MIND Reviews: October/November 2007

Reviews and recommendations from the October/November 2007 issue of Scientific American MIND

Evolving Expectations

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire—Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do
by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa. Perigee (Penguin), 2007 ($23.95)

Evolutionary psychology, a school of thought whose influence has grown over the past decade, seeks to explain human behavior as if it were aimed at maximizing “reproductive fitness.” In other words, we do what we do because it enabled our ancestors to have more offspring than others—and thus pass on the genes that predispose us to behave in such ways.

In Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa, sociologists by training who have embraced evolutionary psychology, apply this viewpoint
to matters ranging from dating and marriage to crime, employment, religion and war. (Miller, who taught at Hokkaido University in Japan, died in 2003; Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science finished the book alone.)

Adopting a question-and-answer format, the authors ask, for instance, why men are attracted to “blonde bombshells.” Their answer is that because blonde hair darkens with age, men unconsciously use it as an indicator of women’s youth and reproductive potential. Why are there many deadbeat dads but few deadbeat moms? Because, the authors say, men have less biological investment in any one child; it might not be theirs to begin with, and men can potentially have far more children than women can.

On the title question, the book contends that good-looking couples have more daughters
because women benefi t strongly from good looks in the reproductive game (and natural
selection has geared families to have more children of the sex benefi ting most from their lineage’s inheritable traits).

Although many of these ideas are intriguing, the book takes an overly confident tone given the speculative nature of its arguments. Citing Bill Clinton as an example, Miller and Kanazawa assert that male politicians risk their careers on extramarital affairs because access to females is the very purpose of their careers, an imperative dictated by genes. Turning to Iraq, the authors suggest that insurgents have killed more Iraqis than Americans because of a subconscious drive to eliminate fellow Arab males as sexual rivals.

Whereas the authors acknowledge a few puzzling contradictions—for example, wealthier people tend to have lower reproductive rates even though they could afford to have more
kids—they pay little attention to critiques of evolutionary psychology. Biologist Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, for instance, argues that the gene-spreading impulse better explains the behavior of simple organisms than that of complex ones. Such counterarguments provide a different perspective on human evolution: maybe natural selection has endowed us with brains flexible enough to partly escape our genes’ orders. —Kenneth Silber

Something to Talk About

The ability to speak is arguably at the root of humanity. Delve into the mysteries of language with these recent releases:

Fossils can tell us how our ancestors first walked upright and when we colonized the world, but they are unable to reveal how and when we learned to speak. In The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language (Viking Adult), Christine Kenneally picks up where the bones leave off, exploring how language might have evolved and how scientists are studying this once taboo question using parrots, chimps and even robots.

The way we use language is a vivid glimpse into the way our brain manages information, according to Harvard University’s Steven Pinker. In The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (Viking Adult), the best-selling author shows how tense, syntax, swearing and metaphor mimic our perceptions of the world—from space and time to social structure.

This article was originally published with the title "Read, Watch, Listen."

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