Book Notes: Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters

The book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters by Alan Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa is a nice introductory guide to evolutionary psychology, very much in the spirit of Robert Wright's The Moral Animal.

Evolutionary psychology sees "human nature…as the sum of evolved psychological mechanisms." It is a useful tool for explaining why we do what we do. Romantics might find depressing the cold-bloodedness of it all — it's not about you it's about what your genes want to spread far and wide. Romantic or not, it's an important field to understand, even casually, and since Wright and now Miller/Kanazawa make it so accessible, there's no excuse not to.

Below are my favorite excerpts from the book, copied from my Kindle and thus all direct quotes. In my notes you'll find their answers to questions like:

  • Why the liberation of homosexuals may contribute to the end of homosexuality
  • Why men find large breasts of women attractive
  • Why parents kill their own children
  • Why men steal more than women
  • Why older siblings tend to do what their parents do
  • Why women are more religious than men

GENERAL / BACKGROUND

The naturalistic fallacy is the leap from is to ought—that is, the tendency to believe that what is natural is good; that what is, ought to be. The moralistic fallacy would be, “Because everybody ought to be treated equally, there are no innate genetic differences between people.”

You may believe that your personal preferences for an ideal mate are truly personal and individual, not shared by other people. The basic message of evolutionary psychology is that, contrary to what you may have thought, your preferences and desires for your ideal mate are strongly shaped by the forces of evolution. Ultimately, it’s not what you want that matters; it’s what your genes want in order to assist their goal of spreading themselves as much and as far as possible.

There are only two legitimate criteria by which you may evaluate scientific ideas and theories: logic and evidence.

Stereotypes are observations about the empirical world, not behavioral prescriptions. One may not infer how to treat people from empirical observations about them. Stereo-types tell us what groups of people tend to be or do in general; they do not tell us how we ought to treat them. Once again, there is no place for “ought” in science.

Our preference for sweets and fats is an example of an evolved psychological mechanism. Throughout most of human evolutionary history, getting enough calories was a serious problem; malnutrition and starvation were common. In this environment, those who, for reasons of random genetic mutation, had a “taste” for sweets and fats, which contain higher calories, were better off physically than those who did not have such a taste. Those who had a sweet tooth therefore lived longer, led healthier lives, and produced more healthy offspring than those who did not. They in turn passed on their (genetically influenced) taste to their offspring, over many thousands of generations.

The Savanna Principle states that the human brain has difficulty comprehending and dealing with entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment. The Savanna Principle suggests that we continue to have (currently maladaptive) preferences for sweets and fats, and as a result become obese, because our brain cannot readily comprehend the supermarkets, the abundance of food in general, and indeed agriculture, none of which existed in the ancestral environment.


MALE VS. FEMALE SEXUAL JEALOUSY AND CUCKOLDRY

Men can never be certain that they are the father of their mates’ offspring, while females are always certain of their maternity. In other words, the possibility of unwittingly raising children who are not genetically their own exists only for men.

According to one estimate, about 13–20 percent of children in the contemporary United States and 9–17 percent in contemporary Germany are not the genetic offspring of the man whose name appears on the child’s birth certificate.

For this reason, men have a strong evolutionary reason to be sexually jealous, while women, whose maternity is always certain, do not.

Men become jealous of their mates’ sexual infidelity with other men, underlying their reproductive concern for cuckoldry. In contrast, women become jealous of their mates’ emotional involvement with other women, because emotional involvement often leads to diversion of their mates’ resources from them and their children to their romantic rivals.

Male sexual jealousy is another evolved psychological mechanism that hasn’t quite caught up to modern times. It solved the adaptive problem of reproduction in the ancestral environment by allowing men who possessed it to maximize paternity certainty and minimize the possibility of cuckoldry. Sexual jealousy was therefore adaptive in the ancestral environment. However, sex and reproduction are often separated in the modern environment; many episodes of sex do not lead to reproduction. There is an abundance of reliable methods of birth control in industrial societies, and many women use the contraceptive pill. For these women, sexual infidelity does not lead to childbirth, and their mates will not have to waste their resources on someone else’s children.

WOMEN'S ATTRACTIVENESS

One accurate indicator of health is physical attractiveness, and this is the reason why men like beautiful women. Another good indicator of health is hair. Healthy people (men and women) have lustrous, shiny hair, whereas the hair of sickly people loses its luster. During illness, a body needs to sequester all available nutrients (like iron and protein) to fight the illness. Since hair is not essential to survival (compared to, say, bone marrow), hair is the first place to which a body turns to collect the necessary nutrients. Thus, a person’s poor health first shows up in the condition of the hair.

