More Than Just a Pretty Face

by Belle Waring on August 22, 2006

This post from the Freakonomics blog on why beautiful women sometimes marry unattractive men seems somewhat incomprehensible to me. Maybe you all can help:

…a new study by Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, suggests it may be a simple supply-and-demand issue: there are more beautiful women in the world than there are handsome men.

Why? Kanazawa argues it’s because good-looking parents are 36% more likely to have a baby daughter as their first child than a baby son—which suggests, evolutionarily speaking, that beauty is a trait more valuable for women than for men. The study was conducted with data from 3,000 Americans, derived from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and was published in The Journal of Theoretical Biology.

According to this news article, “Selection pressure means when parents have traits they can pass on that are better for boys than for girls, they are more likely to have boys. Such traits include large size, strength and aggression, which might help a man compete for mates. On the other hand, parents with heritable traits that are more advantageous to girls are more likely to have daughters.”

Um, how exactly? You probably think I’m just being snarky about evolutionary psychology, but I’m genuinely curious to know what the proposed mechanism is for this effect. The study apparently looked at both parents’ attractiveness, which was rated separately by some observer on a scale of 1-5. I can certainly see why if certain traits would be more advantageous for one sex of offspring than the other then it would (turn out to have been?) advantageous to produce more offspring of the desireable sex. But how is the mother going to contribute to this effect, hypothetically? She ain’t got nothing to offer but X chromosomes, attractive or not. There are fetal environmental effects, maybe they’re saying the wombs of attractive women are more hostile to male fetuses? While, simultaneously, the sperm of attractive men is skewed X? But not tall attractive men, who are more likely to have sons? And don’t get me started on the scientists.

Beauty is apparently just one “female” trait. Kanazawa has done previous research suggesting that nurses, social workers and kindergarten teachers—those with “empathic” traits—also had more daughters than sons. Meanwhile, he found that scientists, mathematicians and engineers are more likely to have sons than daughters.

It is good that Kanazawa is only a researcher and not, say, the president of Harvard. If he were, that last finding about scientists may have gotten him fired.

Ha ha. What a knee-slapper! I’ll bet that Stephen Dubner is a real hit at parties. Especially, with the ladeez, if you know what I mean. Anyway, as to Kanazawa’s last point, what proportion of the scientists were male and what female, I wonder? What varying mechanisms in male and female parents are contributing to this same result? What will happen to attractive female scientists who marry tall, agressive men? Is this all as bogus as it sounds?

The best part about this post was actually two of the comments, which capture all that is irritating about Nice Guys TM and add a frisson of illogical insistence that women–as is their incomprehensible wont–choose, not merely men who treat them badly, but ugly men who treat them badly. You read that right. They pass up on the good-looking, kind men, because they think such men are too confident and the women themselves want to domineer a spineless man who will lord it over them and treat them badly because they have low self-esteem because they’re a bunch of stuck up bitches! Or something, I kind of lost the thread. Sure to derail discussion, and pushing the post to Holbovian lengths; nonetheless I cannot restrain myself and must re-post them in all their splenetic splendor. Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring you Stephen Dubner some guy who’s totally hott:

Any good looking guy knows that women favor ugly men. It is a mystery, just like every single action that most females undertake. Maybe its about their low self esteem, since all good looking women have low self esteem, just look at the supreme arrogance they display, that is really a sign of an inferiority complex. Maybe its about controlling some ugly loser and spending all his cash and treating him like dirt. Maybe its just because they are irrational and there is no answer. I have a great personality, but, I get turned down for some ugly jerk who treats them like a piece of meat, and I am told its because of personality. Women make this judgment on looks alone, they are intimdated of a good looking guy and assume he is a jerk because he won’t bow before them, and they mainly just intimidated since their whole world is based on the supreme superficiality of the reflection they see as they put on their make up. They profit from their looks, exercising a level of power that is so potent and omnipresent that most people do not even see its existence. They primp and priss and strut around like gods, holding a man’s self esteem in the palm of their hand, which they are only to glad to crush to make themselves feel better. The good looking guy pays a dear price for daring to compete with her in her area. All of the good looking guys that I know get less women than unattractive guys, its an obvious fact, and completely unfair. I say they are insane and thats that. Don’t try to figure them out.

Dude, I wish this guy had left his real email. Because not only is he smokin’ hott; he’s also got a great personality. I’m married and all, but maybe I could set him up with my sister. I wonder what else he thinks about chicks? Oh, let’s see here:

what you are saying proves my point [not as such–ed.]: women turn down the good looking guy for one reason: because he’s good looking. They don’t get to know him and his personality, they automatically assume, no matter what, that he does not have a good personality, and that the ugly guy does, why, because he must, because he’s ugly, because we all know that all good looking guys are bad people, and ugly guys are all saints, they all wash the feet of the poor in Calcutta, and they are all beyond judgment. This is a totally superficial judgment, it assumes that all good looking guys are the same. well, what about all stuck up blondes with their nose in the air and their face in a mirror, with a shirt that says princess, and a license plate that says 2Hot4U, who is always going around asking her adoring audience: “do you think I could be a model?” At the same time she ignores and rejects the good looking guy for daring to have the self esteem to know he is good looking, but turning him down because he wasn’t “confident” like the ugly guy who has nothing to lose; and turning him down for his “prsonality” when the guy she chooses is an ugly jerk who is mean to her and cheats on her, and turns the good looking guy down because he is really just too nice. Most of these ugly guys out here getting these beautiful women do it for two reasons: most beautiful women like a jerk, and most beautiful women like an ugly guy because of a self esteem issue. There are exceptions, as we have seen above, as with anything, there are many great women who make perfect sense, but there are many who don’t. I will admit, when I look at the typical guy out here that is highly successful with these types of women, I can’t imagine why anybody would want anything to do with any guy, since they are such arrogant jerks. Another thing, good looks are not just about sex. I get pleasure just from being around good looking women. How can you kiss someone ugly. Also, I am straight, but if I am talking to a guy, I would rather he not be ugly. If I am at a concert, I would rather look at Chris Cornell than somone ugly like Kid Rock. If I am watching a movie, I would rather see someone who looked like George Clooney rather than Billy Bob Thorton. Just like when I have a car, I would rather it be a good looking car. I would rather live in a nice looking house. I would rather my meal be served to me in an aesthetically pleasing manner. And, I would rather the trees, the sky, and the lillies in the field be attractive rather than not. Call me crazy.

