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July 22, 2003



I don't think that either the Just So or Just Not So stories work, and in general the explanatory power of Just So stories is weak unless you're sure that there is a genetic predisposition to be explained. For instance, if male mammals or hominids in general preferred younger mates, it would be much less of a stretch to suppose that a similar male human preference has a genetic component.
The problem with your Just Not So is that it assumes that just because you have an explanation of why behavior A would be arguably more beneficial than behavior B, selection pressure couldn't have produced B, but evolution is more complicated than that. There are any number of reasons that sub-optimal behaviors could have been selected for, even assuming that your analysis of the merits demonstrates greater optimality (it might not, e.g. better ability to run while carrying offspring--proxied by a more youthful, fit appearance-- might trump ability to bear them, particularly since sperm is cheap). For instance, preference B could be the result of an "arms race" (much as female peacocks's preference for longer tails); starting from a preference for obviously childbearing women, a slight pressure to select the younger appearing could snowball until it was the appearance of youth itself that was preferred, despite the preference being sub-optimal or even maladaptive. The same sort of objection can be raised against the original Just So story: in the absence of evidence for the genetic predisposition being explained, it's overreaching to attempt to account for behavior this way. Even if it were true that the indicators were proxies for fertility, that's not enough to establish that fertility (and not, say, ability to raise offspring to reproductive age) is obviously the winning genetic strategy. Humans, after all, are K-reproductive strategists, not R-reproductive (lots of care into few offspring, not little care into manny).
That's all a pretty long-winded way of saying that while the Just So story to explain male attraction to young women is underwhelming, it's not so easy to demonstrate that it can't be in part a genetic predisposition just by reasoning about what's likely to succeed as an evolutionary strategy.


I can't help but notice the strong words you've used to describe what are essentially non-partisan scientific studies (idiotic, noxious). I gather that they've offended your sensibilities, which is perfectly understandable considering the political-incorrect, even potentially misogynic, tendencies of evolutionary psychology.

However, irregardless of what you feel about this body of research, the onus is on you to either a) provide some justification for your hypothesis by conducting empirical research, or b)falsify the hypotheses which you object to similarly using experimental methods, which admittedly is quite a tedious task considering the number of interconnected theories that make up the edifice of knowledge which you disapprove of. How (il)logical a theory seems to a person sometimes has little effect on its predictive/explanatory powers (e.g. quantum physics). Maybe you have a point in that there are areas which scientists may have overlooked, but it wouldn't help anyone, not least the scientific community, by dismissing their research rather off-handedly.

There is a nagging feeling on my part that your grasp of evolutionary theory is not as solid as you've hoped; this is not to say that you're intellectually diminished in any way, just that you might've misunderstood certain more-subtle aspects. Perhaps it might help to read the actual papers, or a lucid overview like Steven Pinker's How The Mind Works.

I won't go into too much detail regarding where I believe you might've had some conceptual misapprehensions (my computer game is waiting for me). Accumulation of capital on the veldt? Try thinking of it as 'ability and willingness to invest in the young' and 'status'(even that would be an overgeneralization) Mothers with one child over virgins? Try thinking (from a man's point of view) about the possible reasons why virginity would be valued. Clue: Men are selfish and jealous bastards.

Belle Waring

In response to the first comment, I should say that you are obviously right that it's difficult to prove a negative in this speculative way. It's logically possible that selection pressure could produce some sub-optimal result. I was being a bit facetious in my post and I think iron-clad may be overstating it. Nonetheless, it does seem a valid objection.

Some people say that the specifics of modern human interactions are governed to a relatively high degree by evolutionary pressures in our pre-human environment. Others say, no they are not. Evidence for the first position mainly consists in showing how these behaviors are likely to have arisen, and this generally means showing that they conferred some advantage. If you are going to concede that the sexual preference in question may have become maladaptive (not implausible) the only remaining evidence for position A is just the current existence of the behavior or preference. It is assuming the consequent to adduce this as evidence.

As to the second commentor, I have admitted to being a bit flip, and this was clearly not intended to stand up as a scientific refutation. I'm not opposed in principle to evolutionary psychology and am willing to believe that many aspects of human life may be amenable to this type of explanation. There is a pop version of evolutionary psychology, however, which does deserve all the scorn I could pour on it.

To take the example of accumultating capital on the veldt: I am willing to listen to a nuanced discussion of how males engage in status determining activies, sucess in which is closely correlated with genetic fitness (say, hunting). A preference for high-status males might, over the course of human history, lead to a situation in which the original preference has become slightly maladaptive from a purely genetic point of view: the inheritance of wealth may make you a high status male without promsing particularly good genetic quality. Fine and good. Perverse compressions of this view which rely over-much on the possibility of providing for young, when we do not know enough about proto-human food distribution strategies, seem weak and obviously intended to shore up existing views on sexual politics.

I don't think Steven Pinker is evil or that evolutionary psychology cannot be done with some sucess. I do think it is often practised poorly, and more often quoted as justification for silly ideas which it does not even support. If all I am offered is plausible tales about utility and sexual selection, I will continue to feel free to find logical flaws. Thanks for saying I shouldn't feel intellectually diminshed, though...