Marlowe makes the simple observation that larger, and hence heavier, breasts sag more conspicuously with age than do smaller breasts. Thus, it is much easier for men to judge a woman’s age (and her reproductive value) by sight if she has larger breasts than if she has smaller breasts, which do not change as much with age.

It turns out that men prefer blonde hair for exactly the same reason that they prefer large breasts: both are accurate indicators of a woman’s age and thus reproductive value.

Men in cold climates did not have this option, because women (and men) bundled up in such environments. This is probably why blonde hair evolved in cold climates as an alternative means for women to advertise their youth.

Many people, both men and women, express dislike for extremely dark brown eyes.

To claim that girls and women want to look like blonde bombshells because of the billboards, movies, TV shows, music videos, and magazine advertisements makes as little sense as to claim that people become hungry because they are bombarded with images of food in the media. If only the media would stop inundating people with images of food, they would never be hungry! Women’s desire to be blonde preceded the media by centuries, if not millennia.

Men in general prefer women with long hair. (Signals health.)


MALE SEXUAL INTERESTS

Male high school teachers and college professors in the United States (but not their female colleagues) have a higher-than-expected rate of divorce and a lower-than-expected rate of remarriage, probably because they are constantly exposed to girls and women at the peak of their reproductive value.

Given their greater desire for sexual variety, it is understandable why men would consume more pornography and seek out sexual encounters with numerous women in pornographic photographs and videos,

Empirical data do demonstrate that handsome men have more extramarital affairs and are not as committed to their marriages, which many wives may consider undesirable. In this sense, handsome men make better lovers than husbands.

Of course, diamonds and flowers are beautiful, but they are beautiful precisely because they are expensive and lack intrinsic value, which is why it is mostly women who think flowers and diamonds are beautiful. Their beauty lies in their inherent uselessness; this is why Volvos and potatoes are not beautiful.

From this perspective, men strive to attain political power (as Bill Clinton did all his life, since his fateful encounter with John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1963), consciously or unconsciously, in order to have reproductive access to a larger number of women. In other words, reproductive access to women is the goal, political office is but one means. To ask why the President of the United States would have a sexual encounter with a young woman is like asking why someone who worked very hard to earn a large sum of money would then spend it. The purpose of earning money is to spend it. The purpose of becoming the President (or anything else men do) is to have a larger number of women with whom to mate.


PARENTAL RELATIONS AND KIDS

Developmental psychologists have known for nearly two decades that girls whose parents divorce early in their lives, particularly before the age of five, experience puberty earlier than their counterparts whose parents stay married.

Why would parents kill their own children? Daly and Wilson have two answers to this question. The first answer is that they don’t. Daly and Wilson discovered that what often passes as parents killing their children in police statistics is actually step fathers killing their stepchildren, who do not carry their genes. Biological parents very seldom kill their genetic children.

Parents' evolved psychological mechanisms therefore compel them to invest most efficiently, which usually means that they invest more in children who have the greatest prospect for reproductive success, at the cost of other children whose reproductive prospect is gloomier.

Women only steal what they need for them and their children to survive, whereas men steal to show off and gain status as well as resources. In other words, women steal less than men for exactly the same reason as they earn less than men.

In the United States, the strongest predictor of remarriage after divorce is sex (male vs. female): men typically remarry, women typically do not.

Couples who have at least one son face a significantly lower risk of divorce than couples who have only daughters. Why is this?

The hypothesis states that wealthy parents of high status have more sons, while poor parents of low status have more daughters.

Parents are far more likely to neglect, abuse, and kill their biological children who are deformed, handicapped, ill, or even physically unattractive and to shift their parental investment of their limited resources toward those children with more promising reproductive prospects. As uncomfortable as we may be with such a conclusion, the truth appears to be that parents do favor some of their children over others, even among their own genetic children, to say nothing about stepchildren to whom they are not genetically related, and they overwhelmingly favor those who are intelligent, beautiful, healthy, and sociable.

OTHER GENDER STUFF

Men who are less inclined toward crime and violence may express their competitiveness through their creative activities in order to attract mates.

careful statistical analyses show that the wife’s age almost entirely determines the likelihood of being a victim of spousal abuse and homicide.

