Answering my own questions since 2001

Why Do Beautiful People Have More Daughters?

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.

Finally, the cover of this book reminded me of a Seth Godin book. It’s something of a trend, apparently:

Trend Spotted: Dolls on Covers

16 Responses to “Why Do Beautiful People Have More Daughters?”

  1. Patrick Linehan

    Come on, doesn’t this all sound like hocum?

    To take one example, if “evolution of humanity” favors blonde women with big breasts, why, after thousand of generations of selection pressure, are there any non-blonde non-mammahypertrophic women left in the world?

    Another example, how many “extra” children did Bill Clinton leave behind after becoming president.

    This sounds like another bunch of “Just So” stories without any sort of rigourous analysis behind it.

    mcdeezy Reply:

    Blonde women with big breasts don’t want to ruin things under the hood, so they don’t have as many kids.

  2. Derek K. Miller

    One thing you didn’t note, Darren, is if the authors take on the point of whether the existence of trends or averages justifies our using them to make decisions, e.g. should we exclude women from being firefighters if, on average, they are not as strong as men?

    The difficulty with stereotypes is that, if we accept them (and even when they are true), we tend to use the generalizations about group averages to make judgments and decisions about individuals.

    And for most characteristics among humans, the standard deviations (i.e. variations from the average) overlap between groups. So we end up making poor decisions about individuals based on what we *think* we know about them based on the (often arbitrary) groups into which we sort them. Some women can be strong enough to be firefighters (just as some men never can be), but if that opportunity is never open to them, they may never apply (or be allowed to), or may never train their bodies for the job.

    The difficulty with so much evolutionary psychology — not that this invalidates the research, but it’s worth noting — is that people with vested interests can so easily put the conclusions to lousy ends. That is why some of the results make us so uncomfortable.

    Just as eugenics tried to draw justification from misinterpreting natural selection, we as a society can make morally poor choices and try to justify them using evolutionary psychology. Do Miller and Kanazawa address that at all?

  3. Beth

    Derek beat me to the punch on this one. I agree that the big problem with stereotypes is that even if a given stereotype is “true” in the sense that it is based on a group average, it does not apply to every member of the group. Like Derek said, both external forces (in his example, people not giving women the chance to become a firefighter) and internalization of that stereotype (e.g., women thinking “women can’t be a firefighter, so I won’t even try”) can limit people. As well, it ignores *why* a group average is a given way? Is it something cultural, and then the stereotype reinforces that belief? I think their point about “discussion and explanation” (as opposed to using the stereotypes to judge and limit people) in the quotation you provide is key – provided that the discussion and explanation include an acknowledgment that, as Derek points out, an average also has variation around it.

    Of course, the burning question I really have from this posting is “why *do* beautiful people have more daughters?” And does this mean I should only be looking for girl names when I have children? =P

  4. darren

    Derek et Beth: Unfortunately I sent the book home with a house guest, so I can’t check what else they say on stereotypes. They were pretty cautious throughout the book, as I mention, so I suspect they reflected your thinking here.

    Personally, I was just pleased to find a less-charged synonym for ‘stereotype’ in ‘empirical generalization’.

    Beth: It’s funny, but I re-read the section that discusses that question several times. I couldn’t articulate the answer very well. I hope that’s reflective of the authors’ writing skills as opposed to my shoddy intellect.

    In any case, I found the answer from the authors themselves in this article (see #6). Here’s an excerpt:

    “If parents have any traits that they can pass on to their children and that are better for sons than for daughters, then they will have more boys. Conversely, if parents have any traits that they can pass on to their children and that are better for daughters, they will have more girls.

    Physical attractiveness, while a universally positive quality, contributes even more to women’s reproductive success than to men’s. The generalized hypothesis would therefore predict that physically attractive parents should have more daughters than sons. Once again, this is the case. Americans who are rated “very attractive” have a 56 percent chance of having a daughter for their first child, compared with 48 percent for everyone else.”

    Chris Reply:

    I think that 8% difference is pretty much a random thing. Gender of the offspring is determined by the sperm and the acid/alkaline environment of the vagina, unless I’m hopelessly out of date with my info (which could be the case).

