What makes people attractive is not arbitrary. All over the world, people find the same things attractive in potential mates: kindness, symmetrical bodies, smooth skin, humour, fitness; and all over the world the same things are considered unattractive: cruelty, asymmetry, misery, disease. The reason for this is that humans have evolved to be very discerning when it comes to picking mates. If a man is going to spend much or perhaps all of the rest of his life in the company of one woman, and bring up the children produced by this union, then heíd better be able to tell a good woman from a bad one. We find cues to good health, such as smooth skin and symmetry, attractive, because we are the descendants of people who also liked these things, and these ancestors did better than their rivals who liked other things.
Humans are very good at judging each other. It is an important skill. We can tell in one sixth of a secondís glimpse of a strangerís face, if they are good looking or not. We can measure the body mass index of someone with astonishing accuracy. Without being taught, we can put together a host of clues to build up a picture of someoneís true self and true worth. We notice whether someone is breathless after a few flights of stair-climbing, exactly how funny they are able to be in a conversation, what good taste they have in clothes and furniture, how truthful they are, and countless other things. Women find themselves passionately attracted to men who just happen to be rich, and men fall head over heels in love with the charming personalities of women who just happen to be beautiful.
Why then, are people not put off when they learn that a potential mateís parents died young?
Imagine the scene: a man meets a lovely woman. He finds out that they have a lot in common. She lives not far from him, so he will be able to see her often. They get chatting and hit it off immediately. During the conversation, each is trying to find out as much as possible about the other. In the space of a couple of hours, they have a very good idea of how compatible they would be as lovers. He observes the way she holds her cup of tea, judges the sound of her laugh, her accent, her knowledge of nineteenth century Russian literature, and wonders about the scar on her left hand. He then learns that both the womanís parents died when they were in their early forties, and that they both died of ill health, which wasnít helped by the fact that they both smoked heavily.
At this point, does the man feel more attracted to the woman, or less? That he might feel sorry for her is one thing, but a separate thing. I suggest to you that he may if anything be more attracted to her, knowing that the awkward hurdle of dealing with the in-laws is already dealt with. She does not become ugly in his eyes. The fact that she has read some of the same Russian books counts for more than the death of her parents.
But I wrote above that humans are very good at judging each other. That a personís parents both died so young and in bad health, and that this was partly their own fault for smoking, must surely count against the woman. She has inherited her parentsí genes, and these genes in her parents coded for ill-health and stupidity. The death of her parents is a clue to her being a bad choice of mate. Arguing that out of sight is out of mind does not solve the problem. True, the man cannot see the dead parents, but similarly a woman cannot see the inheritance that a man is due to get when his wealthy aristocratic father pops his clogs, but on learning of this future inheritance, the son in her eyes suddenly becomes twice as charming and his less-than-handsome appearance becomes characterful or roguish, or some other endearing excuse.
We must remember that in the Pleistocene, the time when humans evolved, mortality would have been higher than it is today. Many parents would have died in hunting accidents or any of a thousand other things when they were not old, and an adult of marriageable age, who had no living parents, would not have been very rare. Since it would have been more common to be an orphan, it would be less rational then to be put off someone because they were an orphan.
Infant mortality would have been greater too. The difference here would probably be greater than the difference in adult mortality. That a woman exists tells an observer that her parents must have been fit and healthy enough to become adults themselves, then parents, and to bring her up enough for her to survive into adulthood. We know for certain that her parents met those basic requirements. It is possible that those parents had several children, and that she is the only survivor of the lot. Again, that a woman had several siblings, all of whom died, is a clue to her being a bad specimen.
Assuming an average amount of luck, then if a couple has four children, one of those four children will have inherited a higher proportion of bad genes than were possessed by either parent. The father would have had good genes and bad genes in him, so too the mother. One of the four children will, on average, have a preponderance of bad genes from both the father and the mother, and will be a bad specimen, worse than both parents. Two of the four will inherit about the same proportion of bad genes and good genes as were possessed by either parent, and one lucky one of the four will get a preponderance of good genes from both parents. In other words, typically in a four-child family, one child will be worse than both parents, one will be better than both parents (having inherited the better half of each), and two will be about as good as the parents. If one of the four survives and is apparently lovely, then this is likely to be the best of the bunch. The worst specimen will have done the species a favour by dying and removing the bad genes from the gene pool. The best one will be a particularly good mate.
So, on meeting the woman, and learning about her interest in Dostoyevsky, and listening to her musical laugh, the man is probably observing a woman who, in Pleistocene conditions at least, was at least as good as her parents, who were at least up to the task of surviving and reproducing, and who is quite possibly better than both her parents.
What matters, so far as the quality of the woman is concerned, is the quality of her genes. It could be that both her parents were in fact excellent specimens, but that nurture, not Nature, killed them. People used to smoke more in those days, so the smoking could be put down to cultural causes no longer relevant (true, it could be that they were genetically prone to suffering more than most from smoking, but as long as their daughter doesnít smoke, this doesnít matter). In the Pleistocene, the unfairness that is real life must have killed many promising parents. Many an excellent hunter must have died thanks to the stupid incompetence of the fool next to him who disturbed a hornetsí nest, just when they were a few feet from the sabretooth. Many a charming and vigorous woman must have perished by being in the wrong place when the boulder fell. Many a loving couple possessed of every virtue under the sun, must have been murdered by jealous rivals.
I believe that the answer to this puzzle is simple. I have already outlined a few factors, but I think that the real main part of the answer lies in the simple fact that nurture is comparatively unreliable, and Nature is more consistent. We value reliable cues more than unreliable ones. A woman is more convinced that a man is wealthy when he takes her for the fifteenth time to the most expensive restaurant in town, than she is on hearing him say, ďIím really rich, honest. I just dress this way to blend in with the crowd.Ē
The womanís parents are dead. This could mean that they were bad specimens, but the randomness of reality means that this is only a vague clue. That the woman herself is lovely shows that Nature has been kind to her. This is a far more reliable cue, and so it out-weighs the death of her parents. If she is strong, then she must have some genes that allow her to be strong. If her parents were both weak, so what? She is still strong. She must have inherited genes that neither of her parents displayed. We each carry twice as many genes for passing on as we use to make up our own bodies, and many good genes are thus hidden in us. That she is strong is observable fact. This is worth more than any speculation as to what underlay the death of her parents.
However, that her parents both had poor health and died in their forties, does not necessarily auger well for the long term. Perhaps this woman has inherited genes which make her an excellent twenty-year old, but which will make her a very poor forty-year old. Well, all the above points I have already made count against this, and I would add that marriages in the Pleistocene might often have been shorter than is expected by people marrying today. A woman would probably have started breeding younger than her career-oriented modern counterparts, and she would just have to live long enough to see the child past the dangerous stages of early childhood. A sexy fertile twenty-year old would have been a good bet. Even if she did die at forty, her oldest child would be twenty, and she is quite likely to have children of eighteen, sixteen and fourteen. The present mattered more than the future in the Pleistocene. General ill health and weakness would have carried off very few forty-year olds in the Pleistocene. If they were strong enough to make it to forty, then they would probably have been able to make it to seventy, barring accidents that could kill anyone. Amongst hunter-gatherer populations today, there are many old folk, far more than amongst primitive farmers.
This is why I still think you are lovely even though you mother is dead. My genes programme me to find your loveliness lovely, and to ignore the death of your parents, save perhaps as an opportunity to show just the right amount of pity and empathy.
Written by Nikolas Lloyd