Monday, January 12, 2009

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa.

Informative, but incautious. More Daughters was written because the authors were inspired to learn more about evolutionary psychology after they read Robert Wright's The Moral Animal; you should just read that book instead. It lot of the information is similar, but Wright's approach more appropriately describes the nuances of evolutionary psychology, while More Daughters is prone to sweeping generalizations that are mostly or likely true, but not all the time. The authors present a series of possible and plausible explanations for why people do what they do (i.e., nearly everything comes down to sexual competition), but all too often necessary qualifying remarks were absent.

This is unfortunate because the introduction and beginning of the book was excellent. They said all the right things about phenomena rarely being genetically or environmentally determined and that no one really thinks everything is genetically determined. More Daughters provided a useful description of both the naturalistic fallacy (inferring ought from is) and moralistic fallacy (inferring is from ought).

Many interesting facts are presented, such as 4-30% of married men are raising a child that isn’t theirs (it is implied they are unaware), that the birth ratio for parents who are engineers and who are nurses or teachers is very different (far more boys than usual and far more girls than usual, respectively), parents rarely kill their children, it is usually stepparents that kill stepchildren, and other ‘usual suspects’ of evolutionary psyc (men benefit more from monogamy, beauty is waist to hip ratio, all cultures have underlying similarities).

These facts are explained by an appeal to the idea that psychological mechanism developed in the brain in response to selection pressures when humans were living in smaller groups for hundreds of thousands of years. What matters most in evolution is whatever will make it more likely that your genes will survive; this is not contentious, it is simply a fact (and notice your happiness is not necessarily part of it).

More Daughters presents some purported reasons why men like blondes with blue eyes, but it isn’t fully convincing. Similarly, when it is explained that females gain more from beauty while males gain more from status and therefore beautiful people have more daughters, the actual mechanisms involved are not described. Consequently, and this happens repeatedly, one is left with the thought “If that is true, how does it work?”

One of the more interesting tidbits was a policy that Safeway instituted to try to increase customer satisfaction. Cashiers were instructed to look a customer in the eye after they purchase something and say something like “Thanks for shopping at Safeway, have a good day.” There were no problems when the cashier was male or when the cashier was female and the customer female, but when the cashier was female and the customer male many men began to pursue the female cashier thinking she was interested in them (i.e., they would call them at work or follow them). Eventually, female employees filed a lawsuit and the policy was changed. Now why would this be? Why do men assume a woman is interested when she might not be? The explanation is that it is simply about costs and benefits. If a woman is interested and a man doesn’t act upon it, he loses a chance to mate and produce offspring (way back when). But if a woman isn’t interested and he thinks she is, he just wastes a little time and has to endure rejection. The argument is that it is better to have the cost of being wrong than the cost of losing a chance to produce offspring (false positive vs. false negative). As you can see, that all seems to make sense, and it isn’t as if men are making conscious calculations (although some probably are) but one does wish for greater detail or specificity.
The false positive vs. false negative line of reasoning is also used to explain why people might believe in God; it is more adaptive to think an agent might be doing something than things just happening naturally (i.e., the rustling in the bush could be a predator, rival or the nothing, better to assume something).

While this book is probably best used as a review of general principles for someone experienced with evolutionary psychology (which is why it worked for me), it is not a successful introduction because (aside from the first few chapters) it can be misleading.

Other blog reviews/summaries:
Another Darren
Derek Miller
and the author Kanazawa dishonours himself (scroll down)


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