The folks at Penguin sent me a review copy of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa. It’s a provocative primer on the newish science of evolutionary psychology, and a direct attack on the central notions of more traditional sociology. I gather that evolutionary psychology is fairly hot at the moment, given all the attention that Steven Pinker has been generating lately (here’s a dry but informative interview with Pinker on evolutionary psychology).
The book’s premise is pretty straight-forward. We have one goal in life: reproduction. It’s all about sex. The authors look at many aspects of human culture–from dating to war–through this lens.
I was immediately hooked when I read a section in the introduction about stereotypes:
But we suggest that you cannot dismiss an observation by calling it a stereotype, as if that suddenly makes it untrue and thus unworthy of discussion and explanation. In fact, the opposite is the case. Many stereotypes are empirical generalizations with a statistical basis and thus on average tend to be true.“
They point out that stereotypes have a bad name because they are, in many cases, unkind or offensive to a particular group. “Women are shorter than men” and “women are fatter than men” are both accurate empirical generalizations, but the second becomes a stereotype because no one wants to be regarded as fat. I, too, have always felt that stereotypes have an unnecessarily bad name.
Blondes, Breasts and Suicide Bombers
After an introduction to evolutionary psychology and what’s wrong with traditional sociology, Miller and Kanazawa spend the rest of the book rigorously applying their approach to the practicalities of our lives. These were just a few of the more controversial ideas that have stuck with me:
- There’s only one human culture. We think of cultures are highly divergent, but in fact they are far more the same than different.
- Men prefer large breasts and blonde hair because (compared to small breasts and dark hair), they change dramatically with age. Therefore, it’s easier to identify the youngest and therefore most fecund potential mates.
- In every culture around the world, women prefer to mate with older men, and men prefer to mate with younger women. This is because older men will, in general, be better providers for their offspring, and younger women are healthier, more reliable baby-makers.
- Attaining high political office is just a means to have access to a large pool of potential mates. See also President Clinton.
- So controversial, I’ll quote it (based on research described in this book, apparently): “The sex gap in earnings and the so-called glass ceiling are caused not by employer discrimination or any other external factors, but by the sex differences in internal preferences, values, desires, dispositions and temperaments…more careful statistical comparisons of men and women who are equally motivated to earn money show that women now earn 98 cents for every dollar men make, and sex has no statistically significant effect on workers’ earnings.”
- Most suicide bombers are young, single Muslim men because they are ‘losers’ in the evolutionary game. This is particularly true because Muslim societies are somewhat polygynous, and some men don’t get a chance to pass on their genes. On the other hand, they can look forward to 72 guaranteed mates in the afterlife.
- In her 1998 book, Judith Rich Harris “methodically demolishes the universally held assumption that how parents raise their children is a major determining factor in how they turn out…widely condemned by politicians and the media alike, it is in fact corroborated by behaviour genetic research.”
Smart Guys and Plenty of Studies
In terms of approach, this book belongs on the same shelf with Stumbling on Happiness, The Tipping Point and Freakonomics. You know, books where smart guys do some original thinking, cite a bunch of studies and present it to us Normal Humans in terms we can understand.
Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters feels more scientific than these other books. Miller and Kanazawa present their work carefully, with plenty of skepticism and disclaimers. There’s even a section at the end of the book called “Stump the Evolutionary Psychologists”, for phenomenon (such as homosexuality) which their approach can’t satisfactorily explain. Because of this more academic approach, their theories should be more compelling than Galdwell’s or Levy’s.
However, Miller and Kanazawa aren’t particularly strong writers, and have little interest in the storytelling that makes boks like The Tipping Point so readable. The authors never use a contraction, and often repeat themselves, to the point of irritating the reader. The book is certainly readable–it’s not overly dry or academic–but it lacks the lyricism that, to my mind, makes these other books such mainstream successes.