    Besides,
    I’ve seen quite a large number of homely couples who gave birth to a girl first and mostly girls thereafter, as well as gorgeous couples whose children are all boys.

  5. Derek K. Miller

    I guess my wife and I, with our two daughters, must be a gorgeous couple — and no, I’m not falling into the trap of applying generalizations to individuals at all! Nope!

  6. Tim

    If men prefer blondes, than wouldn’t millions of years of evolution in africa and asia create more blonde women?

    The book has fascinating ideas in it, but just scratches the surface of fact and serious study. I would like to see much more indepth critical thinking.

  7. Derek K. Miller

    Here’s my review.

    Incidentally, the book argues that long blonde hair and blue eyes evolved in more northern climes, where people tended to bundle up, and are not as necessary in warmer regions where everyone walked around naked and there were other bodily criteria by which to judge reproductive fitness. I’m not sure the argument convinces me, but that’s the gist of it.

  8. Derek K. Miller

    It looks like the main author if this book, Satoshi Kanazawa, is a bit of a wingnut, and also may not be analyzing many of his statistics correctly.

    I stand by my review of the book, but my reservations listed in it (especially that there is very little information about what many of the mechanisms of evolutionary psychology are) have become stronger with new evidence. Overall, I’m likely to look at his work more skeptically from now on.

  9. hogwash

    Personally, I have always admired a “fuckable” man and if he is intellegent that’s is a real bonus!

    However in my short lifetime these rare breeds of men are hard to come by and even harder to find without elephantine ego’s.

    If I find one, humanity will be better for it.

  10. jaltcoh.blogspot.com

    Derek and Beth (if you’re still reading this after all these years): The book authors say that their book makes no “should” claims. They seek only to *describe* the world as it *is*, not to *prescribe* how we *should* behave. So the question of whether we *should* believe in stereotypes is outside the scope of the book.

    As they put it, refraining from making any normative claims ensures that they won’t commit the “naturalistic fallacy” (that whatever is natural is also good) or the “moralistic fallacy” (that whatever would be good is in fact what is natural).

  11. Sparkle

    Is this a hidden document from Hitler’s secret files? The sad part is that a Japanese male co-authored this book. If what he is saying is true then how does he explain why the proportion of blonde Nordics is actually decreasing. Matter-of-fact, Europe’s population is not even at replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.

    I guess Africa and Asia forgot to get the memo because these continents produce the highest rate of children per woman.

    If what these do-dos is saying is true then by NOW the percentage of blue-eyed blonde people should be 95% of the earth’s population instead of a drop in the bucket.

    Just more racist Nazi tripe and it’s a shame a nonwhite male would even cosign this crap.

    I am waiting for his next book when he will explain why blue-eyd blondes are failing to reproduce.

    Tomas Reply:

    I am a ‘nonwhite male’ student of Kanazawa…but that is besides the point…blue eyes and blonde hair are both the result of recessive genes…my studies in economics would suggest that the lower replacement rate in more developed countries MIGHT be due to the higher opportunity cost of having children in these countries (however this is NOT necessarily kanazawa’s view, as he is an evolutionary psychologist and so would not necessarily subscribe to the economist’s view)

  12. Jen

    Dear evolutionary pop psychologists, while you make some fair points…many of them are complete and utter hogwash. These theories can be disputed by any intelligent uni freshman. Catchy title though.

    And about the non-existence of gender-based discrimination, but a reality of male drive… OK, i dont even know where to begin – yes, makes sense in terms of general theory, but in reality has been disputed over and over with countless examples and studies. Just like good-looking people get paid on average more for the same job than their less comely co-workers due to human inherit bias – same goes for females. Im a women, and even I subconsiously,at times, decided that a male whatever would be more conpitent. just by virtue of being male. It’s a generations based hard-wired reflex that’s very hard to fight. Here a very fine little example :
    Just read it…there are countless of this sort..
    http://www.copyblogger.com/james-chartrand-underpants/

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