OK: you’re crazy. Maybe I really will set him up with my sister, since it sounds like he might have been a good man, if there’d of been somebody there to punch him in the face, every day of his life.

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08.22.06 at 5:10 pm



Ginger Yellow 08.22.06 at 10:20 am

“I have a great personality, but…”

Are you sure that wasn’t Richard Cohen?

As to the study itself, there’s at least one glaring flaw. If there is selective pressure and if there is a mechanism for biasing the sex of your children, surely it will apply to all your children, not just your first. Analysing the first-born children tells you almost nothing, especially when you think that for most of human history people have had many, many children so that a few could survive. Surely if you’re going to claim “physically attractive parents have more daughters and less attractive parents have more sons” you should look at the sex of all the children, not the sex of the first-born.


Matt 08.22.06 at 10:27 am

Is this even a real and significant phenomena? I ask because my intuition (that is, based on what I notice, not what I count or think I could count) is that it’s more common for average to slightly above average guys, and even sometimes good looking guys, to be with less attractive women. My guess on this is that its because even the less attractive women are able to use sex in a way the guys are not to build a relationship. Nothing wrong with that at all as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t mean anything like what an ev. psych person would by this. Just that I rather doubt that there is an interesting phenomena here to be explained in the first place. (This is a pretty common problem with ev. psych stuff, in fact.)


Richard Bellamy 08.22.06 at 10:36 am

There are fetal environmental effects, maybe they’re saying the wombs of attractive women are more hostile to male fetuses?

Why are you downplaying fetal environmental effects? These are now known to have a much larger effect on which sperm fertilizes the egg than has been previously thought. I don’t know if this is the mechanism, but it would certainly be my first guess, and not an obviously implausible one.


cm 08.22.06 at 10:49 am

The whole thing sounds too much like “mating is a marketplace” or similar vulgar economic “models” of everything under the sun to me.


paul 08.22.06 at 10:51 am

I’m still hung up on the rated-as-attractive part — maybe the researcher is actually finding that people who are thin when they marry are more likely (assuming they produce children at all) to produce a girl first time around.

The “empathetic” result seems rather counterintuitive after adjusting for birth-order effects. According to that line of research a girl born first is more likely to have a relatively dominant personality and score lower for empathy, so you’d expect the genes to have learned that producing girls in later births would be more effective in passing on this supposedly attractive trait. (Then again, there could be some kind of alternating-generation homeostasis thing going on.)


Crystal 08.22.06 at 10:55 am

Maybe, just maybe, a select few men and women choose spouses and SO’s because they are smart, funny, and kind. It may be hard for Kanazawa and Co. to believe, but these qualities sometimes, every so often, once in a while, DO trump looks.

After all, we’re all going to become less pretty as we age. But, barring Alzheimers or some such tragedy, smart, funny and kind are yours for life. These qualities have a lot more to contribute to the success of a marriage in the long run.

I get the feeling that a lot of this theoretical bloviating on the “marriage market” (blech) has precious little to do with how actual people choose their partners.


G.H Dalrymple 08.22.06 at 10:57 am

Kanazawa has done previous research suggesting that nurses, social workers and kindergarten teachers—those with “empathic” traits—also had more daughters than sons.

Which way does the arrow of causation point here? Empathic therefore they have daughters, or do thet have daughters and therefore they are empathic. Neither seems a convincing statement, but to merely assume that a large set of data proves either of these statements as true is, to me, completely shocking. Such fundametnal ignorance, however, is evidenced even in works by serious scientists.


kid bitzer 08.22.06 at 11:06 am

man, I agree that it’s a shame that hott guy with the great personality didn’t leave his email. Because he would totally work out with Jaqueline Mackie Paisley Passey. They’re like, made for each other.

On the original issue: these people seem deeply confused. Is there any evidence that sex selection is other than more or less random at large enough samples? (I mean–look at my siblings, and you could tell all sorts of stories about why 4/5 were male, why 2/3 of those have had even numbers of boys and girls, etc. etc. But that’s because you’ve got a sample size of 5).

There’s a similar debate that used to run through demography and population studies in the 80s and 90s. It looks like in populations that are at war or have recently been through a war, there is a shift towards male births. Cool! Women stepping forward to do their patriotic duty! But the numbers are pathetically weak, like 50.003 to 49.997 or something like that.

Ideology gone fishing.


