Sunday, February 28, 2010

Echidne Reads Wikipedia. On What Makes Us Hawt

I wasn't planning to. I've been reading David J. Buller's Adapting Minds (highly recommended for those of you who want to learn more about evolutionary psychology), and then I wanted to see what Google offers us as the current simple-to-digest paradigm in the field of what makes women attractive to men and men attractive to women, evolutionarily speaking. So of course I turned to Wikipedia.

The section on physical attractiveness is not bad. In fact, it sounds quite balanced and carefully written on first reading. But then read again, and some things really stick out like knitting needles. For instance, here is the very beginning:

Despite universally held perceptions of beauty in both sexes, males tend to place significantly higher value on physical appearance in a partner than women do.[1][2] This can be explained by evolutionary psychology as a consequence of ancestral humans who selected partners based on secondary sexual characteristics, as well as general indicators of fitness (for example, symmetrical features) enjoying greater reproductive success as a result of higher fertility in those partners, although a male's ability to provide resources for offspring was likely signaled less by physical features.[1] This is because the most prominent indicator of fertility in women is youth, while the traits in a man that enhance reproductive success are proxies for his ability to accrue resources and protect [3].

Since this is the opening paragraph it must be the central thesis of the anonymous writer(s). Note that it is completely and totally and wholly based on one single paradigm from one part of evolutionary psychology, the one I call Evolutionary Psychology, the paradigm which never changes whatever new evidence comes along and also the paradigm that the popular culture force-feeds down women's throats (hmmm).

How can I tell? Well, I had just read Buller on the alternative theories of what makes women attractive to men and vice versa, and there are quite a few. But those are not present in the Wikipedia article. Not in the first paragraph and not even later on.

I also checked what those footnotes* from 1 to 3 referred to, and lo and behold!:

1. ^ a b Buss, David (2003) [1994] (hardcover). The Evolution of Desire (second ed.). New York: Basic Books. pp. 57, 58, 60–63.
2. ^ Stephen J. Dubner (July 9, 2007). The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-11-06.
3. ^ Abigail Trafford, Andrew Cherlin (Mar. 6, 2001). "Second Opinion: Men's Health & Marriage". Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-11-06. "The major reason for the imbalance between men and women in the later decades of life is because men tend to marry younger women as they get older."

Those of you who like to think about primary sources and secondary sources might notice that the only actual research referred to there is David Buss. So it is Buss's theories that have been promoted to Truth. Then two references to stories in the popular media (including from Freakonomics!) are added to make it seem like lots of people have found out the same thing. Even if they happen not to be evolutionary psychologists at all.

I do not like this, because it introduces a subtle bias with serious consequences. For instance, it argues that women find resources in men attractive and that men don't find resources in a woman attractive, and then we will hear this from every asshole on the net as the reason why men have all the power in the world except that seventeen-year-old nubile young women really have it! (Kanazawa, I'm looking at you and your despicable work.)

Yet the actual state of evolutionary psychology research (and that in related fields) is much more complicated. The things that make men attractive to women, on average, certainly include things such as good health, but they also include kindness, hands-on help with children and the willingness to stick around. These are resources in one sense of the word, true, but they are not what the anonymous writer refers to when he/she talks about "accruing resources and protecting." He has in mind the usual idea of Man The Dominant Benefactor And Protector.

Yet, as Buller's book discusses**, that is not at all the only theory that could be forwarded. Since women, on average, still have less access to resources on their own they may choose men with resources today (if they do which is a big if) simply because of the unequal income distribution. As our distant ancestors lived in small nomadic groups it's not unlikely that the distribution of resources was more egalitarian. After all, what can you carry with you?

It seems to me that a person's resources in those days would have been almost totally embodied in that person. Thus, a man would have chosen a healthy and strong woman not only because such a woman is more likely to have children but also because she is more likely to survive the births and more likely to work hard for many years. That increases the chances that the children will survive to grow up and pass on his genes, because it will increase the resources available for him.

Likewise, a prehistoric woman would have preferred men who are healthy, strong and fertile. Such men were more likely to be able to work harder and stay around to help with the children and that protection business.

In short, the distinction that first paragraph makes between female and male motives in mate choice is an artificial one. But it's more dangerous than that because it points us along one avenue and refuses even to mention the other street names in the area.


*Reading through those footnotes is instructive even more generally. John Tierney is quoted as an expert on female attractiveness and weight! John Tierney!!

That brings back so many memories! I used to decimate Tierney's writings on a periodic basis when he belonged to the New York Times columnist bullpen (pun intended).

Then I find a link to Daniel Kruger's work! The guy who codes a binary variable as 1 and 2.

**Buller has a long chapter on mate choice. I cannot do it justice in a short blog post. Perhaps a later book review? As just one example, his discussion of assortative mating by status is fascinating. This refers to people marrying people from their own social class, roughly, and it is something that has not been well standardized in Evo-Psycho studies of whether women prefer men with more economic resources. Most of these studies are done on female undergraduate and graduate students and consist of asking them whether they would date/marry imaginary men with different resources. The usual findings are that the women prefer the rich guys. But if these women themselves mostly come from upper classes or expect to belong to them, assortative mating by status would predict the same outcome. -- This example is given to show how much more complicated the discussion of mate choice can become than the simple JustSo stories of Evolutionary Psychology.