Friday, July 29, 2011

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, by Miller and Kanazawa

I really wanted to love this book. I was hoping for the latest in evolutionary biology research – it’s got that; I wanted it in summary form, without all the arguments about methodology and who’s the current fair-haired child in the field – it is that; I was hoping for clear and even clever prose – it’s got that, too.

It’s got all the main things I wanted. Why then, would I give it only three-and-a-half stars?

Evolutionary biology has an overriding weakness, as a field. All its evidence is necessarily indirect, and involves a fair bit of guesswork. I write this as one who believes their way of looking at human behavior has a great deal to offer – certainly more than the “everything is cultural” liturgies we were made to recite when I was in college. (The authors suggest that this is still the dominant philosophy in the social sciences.) Much of what we do now derives from adaptive patterns that worked well in a hunter-gatherer context, but are more ambiguously useful now. Mate-selection and sexual behavior have attracted most of the attention in the field, but family structure, trading and trust behavior, and even political and religious attitudes have been examined in terms of evolutionary biology.

But this book is a bit too far over-the-top in its insistence on biology. It declares that evolution essentially stopped 10,000 years ago – I think there is ample evidence that’s not true; It makes a big deal out of slight differences, as in the book’s title research, which reveals one of those 51-49 important-over-time divergences that don’t illuminate much of our daily life;* it accepts highly-suspicious numbers at face value to bolster its claims. For example, it accepts for 90% of the book the dubious claim that 10-30% of American children have different fathers than are claimed on their birth certificate, before acknowledging just at the end that the 4% number suggested by better research is the more probable.

Flowing from the indirect evidence is an even greater weakness, a willingness to accept just-so stories as the most likely explanation for a behavior unless someone can disprove it. Thus, Beautiful People has a lovely, entirely plausible evolutionary explanation of how religion came to be. But Nicholas Wade’s Before The Dawn reports an entirely different, equally plausible explanation. They are not quite mutually exclusive, but they have nothing to do with each other. Evolutionary biology abounds with these stories, that just make sense explaining everything. Sometimes they do. Sometimes further research on related topics confirms the original explanation repeatedly.

Sometimes not, and the just-so story fades into oblivion, with all the claim-makers whistling innocently that they were nowhere near the place. Weakness of the field. (See Dubbahdee’s comment under Wayfinding for another example of a possible, plausible, but perhaps completely bogus explanation.

My other complaint is that the book takes too long to get airborne. If you need an introduction to the basic concepts of evolutionary biology, plus some strong arguments why the cultural explanations don’t hold, then the first 70 pages won’t annoy you. I was expecting more, and they annoyed me. Though it was fun to see the myths of Margaret Mead, the Gentle Tasaday, and Chief Seattle exploded back-to-back-to-back.

*The Wymans had four generations of sons only – we’re not pretty, but we’ve worked hard at upgrading the stock for beauty the last three generations – and now we’ve got daughters dominant (exclusive, in my line). So I was particularly interested in what the title was all about. Pretty minor correlation.

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