Belle Waring 08.22.06 at 11:26 am

as to first children…perhaps the selective pressure will be greater on the earlier births, since the mother may die in childbirth? that can’t be right, though, because if it evened out over the long haul there’d be no effect. perhaps it was just convenience as a significant number of couples had only one child, and the narrowing pool of those with 2, 3 etc. became a too-small sample size. I wasn’t discounting as ridiculous the possible mechanism of fetal environment, I was just wondering aloud, what does the guy think is producing this effect? it could be that a tall agressive man produces more male sperm, but his attractive, nurturing wife’s hostile-to-xy-fetuses womb negates the effect and they get wall to wall girlz. and now that I’ve typed that sentence, I’ll just go brush my teeth, since I threw up in my mouth a little there.


roger 08.22.06 at 11:29 am

Nobody wants to face the real issue. As we all know, caring handsome men are attracted to female ducks. It is pretty much a scientific fact, proved in a study done by Brutus Bonkerovich, “Journal of Hot, Nice Males and Why we Don’t Get Hot, Stuck up Babes Quarterly.” A group of 15 hot hot but nice and caring schoolboys were shown Donald Duck comic books and their eye movements were monitored for the “desireable squinting” effect – which went off the graph when gazing at Daisy Duck.

Why a duck? The answer is obviously on the savannah. While a hot, snobby female does offer a reproductive choice, the male hunter really grows to love the soothing quack of the duck after bringing in the mammoth meat for ms. Ungrateful. Who is, by the way, just looking for some ugly duck to wash her feet, and of course is she in the cave when she should be? And where is she then? Why is she lying about that, eh?

That we are all wired like this is a scientific fact only rejected by “postmodern” feminists, most of whom can’t understand science anyway, since their concentration on formulas is continually interrupted by dreaming of ugly guys that can break their spirits and make them real, begging women. Facing science takes the bravery of the male hunter type.

Bonkerovich is reportedly working on a more popular version of his paper for Slate.


JR 08.22.06 at 11:29 am

Direct quote from a guy I knew at college:
“If a girl has a good personality, and she’s good looking, then OF COURSE she’s gonna go out with a guy who’s rich!”

But more seriously, I don’t understand how you set up “beauty” as a fixed quality independent of good health, coordination and grace, strength, symetry, and other factors that would be equally useful to these hypothetical males. This woman is beautiful: Doesn’t that kind of mess up the assumptions?


Kieran Healy 08.22.06 at 11:35 am

Kanazawa has done previous research suggesting that nurses, social workers and kindergarten teachers—those with “empathic” traits—also had more daughters than sons.

You should read what Andrew Gelman has to say about that paper. (Gelman is a well-known Bayesian stats guy at Columbia.)


jim 08.22.06 at 11:42 am

good-looking parents are 36% more likely to have a baby daughter as their first child than a baby son

Both you and I are confirming instances.


Slocum 08.22.06 at 11:52 am

Um, how exactly? You probably think I’m just being snarky about evolutionary psychology, but I’m genuinely curious to know what the proposed mechanism is for this effect.

Is it necessary that evolutionary psychology should propose a mechanism here? Isn’t that a job for biologists? I mean, seriously, step 1 — demonstrate an effect, step 2 — look for the underlying biology.

Certainly, biased sex ratios based on expected success of male or female offspring is documented among other species–even primates. For example, the following is from Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s Mother Nature (I’m not sure if the underlying mechanism is understood in these cases either):

When the “Rules” Themselves Are Contingent . .

The perennial question “which sex to produce” can be mind-boggling, especially in such flexible primates as baboons and macaques, “weedy” species like humans are, readily adapting to diverse habitats. As in all the well-studied Old World cercopithecine monkeys, baboon and macaque daughters inherit rank from their mothers. Because daughters remain nearby, it behooves a high-ranking mother to produce the sex that will benefit most from her own status, as well as bolster matrilineal interests by supporting kin (another form of local resource enhancement). In habitats like Amboseli, where food is scarce, high-ranking mothers do just this—they overproduce daughters. The same pattern can also be documented for some populations of macaques.
Year after year, mothers in the highest-ranking matrilines consistently produce significantly more daughters than sons, while low-ranking females produce few daughters and more sons. Low-ranking females not only produce few daughters, but such daughters as they do produce are more likely to die than are sons born to mothers of equivalently low rank. Based on captive studies of bonnet macaques, Joan Silk showed that whereas sons who depart their natal group can leave the disadvantages of their mother’s low rank behind, daughters cannot. In her study, no daughter born to a low-ranking mother managed to produce a single surviving offspring. When competition for local resources is intense, a daughter born to a high-status mother is the right sex in the right place at that time.


abb1 08.22.06 at 11:54 am

Quick googling reveals that

When trying to conceive a girl, Shettles recommends that you don’t orgasm during sex as the body produces substances after orgasm that makes the vaginal environment more alkaline, which favors the “boy” sperm.

So, it must be that the good-looking women have fewer orgazms with good-looking men. Why? Simple: everybody is so freakin good-looking – it’s nauseating.


kid bitzer 08.22.06 at 12:03 pm

jim makes a very good point, up there.

Clearly all of us who had a daughter first are devastatingly good-looking. This study proves it!

(And who you gonna believe: a scientific study or your lying eyes?)


abb1 08.22.06 at 12:08 pm

Clearly all of us who had a daughter first are devastatingly good-looking.

Yes, but apparently it also means that we are devastatingly stupid.


Crystal 08.22.06 at 12:08 pm

Roger, all you need to do is invoke Margaret Mead as a straw-woman and you pretty much have the sociobiological party line down.

Another thing I want to know is? What exactly does “beautiful” or “handsome” or “good-looking” mean? And how exactly does this sex-selection occur? Yes, I’m sure that most of us agree that Angelina Jolie is prettier than Camilla Parker-Bowles, and Johnny Depp is more handsome than George W. Bush, but beyond that, what about cultural and individual tastes? Some women are hot for blond men, others like ’em dark. Some men like wide hips and ample behinds, others like ’em thin as a rail. These cultural and individual tastes are bound to influence opinion of who is beautiful and who is not. And these factors can be remarkably idiosyncratic – if “Steve” was the class bully in third grade, it might make a bad association with Steves from there on in, and a “Steve” might seem uglier than someone equally good-looking named “Brian.”