>>However, irregardless of what you feel about this body of research, the onus is on you to either a) provide some justification for your hypothesis by conducting empirical research, or b)falsify the hypotheses which you object to similarly using experimental methods, which admittedly is quite a tedious task considering the number of interconnected theories that make up the edifice of knowledge which you disapprove of.

Three points:

First, your statement that evolutionary psychology is a "non-partisan" field of research is an extremely contentious one; lots of people believe that it's extremely politically loaded.

Second, there is no such onus on Belle; evolutionary psychology was not arrived at by a process of empirical observation or experiment, so there is no presupposition that any argumnet against it must be made in that way.

Third, "Irregardless" is not a word used by careful writers.

And finally to note that great minds think alike


Anchor tag not permitted I see:



I think evolutionary psychology is most useful in giving us an idea of how we came to see certain physical characteristics as beautiful. This leaves out the example of the young-woman-marries-rich-old-man.

Indeed, the latter is rather easily explained by greed, while the former -- why would a curvy figure be considered more attractive? -- is more mysterious. There aren't any obvious reasons to think that a small waist and big breasts and hips are good, while finding a fat bank account attractive strikes me as self-explanatory.

I'd be interested in a discussion of the flipside: what do women find physically attractive in men? What are possible evolutionary explanations for this?

As for the attractiveness of the single mom, Bruce Springsteen might agree with you, but there appears to be a counter to why having healthy little toddlers coming with a wife would be problematic from an evolutionary standpoint:
she expects you to invest resources in offspring that are not genetically your own.


One major flaw in this argument is the assumption that evolution is completely logical and up-to-date. "Natural selection" is also not an established set of parameters--what's healthiest one winter may not be the next. So even if it makes more sense that men would prefer women with some child-birthing experience, it doesn't mean that they will. Fisher's theory of runaway selection nicely outlines the ways in which random, not necessarily beneficial, characteristics can be selected into the gene pool, and there are countless examples for which this is a plausible explanation (the male peacock's tail was already mentioned). Also, "studies have shown" that the optimal time for most women to give birth is around 18 years old. These studies are based on a number of factors including the likelihood of birth defects and complications for the mother during labor, as well as more modern concerns like the mother's risk of developing breast cancer. From this perspective it is perfectly reasonable that women with younger appearances, i.e. "glowing" skin, shiny hair, or a low waist-to-hip ratio would be more desirable. In other words, this topic is placed too close to the line between sociology and biology to be answered easily or completely.


I've posted some thoughts on this topic (more "inspired by" this post than in reply to it) at http://loxosceles.org/scripts/date.pl?d=2003-07-24_02

I did want to add, on the idea of gold-digging women being a uniquely human phenomenon, that gold-digging has been demonstrated in the animal kingdom :)

warning: blatant anthropomorphizing ahead


Female lizards of this species choose the males with the best territory to live with, but then cheat on the side with sexy (large body size) males from the wrong side of the tracks.

Furthermore, they use sperm from the large males to make sons, and sperm from the "rich" males to make more gold-digging daughters.

I anthropomorphize greatly, of course, but that link is to the PDF of the actual study, which I invite you all to read. Obviously the interpretation is somewhat complicated, but it seemed to be worth mentioning.


I agree with everyone. yes.
except maybe that broad generalizations about 'us' as in 'we do this or that as a species' are specious. 'we' are who is here right now. some time ago, say the Pleistocene, 'we' were who was there. meaning who lived and bred and had 'their' genes carried on. that should be much scarier than it is to a lot of people.
it changes constantly this gene-pool thing. which is a good example of what I mean. 'my' genes were once my grandfathers' hm? and now belong to my daughters, with additions and I suppose subtractions.
the linking of greed to the May-December coupling is baloney. we live in an almost completely artificial environment, it's only because it's all we know that it seems normal or natural. biologically it's like the interior of a hive or something. controlled and regulated. in that hive money's the measure of survivability. the inculcation of morality as some kind of universal constant means we judge biological strategies by standards that have no real application.
the Irish are red-haired for a few reasons, one of them being Viking rape. look at that from the gene's eye view of a native Gael. then look at it from the marauder's grandmother's perspective. ok now the hardest one, look at it after the fact, look back at it, at your patrimony, your heritage, what you are.
biology is about what works. every thing we do is biological.
'social darwinism' is about a bunch of marginal gene types having profitted from a truce in the jungle warfare of natural selection, a culturally enforced 'morality' that allowed them to assume dominant positions in a *non*-darwinian social construct.
now they want to play survival of the fittest again, now that they've scrambled the lists. bastards.

Walt Pohl

While I expect that much human behavior will have some evolutionary root, most evolutionary psychology (when applied to humans) is transparently silly. It's a passing phase in the history of thought: we survived the era where people compared humans to machines, we survived Freudian psychology, and we'll survive this.

Joshua: if you can provide an explanation that is equally plausible from the point of view evolutionary psychology, but does not fit the facts, then what good is evolutionary psychology? Why don't we just stick with the facts?

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