evolutionary perspective throughout the book.

There were a few minor errors throughout the book, including this passage explaining our ability to recognize faces for criminal identification, (It was opposite four police mug shot photographs of two black-skinned men showing frontal and profile views): "And so people turn out to be poor at recognizing faces they have glimpsed only once. And things get worse if we are confronted with faces of a different ethnic type, unless we are familiar with such faces through extended contact." p.63. Although the statement is correct, it also seems to take the assumed perspective that the reader is white. But this one small glitch does not detract from the excellent groundwork that the book prepares one for, and the book is very evenly divided showing many photos of racial and ethnic faces. Let me share with you some highlights of the book:

In explaining expressions on the face as a form of communicating our inner feelings to others: "We might think that facial expressions are redundant now that humans have language, an infinitely superior tool for expressing ideas and concepts. But in evolutionary terms, language is a relatively new addition and has it limitations. Our face can express things that are difficult to put into words. Expression can communicate emotions faster, more subtly and more effectively than words, which is why facial expressions remain crucial for humans as social animals." p. 71.

Here is a marvelous paragraph explaining facial expressions which leads readers into a section about the human smile: "Our expressions then are rather like the colours in painting; there is a small number of primary coulours that make strong, unambiguous 'statements', and there are endless shades of coulour that can be created from them by mixing the palette. From the basic, inbuilt expressions we extrapolate to create variations that constitute a conscious, non-verbal language of facial expressions. It is in this rich interface between the basic and modified expressions that we can learn a lot about ourselves as individuals and as a species. The smile, for example, is an expression in which we can clearly see basic and consciously controlled expressions alternating, interacting, even competing." p. 90.

Of the book's six chapters; Origins; Identity; Expressions; Beauty; Vanity, and Fame, the book hits its highmark with its chapter on Vanity. In contrast to the beautiful side, we find vanity's dark side; for as we "select" beautiful people to be icons in our society, we must "reject" others to make room for the people we "vote" as the most beautiful. It's origins no doubts were to select those with the best outward signs of health, but with our new knowledge of the evolutionary perspective, we also have within our grasp the understanding of the hardships we are causing others with this rejection. We should understand that our societies could be losing vast resources and capabilities simply because no one wants to pay attention to what these "ugly" or deformed people bring to the table unless they exert extraordinary efforts.

Think I'm daft? Here's a quote from the book to let us know that this separation starts early in our lives. "In the 1970s, teachers in 400 classrooms in Missouri were given the report card of a ten-year-old student, and asked to make judgments about the child's abilities, social skills and so on. The card detailed many aspects of the child's work, including grades, evaluation of attitude, work habits and attendance. But researchers attached to the report card various photographs purporting to be the child -- an attractive or unattractive girl or boy. Although the card contained a lot of information about the child's performance, the teacher's judgments were heavily skewed by the photographs. Teachers expected the good-looking children to be more intelligent, sociable, and more popular with their peers." p. 187.

In the mix of multi-cultured faces, I counted about 30 celebrities that act as a hook to catch the browser’s attention at the book store. I was going to complain about this, but if the book catches the attention of some young person or adult about the human face then perhaps they will go beyond the "facial" exterior of the book and learn more about the inner soul and wealth of information to be learned that dwells within. I highly recommend this book as an introductory path in the evolutionary perspective of one small piece of the puzzle that we call the human face.

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