Then there’s the little question of how this sex-selection occurs. Do good-looking men produce more X-chromosome-bearing sperm? Do good-looking women’s wombs reject male embryos? Can people select the sex of their unborn children using some kind of Spidey Sense? Maybe my scientific illiteracy is showing, but I’d really like to know the “how” of this in plain language.


tzs 08.22.06 at 12:31 pm

Considering how “good looking” is so undefined…..big whoop. How many women can get that adjective slapped on them through tight dresses and a blond dye job?

If you replace “good looking” with “making obvious attempts to appear attractive to the other sex” I think everything makes more sense.


Matt McIrvin 08.22.06 at 12:35 pm

Nobody wants to face the real issue. As we all know, caring handsome men are attracted to female ducks.

No, no, no, it’s the other way around: beautiful women with gigantic breasts are attracted to male ducks. I saw it in a Frank Cho cartoon.


Slocum 08.22.06 at 12:49 pm

It wouldn’t matter, you know, if beauty were partly or even completely culturally determined. Dominant female baboons and macaques have more daughters (who can inherit their high status) than sons (who cannot) and low-ranking females have the reverse (because their daughters would be consigned to permanent low rank but their sons can escape it by moving to a new group). But dominant or subordinate status is cultural.

Suppose female beauty IS culturally determined. In that case, for the purposes of a study like this, a beautiful woman is not one with particular characteristics but rather one who is accustomed to being treated in a particular way. Regardless of the degree to which beauty is variable, it’s a good guess that individuals generally come to evaluate their own level of attractiveness by the reactions of others.

It may be that, in a given culture, a woman who is believed to be beautiful (by whatever standard) by others and, therefore, by herself (and who is married to someone similarly considered attractive) is more likely to produce girls.

I’m not saying this is actually true or this particular research is right, but given what we know of related species — it’s just not crazy (even if the mechanism is wholly unknown).


Ginger Yellow 08.22.06 at 12:50 pm

Roger and Jacqueline Mackie Paisley Passey should hook up.


Brendan 08.22.06 at 1:00 pm

‘Clearly all of us who had a daughter first are devastatingly good-looking.

Yes, but apparently it also means that we are devastatingly stupid.’

No no no. The real point is that those of us who are unable…er…I mean choose not to bring our partner to orgasm are in fact incredibly feminist and stuff, on account of how are trying to bring more women into the world so that there can be more like beautiful women cos like they are all beautiful. (post 15).

It’s all like scientific and that.


roger 08.22.06 at 1:16 pm

Ginger Y, well, although it is true that, as a male, I am biologically destined to treat my sperm like Johnny Appleseed spreading those apples, I am momentarily defying my hard wiring by remaining true to my own ‘Mother Goose’ – from her cute little bill to her webbed feet, she’s the bird for me. And she appreciates passages from Manliness, which I read to her so she knows her place in this complicated world — a savannah in which the clash of civilizations is played out between men who know they are men and womanized men with the E brain types — oh brother, don’t we all know that type!

Supposedly Mansfield is part of a study Kanazawa is making at the moment on “Genius, the warrior spirit, and birth order among the Straussians.” This will help us pick our natural leaders, of course, in this terrible War on Terrorism.


Backword Dave 08.22.06 at 1:26 pm

OK. I think I remember that the gender of the first born is also (weakly) correlated with parental age. Anyone remember that?
I’d be very sceptical of evolutionary pressure selecting for we consider good looking; we regard women as marriageable from say their early twenties (the mean age is 24, I think), and most people who read this blog wouldn’t have considered getting married until they graduated at least. But for most of our evolutionary history, where people died at around 30, female attractiveness would have been much more about good health and reasonable strength and stoicism than being willowy and unwrinkled.
The problem with rating people on attractiveness (and what is that exactly?) is attractiveness at what age? Before or after giving birth? Some people mature well, others do not. You can’t always judge how someone looked at 20 by how they look at 40.
The best guide to this is still Pride and Prejudice. Pretty (but not stunning) girl gets the alpha (and good looking) male through a combination of talents. Jane Austen didn’t record the sexes of their progeny.


Ginger Yellow 08.22.06 at 1:28 pm

Christ, Mansfield. What is it with neocons and being spectacularly wrong? Is it a secret competition?

“But dominant or subordinate status is cultural.”

Not in most ape societies. Or at least not entirely. It’s based ultimately on innnate strength. It would be interesting to see if the same result can be found in bonobos, given their, ah, alternative means of dispute resolution and status affirmation.


ajesquire 08.22.06 at 1:29 pm

Well, my firstborn(s) were TWIN girls. I must be the most attractive man on the planet!


Martin James 08.22.06 at 1:33 pm

Ugly must be adaptive, because it sure hasn’t died out.


Theron 08.22.06 at 1:44 pm

I think that trying to figure this study out is pointless unless we know what measure they were using for beauty. According to the article Kanazawa claims that “people from all societies agree on who is beautiful and who is ugly.” Ok, not my field, but it is my understanding that to the extent that there is universal agreement, it would seem to fall on questions of symmetry – people with more symmetrical faces, in particular, are seen as more beautiful. This would also be a trait of youth, before time makes its mark. If that is true, how could that be selectively inherited primarily by females, as opposed to males?

I suppose another way this could work would be if the beauty standards for men and women were remarkably different, and we were evolving more in the direction of female standards than male ones. But I would think the premise that beauty standards for the two sexes would be radically different (allowing for different body shapes, of course) to be unsupportable. This study just seems strange.

