Age, Sex, Looks, and Attraction: A Puzzle for Evolutionary Psychology
By Bryan Caplan
I finally read Robert Wright’s modern classic The Moral Animal. I’ve got lots to say, but let me start with a simple puzzle I never noticed before. Evolutionary psychology has a simple explanation for why men value women’s youth far more than the reverse: Menopause. Females’ fertility declines sharply during their thirties, and largely vanishes in their forties. Males’ fertility, in contrast, declines more slowly, and does not asymptote to zero. We’re largely the descendants of men who liked young women, and woman who weren’t so picky about men’s age.
So far, so good. But this story fails to explain another key stylized fact: Conditioning on age, men care more about looks than women. Since age and looks are strongly negatively correlated for women, it’s easy to treat age and looks as a single package. But they’re distinct. A person can look very young and very ugly at the same time. So why do men care so much about how women look, strongly preferring a beautiful 25-year-old to a plain 25-year-old?
Before you answer, note that in many species, this pattern reverses. For lions, ducks, peacocks, and more, it’s the males who have seemingly inconvenient adornments, and the females who are plain.
What’s your explanation? Please stick to explanations consistent with evolutionary psychology.