Ask a group of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances (both men and women) to name five of their closest associates. Who are the people they talk to when they have something important to discuss? Chances are that women in your circles mention more family members among their closest associates, whereas men mention more coworkers and business associates in their personal networks.

The relationship between age and productivity among male jazz musicians, male painters, male writers, and male scientists, which might be called the “age-genius curve,” is essentially the same as the age-crime curve. Their productivity—the expressions of their genius—quickly peaks in early adulthood, and then just as quickly declines throughout adulthood. The age-genius curve among their female counterparts is much less pronounced and flatter; it does not peak or vary as much as a function of age.

chances are that many of your female friends would mention traveling as one of their hobbies, while very few of your young unmarried male friends would.

Empathizing is about spontaneously and naturally tuning in to the other person’s thoughts and feelings. A natural empathizer not only notices others’ feelings but also continually thinks about what the other person might be feeling, thinking, or intending.

The tendency to favor “ingroup” members at the cost of “outgroup” members is innate (although we can overcome it through socialization and conscious effort)

RELIGION

With only a couple of minor exceptions, women in all nations and regions are more religious than men.

Many recent evolutionary psychological theories on the origins of religious beliefs share the view that religion is not an adaptation in itself but a byproduct of other adaptations. In other words, these theories contend that religion itself did not evolve to solve an adaptive problem so that religious people can live longer and reproduce more successfully, but instead emerged as a byproduct of adaptations that evolved to solve unrelated adaptive problems.

Different theorists call this innate human tendency to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors (and as a consequence be a bit paranoid) “animistic bias” or “the agency-detector mechanism.” These theorists argue that the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs in supernatural forces come from such an innate bias to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors. The human brain, according to them, is biased to perceive intentional forces behind a wide range of natural physical phenomena, because the costs of committing false-negative errors are much greater than the costs of committing false-positive errors. It predisposes us to see the hand of God at work behind natural, physical phenomena whose exact causes are unknown.

It is an error-management strategy to minimize the total costs of errors by predisposing the human brain to commit more false-positive errors than false-negative errors when the former has less costly consequences than the latter.

If men are more risk-seeking than women, and if religion is an evolutionary means to minimize risk, then it naturally follows that women are more religious than men.

Not only are women more risk-averse and more religious than men, but more risk-averse men are more religious than more risk-seeking men, and more risk-averse women are more religious than more risk-seeking women.

What distinguishes Islam from other major world religions (Christianity and Judaism) is that it tolerates polygyny.

So polygyny increases competitive pressure on men, especially young men of low status, who are most likely to be left without reproductive opportunities when older men of high status marry polygynously.

Humans are instead born racist and ethnocentric, and learn through socialization and education not to act on such innate tendencies. Humans are innately ethnocentric because ethnocentrism—helping others of one’s group members at the cost of all others—was adaptive in the ancestral environment.

SIBLING DEVELOPMENT

Frank J. Sulloway argues that siblings within the same family must occupy different familial niches. Firstborns (the eldest siblings), who are born into a family without any siblings with whom to compete for parental resources, typically grow up to identify with the parents and, by extension, other authority figures.

Later-borns (younger siblings), in contrast, are always born into a family in which there are older siblings who have already taken the niche of identifying with the parents. So they must carve out their own niche by distancing themselves from the parents and becoming rebels.

Sulloway’s massive historical data show that in religious, political, and scientific spheres, firstborns are more likely to become the conservative vanguards of the old tradition, and later-borns are more likely to become the leaders of new revolutions. Thus, birth order, whether one is the eldest or younger, is one factor that makes siblings raised in the same family different in their personalities.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

There is still no definitive and accepted explanation of homosexuality in 2007, thirteen years after Wright posed the question “What about homosexuals?”

the most likely reason that male homosexuality has survived to this day is that throughout most of recorded history, gay men were forced to hide their sexuality by social norms and legal sanctions, and so got married and had children like straight men. If so, the liberation of homosexuals, which allows them to come out of the closet and not pretend to be straight, may ironically contribute to the end of homosexuality.

If you really think about it, there is absolutely no evolutionary psychological reason why children should love and care for their parents.

GENDER DIFFERENCES

In every human society (and among many other species), males on average are more aggressive, violent, and competitive, and females on average are more social, caring, and nurturing.

Gender socialization helps to accentuate, solidify, perpetuate, and strengthen the innate differences between men and women, but it does not cause or create such differences. In other words, men and women are not different because they are socialized differently; they are socialized differently because they are different. Gender socialization is not the cause of sex differences; it is their consequence.