Oh, and yes, “totally hot” guy needs his own dating advice show. Maybe he could be the next Bachelor?


taj 08.22.06 at 1:58 pm

As I have no money, there is only one remaining explanation for why my gorgeous fiance decided to hook up with me. There goes my healthy self-image.


RKB 08.22.06 at 2:44 pm

This whole line of reasoning is specious. Not only do notions of “beauty” vary across cultures, they also vary across time. When it comes to survival how does the “beauty” of a woman (or a man for that matter) trump such other factors as fertility, ability to do hard work for long hours, resistance to disease and so on. Notions of “beauty” may be a factor for societies that generate enough surplus goods to support a leisure class, but for the vast majority of human history it wasn’t even a secondary consideration.


kth 08.22.06 at 2:57 pm

It’s amazing the lengths to which an “evolutionary biologist at the London School of Economics” will go to avoid rather obvious cultural and political explanations for inequality.


Slocum 08.22.06 at 3:11 pm

“But dominant or subordinate status is cultural.”

Not in most ape societies. Or at least not entirely. It’s based ultimately on innnate strength. It would be interesting to see if the same result can be found in bonobos, given their, ah, alternative means of dispute resolution and status affirmation.

‘Based ultimately on innate strength?’ Always? Even among females? You got a quote and or reference for us?

We’re talking about political animals, here–even male dominance hierarchies, even among chimps, aren’t ‘based ultimately on innate strength’. Read some of Frans de Waal’s work — this, for example:

And female dominance hierarchies are even less a simple function of brute strength — which is why dominant females are able to smooth the way for their daughters into the upper ranks of the female hierarchy. These daughters aren’t necessarily the biggest and toughest–rather they have the most politically powerful mothers (though that can translate into size and physical strength because their mothers’ positions allow them greater access to food for their offspring).

Here again, is Hrdy (this time about a chimp named Flo):

Flo’s Metamorphosis from Martyr to Dynast

By the end of the twentieth century, the role of Flo, Jane Goodall’s most endearing mother chimp, was expanded and recast. Flo’s evident tenderness and patience were only part of the story about her success as a mother. If in this book I fail to stress sufficiently this nurturing component, the reason is that I assume it is already well known, widely described, and commonly assumed. But there are secrets to Flo’s reproductive success that are less well known, less often noted. These include Flo’s ability to carve out for herself a secure and productive territory deep within the boundaries patrolled by the Gombe males. Many of these males were former sexual consorts; others were her own sons who had risen to a high rank in the fluctuating local hierarchy. Flo was as secure as a female chimp could be from outside males who from time to time would raid her community and, if they could, kill not just unrelated infants but adult males and older females as well.
But Flo did more than commandeer a productive larder and keep her offspring safe. She supported her offspring politically, permitting Fifi to translate her mother’s advantages into her own. At Flo’s death, Fifi parlayed her mother’s local connections into the inestimable privilege of philopatry, remaining in her natal place. Philopatry (which means literally “loving one’s home country”) meant that instead of migrating away to find a new place to live, Fifi—like half of all females born at Gombe—managed to stay where she was born. Fifi continued to use her mother’s rich, familiar larder, and enjoy the protection of male kin.

Make no mistake: reproductively, nothing becomes a female more than remaining among kin. Thus advantaged, Fifi began breeding at an unusually early age, and so far has produced seven successive offspring, six surviving-the all-time record for lifetime reproductive success in a wild Great Ape female. She also holds the record for shortest interval between surviving births ever reported in wild chimps. Her second-born son, Frodo, has grown into the largest male on record at Gombe and ranks in the status hierarchy just below the current alpha male, Fifi’s firstborn son, Freud, while Fanni, Fifi’s third-born, holds the record for the earliest ever anogenital swelling, at 8.5 years. Thus does Flo’s family prosper.


joe o 08.22.06 at 3:21 pm

Not only does Clinton have “a lot of Nice Guy traits,” he grew up with the classic ingredients: absent dad, harsh and controlling mom and dominant wife.”

Anti-“nice-guy”ism is a little out of control. A lot of bullshit evolutionary psychology speculation tends to ignore the results of actual evolutionary psychology studies:

In study 1, 216 single students demonstrated a prevailing desire for a kind, considerate, and honest partner who displayed a keen sense of humor. Consistent with the hypothesis, there were no clear sex differences evident in these results.

Kind, considerate, and honest with a keen sense of humor sounds like a nice guy to me.


serial catowner 08.22.06 at 3:35 pm

Everyone is attracted to ducks. This highlites a major failing of all of evolution to date.

And how does our researcher explain the movie career of Tori Spelling?

One thing seems certain- for peabrain commentary, see any school of economics.


mpowell 08.22.06 at 3:57 pm

So the claim that attractive couples have girls more often is not the only thing wrong with this study. There is also a problem w/ the research not supporting the thesis. So say attractive genes are more likely to be passed on to women. Whatever. That doesn’t mean there are going to be more attractive women than men because women are not compared directly to men- they’re compared to their peers (other women). There is no absolute standard here- its all just comparative. So when people claim that attractive women hook up w/ unattractive men, what they mean is that women who are relatively attractive to other women hook up with men who are relatively unattractive to other men.

Now obviously this will happen occassionally, but frankly, I don’t think its that strong of a trend. Sure some hot women will be w/ unattractive men who are rich or famous or even just nice, but those things make a man more attractive to a woman. So this guy who is totally hott is just wrong, from my experience. On the other hand, he may very well be attractive and just not know how to get women. Since men can easily identify attractive women, as an attractive woman its easier to pick-up the partner you want (at least on the surface). But as a good-looking guy (or even a guy w/ a lot of other positive qualities, too) b/c women are worried about more than just your looks, you may not be able to get the women you want b/c you don’t know how to show off your other desirable qualities (b/c honestly, its not easy).

