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 
  • Front.nok Hok
    GAMES DAY—Finn Molitierno (right) celebrates a goal during a game of Nok Hockey with his sister, Kyla. The two tried out a variety of games Saturday at Stair District Library’s annual International Games Day event. One of the activities featured a sort of scavenger hunt in which participants had to locate facts presented in the Smithsonian Hometown Teams exhibit. The traveling show left Morenci’s library Tuesday, wrapping up a series of programs that began Oct. 2. Additional photos are on page 7.
  • Station.2
    STRANGE STUFF—Morenci Elementary School students learn that blue isn’t really blue when seen through the right color of lens. Volunteer April Pike presents the lesson to students at one of the many stations brought to the school by the COSI science center. The theme of this year’s visit was the solar system.
  • Front.leaves
    MAPLE leaves show their fall colors in a puddle at Morenci’s Riverside Natural Area. “This was a great year for colors,” said local weather watcher George Isobar. Chilly mornings will give way to seasonable fall temperatures for the next two weeks.
  • Front.band
    MORENCI Marching Band member Brittany Dennis keeps the beat Friday during the half-time show of the Morenci/Pittsford football game. Color guard member Jordan Cordts is at the left. The band performed this season under the direction of Doyle Rodenbeck who served as Morenci’s band director in the 1970s. He’s serving as a substitute during a family leave.
  • Front.poles
    MOVING EAST—Utility workers continue their slow progress east along U.S. 20 south of Morenci. New electrical poles are put in place before wiring is moved into place.
  • Front.cowboy
    A PERFORMER named Biligbaatar, a member of the AnDa Union troupe from Inner Mongolia, dances at Stair District Library last week during a visit to the Midwest. The nine-member group blends a variety of traditions from Inner and Outer Mongolia. The music is described as drawing from “all the Mongol tribes that Genghis Khan unified.” The group considers itself music gatherers whose goal is to preserve traditional sounds of Mongolia. Biligbaatar grew up among traditional herders who live in yurts. Additional photos are on the back page of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.bear
    HOLDEN HUTCHISON gives a hug to a black bear cub—the product of a taxidermist’s skills—at the Michigan DNR’s Great Youth Jamboree. The event on Sunday marked the fourth year of the Jamboree. Additional photos are on page 12.

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