It is not that women do not want money or prefer less money to more; nobody in their right mind does. It is instead that women are unwilling to pay the price and make the necessary sacrifices (often in the welfare and well-being of their children) in order to advance in the corporate hierarchy and earn more money.

Regardless of what language their genetic parents spoke, all developmentally normal children are capable of growing up to be native speakers of English, Chinese, Arabic, or any natural human language.

The myth of Native American respect for the environment – Native Americans didn't treat the environment well.

NATURE VS. NURTURE

Harris instead argues that parental socialization has very little effect on children because they are mostly socialized and influenced by their peers.

Harris: the determinants of child development is 50-0-50—that is, roughly 50 percent of the variance in personality, behavior, and other traits is heritable (determined by the genes); roughly 0 percent by shared environments (what happens within the family, shared by all siblings); and roughly 50 percent by the nonshared environment (what happens outside the family, often not commonly shared by siblings).

it decidedly does not mean that parents are not important for children’s development. Parents are enormously important because children receive 100 percent of their genes from their biological parents.

Sulloway’s theory emphasizes family dynamics as a primary determinant of adult personality, whereas Harris’s group socialization theory focuses on what happens outside the family, Sulloway and Harris are naturally critical of each other’s work.

17 Responses to Book Notes: Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters

  1. Andrew Ator says:

    I was going to write a review of this book until I realized that I gave it to someone awhile back. Then I thought about getting a new copy, re-reading it, and posting my own analysis of it but you have done a tactfully magnificent job. Anything anyone adds to this piece is just going to be fluff.

    “Women only steal what they need for them and their children to survive, whereas men steal to show off and gain status as well as resources. In other words, women steal less than men for exactly the same reason as they earn less than men.”

    Best. Analysis. Ever.

  2. Sounds like a fascinating book – which you just saved me the trouble of reading. Thanks!

  3. Chris Whitney says:

    Evolutionary psychology is extremely useful and important, but it’s important that we not take it all at face value. For instance, some scientists believe that a gay gene which is expressed in some people causes their siblings to reproduce at higher rates. Evo. Psychologists also frequently refer to studies, the validity of which are in question. David Buller’s “Adapting Minds” offers a compelling argument against Evo. Psych. He wrote a shorter article here (link to scientificamerican.com) that you might enjoy.
    Even though there are holes in some standard Evo. Psych. arguments, the field is underutilized and very interesting.

  4. Alex J. Mann says:

    This is a great analysis. There is a lot of crossover to Sperm Wars. Have you read it?

    Your comment on the Clinton / Kennedy relationship reminded me of an interesting and related factoid from Sperm Wars:

    “Studies around the world have shown a male-biased sex ratio among the children of couples of higher status…The presidents of the United States, for example, have between them produced ninety sons and sixty-one daughters, the equivalent of 148 sons for every 100 daughters.”

  5. Ted says:

    Genes do not WANT to propagate. Gene propagation is a CONSEQUENCE of natural selection, not the DRIVER.

    You can just as easily say that genes want to remove themselves from the gene pool to reach nirvana, and the genes we see today are all of the genes that keep failing over and over.

  6. Matt H says:

    “men strive to attain political power… consciously or unconsciously, in order to have reproductive access to a larger number of women”

    From reading this sentence I feel like if I ever achieve any position of power, the author would attribute the same motivations to me — and as a human being in the process of discovering and enjoying life, I find that to fall vastly short of what actually goes on in my head.

    Who is to say what motivates me to do this or that? We are not the simple creatures we once were. Yes, we can look at biases and instincts that nudge groups of people, on average, in certain directions. But at a certain point, evolution produced in humans a consciousness that can look at itself, at its history, at its own evolution, and then in that very moment decide to do something completely unpredictable. Evolutionary psychology seems trapped in a world that does not comprehend the spontaneity and diversity that I perceive in myself and my world.

    I’m a little disturbed by belief in such simplistic evolutionary explanations because of its effect on the believer, ie. If you come to believe that you are motivated by simplistic, gene-driven principles rather than by what you used to think of as your “self,” I think you can actually become more likely to act in the simplistic manner described, and expect it in others.

    The other thing I find lacking in evolutionary psych is new insights into how actually behave. Given how much of human behavior is dependent on the particular point in culture and history a person finds herself in, if we want new insights about what makes the people we’re actually going to need to deal with in life tick, I think we need to look directly at the people in our midst rather than their ancestors.