If my theory is true than attractive women should occassionally be settling for someone slightly less awesome than is theoretically at their level, but they will probably be happy b/c they chose him. On the other hand, there will be some desirable men who get left out in the cold and may be bitter about it. Plus there are all the guys who think they’re great, but aren’t. This seems true in my experience. But I’ll grant my experience is limited.


luc 08.22.06 at 4:24 pm

Common sense would agree with the fact that good looking parents are more likely to have girls.

Parents try to set a beneficial and conforming example to their kids. Since the stereotype about girls is that they have to be beautiful, parents are going to change their behaviour in trying to look more beautiful. If the kid were a boy they would be slightly more encouraged to do manly stuff, and spend less time on the vanity things. This effect would be the most significant for the first child. Thus if you rate the looks of parents who already have kids, the better looking couples would be more likely to have a girl as the first child.

It’s ofcourse a bullshit theory, but the numbers are there to prove it.


Matt Kuzma 08.22.06 at 4:54 pm

I agree that this all sounds completely bogus. But I will point out that there is a mechanism for sex selection: male sperm are shorter lived. In fact, it’s been shown that the more often a male ejaculates, the higher percentage of his sperm are male, as female sperm build up over time. Likewise if the journey the sperm must take to the egg is longer, that would favor female sperm.

Now how, specifically, this can come into play in what they’re describing is still a bit sketchy, but I believe that it’s possible.


anon 08.22.06 at 4:55 pm

I’m a little suspicious of this Kanazawa. My opinion is that he tends to overstate his conclusions and tends toward ideologue in what he takes as “confirmation”. He was attracted to the field after reading Robert Wrights “The Moral Animal” which is a wonderful book but of course full of speculation. That field is so interesting and has some beautiful insights but I wish they could get their act together and try to use better data and discuss alternative hypothesis more before making global statements about human evolution and preferences. In any case here are some of his papers:


abb1 08.22.06 at 5:32 pm

As far as the ‘good-looking mating with ugly’ phenomenon, I think the mechanism at work here is something like this:

All other things being equal, every person (above level 0) always has a wide choice of less good-looking potential partners offering their affection.

Those in the middle of the scale are not satisfied with the quality (quality of looks, that is) of easily available potential mates and they prefer to work harder to attract a higher quality partner, while those on top of the scale will naturally perfer an easy pick-up of a still reasonably good-looking partner from one or two levels under.

IOW, they get too much attention to be willing to work on a relationship, so in the end they have to trade their partners’ looks for their endurance.


Crystal 08.22.06 at 5:56 pm

15: So if a woman has an orgasm during sex, she’s more likely to have a boy? If engineers have more boys, does that mean engineers are better lovers?

Making a leap into the speculative blue yonder: If engineers are more likely to have boys, that means their partners are more likely to have orgasms during sex. And if women in the “caring” professions are more likely to have girls, that means there are a whole lot of sexually frustrated teachers and nurses out there. Or maybe they’re just too pooped to peep.


eudoxis 08.22.06 at 6:08 pm

Adaptive sex-ratio adjustment in evolution is an empirical finding. We can’t just dismiss it because there is no plausible mechanism.


Lynn Gazis 08.22.06 at 6:11 pm

I’d go with “skinny women are more likely to have girls” as the mechanism. I know prematurely born girls are sturdier (have a higher probability of surviving) than premie boys born at the same stage of gestation. If I assume that the same is true for fetuses – girls sturdier than boys – and if I assume that the people evaluating for attractiveness in this particular study had borderline anorexic views of what is attractive in a woman, then there’s a simple mechanism to produce their result: the attractive women were so skinny as to not be all that fertile, and they lost more boy fetuses than girl fetuses.


Walt 08.22.06 at 8:02 pm

In anything involving statistics in any but the most trivial way, it’s never safe to just say it’s an empirical finding. Statistical analysis is a weak tool to come by the truth, one fraught with difficulties. Until you find the causal mechanism, the result can be an artifact of the estimation procedure.


radek 08.22.06 at 8:27 pm

abb1’s model: it’s just diminishing marginal utility of good looks combined with increasing marginal disutility of effort. Downward sloping curve, upward sloping curve, boom! you got an equilibrium.

Hmmm, I think I’ve seen this somewhere before though I think it was about widget production and skill complementarities.

(Anyway, even in this case I think you’d get like matches with like unless sex ratio is substantially diff than 1 (so some don’t get anything at all) or the preference intensity is different for man and women. But then you’re back to explaining why that would be the case)


derrida derider 08.22.06 at 8:32 pm

Walt of course correlation and causality are different. But proper statistics has lots of ingenious ways of testing causality, and the term “empiric finding” normally assumes that these have been used.


Walt 08.22.06 at 8:43 pm

DD: In my experience that’s not the case at all. Anyway, those ingenious ways of testing causality are themselves a weak way of determining the truth.


Ian 08.22.06 at 8:46 pm

If there’s any impressionistic validity in the conclusions of Kanazawa’s ridiculous research, mightn’t that be down to momentary external perceptions rather than evolutionary biology etc? We perceive beautiful women to choose ugly mates in the same way that we perceive basketball players’ girlfriends as short – at least, until they step away from their boyfriends. It’s the Carlo Ponti phenomenon: Ponti was actually pretty average-looking, but because he was hooked up with Sophia Loren, everybody said, “Ugly ugly ugly.”


Tom Maguire 08.22.06 at 9:09 pm

FWIW – The WaPo had what strikes me as a better article on this.

