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.

In a remote Israeli village where there is a high rate of deafness, an indigenous sign language arose—creating an unadulterated example of humanity’s complex communication instinct. Margalit Fox trails an international team of scientists as they pick apart and piece together this unique and endangered dialect in Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind (Simon & Schuster).

“We were never born to read,” writes Maryanne Wolf, who nonetheless argues passionately for the importance of reading proficiency. In Proust and the Squid: The
Story and Science of the Reading Brain
(Harper), Wolf explains how the rulebased
structure of the written word enhances our cognitive development as she laments the loss of analytical skills that she predicts will arise from modern “screen-reading” habits.
—Meredith Knight and Amelia Thomas

Celebrating the Bizarre

Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things
by Richard Wiseman. Basic Books, 2007 ($26)

The month of your birth can infl uence the way you behave. You might expect such a statement from someone in a foggy dungeon littered with star charts, but this one comes from a university scientist—and he has the facts to support that claim.

In his compilation of research aimed at explaining the more obscure aspects of human behavior, Richard Wiseman shows us, for example, that the ambient temperature on your
birthday has a longterm effect on the development of your personality. People born during the summer months tend to be more optimistic and open to opportunities than those born in the wintertime.

Wiseman, a British psychologist, has been studying areas of human behavior “that have something quirky about them” for more than 20 years. In Quirkology he takes readers on a journey through the science behind curious aspects of life, ranging from luck to the paranormal. Although his fi ndings do not reveal anything particularly deep about human nature, his fresh discourse makes for an entertaining and interesting read. Wiseman has unearthed studies showing that teachers award higher essay grades to children with likable names and that people with an extremely unusual first name, such as Oder or Lethal, are more likely to be diagnosed as psychotic than are people with a more common moniker. He also delves into the darker side of human nature and shows how certain types of superstition underlie prejudice, irrationality and even murder.

The book concludes comically with a list of factoids about human behavior, rated on their suitability to provoke interesting dinner party conversations. Wiseman’s first choice: people would rather wear a sweater that has been dropped in dog feces and not washed than one that has been dry-cleaned but formerly belonged to a mass murderer. —Nicole Branan

Highs and Lows

A Summer in the Cage
Produced and directed by Ben Selkow
Airing on Sundance Channel, October 15 at 9 P.M. EST

Everyone likes a happy Hollywood ending. But the unpredictable nature of bipolar disorder prevents this documentary from reaching that kind of uplifting conclusion. Filmmaker Ben Selkow follows former Division I basketball player Sam Murchison as manic depression transforms him from a successful money manager into an unemployed, medicated, 300-pound man, weighed down by depression and fearful of inheriting his father’s suicidal fate. In one of the fi lm’s most disturbingly honest moments, Selkow rolls tape as mania sends Murchison wading into a pond in New York City’s Central Park.

To explain Murchison’s highs and lows, the film leans heavily on the expertise of Johns Hopkins Hospital psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, who, along with an estimated 5 percent of the world’s population, also suffers from bipolar disorder. The illness’s
high prevalence demands that it be better understood, she says. Yet the film’s narrow lens on Murchison’s experience leaves little room for a description of bipolar symptoms or how
the disorder torments the brain. Regardless, Murchison’s story is powerful. Even as Jamison imparts the importance of family and friends in the lives of people coping with the disease, Selkow’s exasperation and the anxiety of Murchison’s widowed mother show the difficulty of maintaining relationships with bipolar loved ones.

The film may leave viewers unsettled, but it gives rare insight into the suffocating reality that Murchison faces every day. “The disease is always there,” he says. “It will never go away.” —Corey Binns

Minding the Airwaves

The Infinite Mind
Lichtenstein Creative Media, National Public Radio
To listen, check local listings or visit http://lcmedia.com/mindprgm.htm

Why do we need vacations? What happens when we feel empathy? What are the roots of our phobias? These are just a few of the questions recently addressed on the award-winning public radio show The Infinite Mind, which explores a different neurological
or psychological mystery every week.

The show, which premiered in 1998 and is hosted by psychiatrist Peter Kramer, tackles the world of the mind in an easily digestible, no-nonsense manner. The hour-long segments, broadcast in about 250 cities in the U.S. and Canada, feature interviews with scientists, doctors, historians and everyday people with moving personal stories. Despite how deeply the show delves into the workings of the mind, it manages to keep the discussion both simple and interesting—sometimes throwing in a dash of humor, too.

The end result is an hour that fl ies by quickly but leaves listeners with a coherent and nuanced understanding of a complicated subject. Not only will The Infinite Mind help you better understand your own brain, it will also provide you with a compelling argument for why your boss should really give you that extra vacation day. —Melinda Wenner