  7. Ben Casnocha says:

    Matt,

    The best way to make your argument is pick specific examples and show how
    and where the ev psych explanation fails by offering an alternative,
    superior explanation.

    I would note that we are not always aware of what’s driving us. When you say
    “it’s not what’s going on in my head” that might be correct but doesn’t mean
    the underlying drive isn’t more ruthless.

  8. Chris Yeh says:

    Ben, I added this to our outlines site:

    link to bookoutlines.pbworks.com

    I also blogged about this post.

  9. Matt H says:

    Hmm. I think my disagreement stems more from the approach than specific conclusions. I’ll try to explain more.

    “The basic message of evolutionary psychology is that, contrary to what you may have thought, your preferences and desires for your ideal mate are strongly shaped by the forces of evolution.”

    First there is the observation that we have a disconnect between (1) the stories we tell ourselves about why we have certain mate preferences, and (2) why we actually have certain mate preferences.

    Obviously any difference between (1) and (2) must come from unconscious factors. So what ev psych does is relabel the unconscious as “the forces of evolution” and added some storytelling based on conjectures about our ancient condition.

    By playing with language they have also created a bit of a straw man, as I find it hard to believe that many people would actually argue that their unconscious has played no role in shaping their preferences (but not many people have thought about how “the forces of evolution” have shaped their preferences, hence the phrasing makes it sound more intriguing).

    Here is how I see the ev psych formula:

    (1) find interesting data about the behavior of modern humans
    (2) come up with a plausible-sounding story about how this behavior may have helped humans survive in ancient times
    (3) turn around and tell the people who gave you the data in (1) why they behave the way they do and suggest that your story from (2) is more likely true than their own first-person experience

    I think this leads to overly simplistic characterizations of human thought and behavior because the stories in (2) are necessarily much less complex than reality. This leads them to make sweeping generalizations like “men strive to attain political power… consciously or unconsciously, in order to have reproductive access to a larger number of women” which run contrary to the complexity of thought and motivation that we see and experience in our own lives.

    But I haven’t read the book yet so I’m interested in seeing what I’m missing.

  10. eric shen says:

    how do you like your kindle? it’s expensive, but do you recommend it?

    thanks

  11. Ben Casnocha says:

    Yes it’s terrific for travel. At first I was apprehensive but I’ve come to
    love it. And again, when traveling, it’s killer.

  12. Scott Young says:

    Matt H,

    It’s important to distinguish between proximate and ultimate causes.

    You may not want to achieve political power for sexual reasons. You may want to achieve it because of a desire to improve the world, or an intrinsic need for greater control. Evolutionary psych isn’t saying that you have those ulterior motives.

    Evolutionary psych is merely suggesting that natural selection has predisposed you to wanting a desire to improve the world/intrinsic need for greater control because those things statistically lead to greater evolutionary fitness.

    I think a lot of evol. psych. discussions break down because people forget that their conscious motivations are distinct from the “motivations” of natural selection.

    -Scott

  13. one of your best posts. fascinating

  14. Matt H says:

    Hey Scott,

    Thanks for the comment. I understand proximate and ultimate causes and was in fact quite enamored with those concepts when I first really “discovered” evolution (The Selfish Gene was my favorite introduction to the topic).

    Moreover, if ev psych proponents were as tentative as you are I would probably agree with them more.

    Merely suggesting that predispositions created by evolution statistically led to greater evolutionary fitness in the past and therefore became more prevalent in human populations and thus probably account for a large portion of power-seeking behavior in modern humans, is quite different from categorically stating that “men seek power in order to acquire access to more mates, whether they realize it or not”. This second statement can be used to make a specific claim about any particular man’s actual, inner wants that I find goes a step too far and underplays the staggering open-endedness of human consciousness and culture.

    -Matt

  15. Ben,

    The fundamental counterintuitive notion of evolutionary psychology is that adaptive reasons are not expressed consciously or unconsciously in the human brain, any more than your hand has written somewhere inside it in tiny letters “My purpose is to pick things up.”

    (Male) humans desire power, because their brains are built to desire power, because brains built to desire power had more children in the ancestral environment. But that statistical fact is not represented anywhere in the brain, consciously or unconsciously. Just the genes that did win and the circuitry they build – that’s all there is, now.

    Hence sex with contraceptives.

  16. Lauren says:

    What an amazing article. I’m buying the book!

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