For example, the “36% more likely to have a baby daughter” point was presented a bit more clearly (albeit less dramatically) as follows:

Kanazawa compared the percentage of boys and girls born to study participants who were very attractive with the sex ratio of babies born to everyone else. He found that 56 percent of babies born to beautiful parents were girls. For parents in each of the other categories, fewer than half of the babies — 48 percent — were girls.

I haven’t quite figured out how 56% is 36% more than 48%, or how 56% is 36% greater than (100%-56%), but I am not a behaviorial economist.

As to why the sex of only the first child was studied, rather than all of a couple’s kids – not having been able to find the paper, I will hazard the guess that, even in Western cultures, the sex of second and successive kids is not wholly independent of the sex of the first child. The phenomenon is more pronounced in Asian countries, where selective abortion drives up the percentage of males among second, third and fourth kids among couples comitted to having at least one son.


Andrew Leigh 08.22.06 at 11:35 pm

Ginger/Belle, there’s a reasonable reason for only looking at first children: the sex of your first child can affect your decision to have other children. So for example some studies of the relationship between child gender and divorce have focused just on the first child.

That said, all the Kanazawa papers I can find on the web look at # of sons, and # of daughters. Which seems exactly the wrong way to do it.


fjm 08.23.06 at 12:06 am

Not much to add to this except that recent research is suggesting that all the old ideas break down when women gain economic independence. Independent women do more of the selecting so are more likely to look for looks than money (which they can supply).


David 08.23.06 at 4:52 am

My reading of the “kids sired by engineers/scientists” data is that women who are married to engineers/scientists are more likely to fool around outside the marriage with men who are more likely to father sons, which confers a protective benefit on the mother since the engineer/scientist husband sees, on average, the male-dominated litters of his wife and believes that they must be his, since after all, he is an engineer/scientist and is more likely to sire sons.

Lesson is that if you’re a man who is more likely to sire daughters than sons, it’s a waste of your time to hit on women who are married to engineers/scientists (except for protected recreational sex, so be explicit about what you’re offering her!). Note, as a side benefit (pun intended — “on the side,” get it?) if you’re a man who is more likely to sire daughters than sons, it’s less likely that your own father was an engineer/scientist, so it’s less likely that your social circle overlaps with the husband of the woman you are hitting on, so your dalliance with her, if successfully initiated, can be much more relaxed!


David 08.23.06 at 5:00 am

I noticed Carlo Ponti and his marriage to Sophia Loren mentioned above. There may be attributes that would for some women trump good looks. For example, Lyle Lovett, the singer, is often described as less than lovely and horselike in appearance, but is also rumored to be hung like a horse. Is it reasonable to draw inferences about a) the attractive woman’s priorities and b) the ugly man’s fit to those priorities when a “lovely woman/ugly man” couple is considered?

Freakonomics, indeed!


Ginger Yellow 08.23.06 at 5:36 am

Ginger/Belle, there’s a reasonable reason for only looking at first children: the sex of your first child can affect your decision to have other children. So for example some studies of the relationship between child gender and divorce have focused just on the first child.

I can understand that, but selection acts on the genes that are passed to each of the children, not just the first. And as I said originally, it’s only very recently that people have stopped having children after one or two. And more importantly, how can you say something like “Selection pressure means when parents have traits they can pass on that are better for boys than for girls, they are more likely to have boys” when you’ve only looked at the first child? What if most of these people have a boy first and then three girls? Wouldn’t that completely disprove her argument? What if the mechanism for this hypothetical process were to work in precisely that way, making the first child the opposite gender of all future children? Put simply, how can you measure how many children of each sex certain people have without looking at all the children?

We’re talking about political animals, here—even male dominance hierarchies, even among chimps, aren’t ‘based ultimately on innate strength’. Read some of Frans de Waal’s work

I’ve read Chimpanzee Politics and The Ape and the Sushi Master. All I was saying was that dominance hierarchies aren’t entirely cultural, as they effectively are in modern human societies. Certainly for the most part it’s culture that maintains the status quo in, for exampe, chimpanzee societies (which are far more politically complex than any other non-human primate society). But when there is a power-struggle, it’s strength or perceived strength that settles the matter, even to a much smaller degree for females. See the trajectory of Frodo, for instance. Obviously culturally driven politics plays a part because you get alliances of low-status chimps taking on the alpha, or if the alpha has been a successful ruler he will be supported by lesser status chimps. But the strength of the individual male is an extremely good indicator of status.


Stephen Johnson 08.23.06 at 7:11 am

Well, I can speak to one part According to this news article, “Selection pressure means when parents have traits they can pass on that are better for boys than for girls, they are more likely to have boys. Such traits include large size, strength and aggression, which might help a man compete for mates. On the other hand, parents with heritable traits that are more advantageous to girls are more likely to have daughters.”

(okay, I’ve calmed down now)
Selection pressure has no way of knowing what will be useful. It can change the likelihood of those children surviving to reproductive age or improve their reproductive succcess, but unless handsome boy fetuses are somehow self-aborting that summary is just rot. See any reputable science blog like Pharyngula, for more information and better explantion than I can provide. Now back to the main discussion.


dthurston 08.23.06 at 9:15 am

I’m astonished people are still discussing this work seriously, given comment 12 above: Andrew Gelman thoroughly demolished Kanazawa’s work purporting to show that “empathetic” parents have more girl children. He was looking at the number of (e.g.) boy children, controlling for the number of girl children, which cannot show what he wants to show, although it may be a sign of something else (e.g., that engineering parents are more likely to keep trying to have children if they have only girls so far).


eudoxis 08.23.06 at 10:10 am

Actually, sex ratio adjustment is well established for certain species, esp. wasps and birds. Birds are not so different from mammals in that they also use chromosomal mechanisms of sex determination. The sex of the offspring is determined by the chromosomes of both parents. This isn’t the first observation of the Trivers and Willard hypothesis in human sex ratio adjustments. See here for a brief discussion, and also Science Magazine, 1 March 2002, West et al., pp. 1685 – 1688 for more.

