2003.11.05 The science behind it all

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

SCIENCE suggests there’s hope for everyone. The stupid, the old, the ugly, the selfish. Where to begin?

Take stupidity. A famous scientist says it’s just a disease. It’s been 50 years since British scientist James Watson, along with his buddy Francis Crick, announced the discovery of DNA—the chemical code for all life. Watson and Crick explained how genetic information is passed on from one generation to the other.

A few months ago, Watson said that low intelligence is inherited and it should be curable. Don’t blame poverty and other environmental causes, says Watson, just blame the genes. He wants molecular biologists to come up with gene therapies to get rid of stupid people. Watson also thinks it would be good for genetic engineering to create beautiful people.

“People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty,” Watson said. “I think it would be great.”

Watson has taken some heat for these ideas. A bioethics expert thinks Watson’s statements should only be considered amusing. It’s not something science could or should do. A well-known geneticist said Watson’s comments about beauty should be considered daft, since beauty is such a subjective concept.

“Watson likes to annoy—no question—but he’s no fool,” the scientist added. I guess that means he’s not stupid.

WATSON’S beauty talk leads directly to another study that says ugly individuals can sometimes do better than good-looking ones. This time it’s Australian evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks at work.

He knows that peahens prefer peacocks with long, brightly colored tails, and he knows that human females prefer tall men. Those traits are supposed to lead to offspring with a better chance for survival.

But if all women went for tall men, then all males should be tall after so many generations of evolutionary selection, and all birds and fish should look pretty similar. Brooks decided to take a look at guppies. All the females liked males with bright orange spots and big tales. You could have guessed that. But there was also a group of females who liked males with black markings, and so guppies still don’t all look alike.

Stop worrying about adhering to the Hollywood ideal, Brooks suggests, because you probably have what someone out there needs. Somebody will be able to smell your beauty.

Maybe it happens like this, Brooks says. Everyone inherits a selection of immune system proteins called MHC molecules. These help you fight off disease. Men with different MHCs smell differently and women can smell the difference. More than that, they tend to prefer the smell of men whose MHCs complement their own. You might not be so handsome, but you’ve got just what I need.

THAT TAKES care of the stupid and the ugly. What else has science found to comfort us? We learned that beauty isn’t everything, but now comes a report that says it is everything—even aging beauty.

“You’d think that men would always go for 20-year-olds, but they don’t,” says evolutionary psychologist George Fieldman of Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College. “Men prefer attractiveness over youthfulness when selecting a long-term partner.”

Men have always been thought to go for quantity over quality, while women tend to go for the best-quality mate. Fieldman has shown that men choose, too. They go for the woman they see as the most attractive, even if she’s twice as old.

    – Nov. 5, 2003 

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