The question of a molecular mechanism is an important one and advancing theoretical explanations a natural part of research but so is observation, and observations do exist seperately from correct narratives that make intuitive sense to everybody at first glance.


lemuel pitkin 08.23.06 at 10:33 am

Yeah, everyone should read comment 12 and then limit their comments on Kanazawa to mockery.

As Montaigne said, people too often ask “why is it so?” without first asking, “is it really so?”


Belle Waring 08.23.06 at 11:38 am

I was pretty much assuming it was all bullshit, but I was adopting drum-esque even-handedness. let the open mockery fly!


Lynn Gazis-Sax 08.23.06 at 11:45 am

For example, Lyle Lovett, the singer, is often described as less than lovely and horselike in appearance, but is also rumored to be hung like a horse.

Actually, as far as I’m concerned, being able to sing well is a bonus all by itself (I’m assuming Lovett does in fact sing well – I haven’t really listened to him).

On the other hand, attractive people of either sex being matched with less attractive people of either sex doesn’t really require any explanation beyond regression to the mean.

I’m astonished people are still discussing this work seriously

You mean this is a serious discussion? I was assuming most of the proposed explanations were mockery of one kind or another. Or at least a chance to have fun skewering one or another of the groups that supposedly have more boys or girls.


Lynn Gazis-Sax 08.23.06 at 11:47 am

Incidentally, the “good looking couples have fewer female orgasms” theory could work by a mechanism of good looking men being so stuck up about their looks that they think that’s all they need to bring to the table for sex.


xyz 08.23.06 at 11:49 am

while discussing with a friend about the absurdity of the paper, one itneresting question has arised – how do they account for abortion and miscarriages?

otherwise, i totally agree with the comment that said “ugly is adaptive” – true. Also, Why separate the smart and the beautiful? What about people who are both ugly and stupid?


Paul Gowder 08.23.06 at 12:09 pm

Oh wow. Brain-dead economists + evolutionary psychologists + “nice guys.” All you need to find are some fundamentalists who are working to usher in the apocalypse, and you’ve got every major species of crazy in the world today, all in one post. Are the comics comments to that post still open? I’ll bet I could find some to contribute.

On the other hand, I think I now have a small crush on your ass-kicking sister.


lemuel pitkin 08.23.06 at 12:37 pm

Yeah, Mia is Teh Hot. Evidence that there is indeed a genetic basis for beauty.


abb1 08.23.06 at 2:19 pm

The Japanese are looking to Princess Kiko, wife of the second-in-line to the Chrysanthemum Throne, to do what other royal women have failed to do for more than 40 years: give birth to a boy and head off a looming succession crisis in one of the world’s oldest monarchies.

Not nearly enough orgazms there, apparently.


Martin James 08.23.06 at 2:24 pm

My new favorite misquote about science is that science began to make progress when people learned that the fact that something seems to be true is independent of whether it is actually true.

This is the problem with psychology, evolutionary and otherwise. It is hard to tell the difference between ridiculous truths and ridiculous falsehoods.

That the current state of our evolutionary psychology sucks and that Freud was dishonest, does not make it true that we are not Things subject to Unconscious forces.


David 08.23.06 at 5:41 pm

I take lynn g-s’s point about Lyle Lovett’s singing as an attractor (he does in fact sing, and pretty well, if predictably). A parallel is Bonnie Raitt who on top of what are I’m sure many charms, is a very greasy bendy slide guitarist, which for me would make up for the absence of many other charms.


kid bitzer 08.23.06 at 8:04 pm

wait a second–

while Bonnie Raitt is in fact a first-rate bottle-neck guitar player, she is in no way lacking in the more traditional charms that lead to the production of offspring.

I mean, Lyle Lovett has to **make up** for his looks. The kid’s a dog face. Bonnie Raitt is and always has been a **looker**.

(And yes, you can calculate my age from this comment, with fair reliability. If you don’t agree about the present tense version, just check out the version that corresponds more closely to your own current age).


Alf 08.24.06 at 2:52 am

Wow, I have a huge crush on Bell’s sister now, and to think she can probably do a russian accent…

To bad I’m not ugly enough for her.


aaron 08.24.06 at 3:06 am

What amazes me is that your criticism is even lamer than the comments you criticize.


etat 08.24.06 at 10:09 am

Hey, I resemble that Lyle Lovett remark! For the longest time, the guy in Eraserhead was my style hero, but then Lyle showed up, and proved that good looks/locks and intelligence can go together. but by that time my own coiffe was thinning, and required lowering. Therefore, Lyle still rates, cuz he’s kept his.

As for the original post, Belle, don’t you have better things to get excerised about? Or are you secretly hoping to match-make this sister of yours? You’ve already characterised her as someone who likes a knuckle-dusting, if not someone who is a knuckle-dragger. So, if it’s a punching bag she wants for a mate, the guy you describe above seems to fit the bill. Wish them both interesting times then step back a good few paces.

Lastly, since you have started up this business of match-making, could you have a word with the proprietors about setting up a CT dating service? It makes sense, given the demographic.


tribald ozgevir 08.24.06 at 12:23 pm

Slight misuse of the slanted Flannery O’Connor cite there, Belle. “She would of been a good woman if there had been somebody there to shoot her every day of her life” because the prospect of death inspired in her a generous and self-sacrificing, morally focused character. There’s no indication here that the prospect of being popped on the schnozz would inspire this gentleman to anything but more resentful, bigoted, boastful self-pity.

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