A Tale of Bizarre Biological Research

From time to time we see reports of research we regard as ridiculous. Most often it’s done by sociologists, but this time it was biologists. The story is in PhysOrg: ‘Evolutionary fitness’ key in determining why some females more physically attractive than others. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

Scientists from the University of Aberdeen have been working as part of an international collaboration co-ordinated by the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing to try and discover why there is a link between body fatness and perceived physical attractiveness.

Of all the questions that require investigation, few are more important than why svelte is more attractive than tubby. We’re told:

The study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation of China and involved researchers from 10 different institutions around the world, was published today (August 25) in the journal PeerJ.

That journal was started three years ago. Here’s a link to the paper: The relationship of female physical attractiveness to body fatness. You don’t need a subscription to read it online. Let’s stay with PhysOrg:

One idea about how we rate physical attractiveness is based on the impact that different aspects of our bodies (like body fatness) have on evolutionary fitness. For example, we know that above a certain body fatness females have greater risks of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, and lower fertility, which might make fatter subjects less attractive. On the other hand, in the past fatter people might have had greater abilities to survive famines, making fatness more attractive. This might suggest there is an optimum level of fatness that is maximally attractive which is somewhere in between.

This is a problem that has puzzled scientists for millennia. We continue:

The study was coordinated by Professor John Speakman, of the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing and the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Professor Speakman explains: “Fitness in evolutionary terms comprises two things: survival and the ability to reproduce. What we wanted to investigate was the idea that when we look at someone and think they are physically attractive, are we actually making that assessment based on a hard-wired evolutionary understanding of their potential for future survival and reproductive ability?

Brilliant question: “When we look at someone and think they are physically attractive,” what are we really thinking? Here’s more:

To test their idea, the scientists built a mathematical model which combined the relationships between levels of obesity and the future risk of mortality from all causes, and the relationship between obesity and the future possibility of having children. This model predicted that people would perceive females with a body mass index (BMI) of between 24 and 24.8 as being the most physically attractive.

Researchers then tested the prediction on more than 1,300 people, both males and females, from the UK and nine other countries. Participants were shown 21 image cards showing females with different levels of body fatness and were asked to reorder them from least to most attractive.

They tested their mathematical model. This is really great research! What did they discover? We’re told:

In all the populations, males and females rated physical attractiveness of the female images very similarly. The very thinnest images with body mass index of around 19 were rated as most attractive. As fatness increased above that value, the less attractive they were rated. This contrasted the predictions of the mathematical ‘fitness’ model that there should be a peak in attractiveness around a BMI of 24 to 24.8.

Egad — their math model was wrong! Why? Moving along:

The reason for the discrepancy was revealed when subjects were asked how old they thought the people in the images were. In this exercise they judged that the fatter people were older. Age is itself a strong indicator of evolutionary fitness. When the age factor was included into the model the optimum fatness fell to a BMI somewhere between 17 and 20 – corresponding exactly to the images people found to be most attractive.

Amazing! What did the scientists learn from this? Here it comes:

This suggests that we find thinness in females so attractive because we equate it with youth – a BMI of 17-20 corresponds to the average BMI of a young 18-20 year old with maximal fertility and minimal risk of future disease. This was to be consistent across European, African and Asian test groups. Historical exposure to famine does not appear to have been an important factor driving the link between fatness and attractiveness.

We’re shocked — shocked! — that a woman’s ability to withstand famine isn’t a factor when men make judgments about attractiveness. We won’t make that mistake again! And we are pleased to have told you about this vital research.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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14 responses to “A Tale of Bizarre Biological Research

  1. To be honest, this seems like a perfectly reasonable piece of research to me. With all due respect, I don’t know what you’re beefing about.

  2. realthog says: “I don’t know what you’re beefing about.”

    With all the projects competing for funding, this one seems a bit trivial. But it looks like they got the right result.

  3. Physical beauty is a nice serendipity but the person who selects a spouse or other long time partner on that basis is in for problems in the long run. Beauty is fleeting; intelligence and the other personality characteristics are necessary for a long term successful relationship and they are stable over time. Yeah, beauty works for one night stands but I for one didn’t find short term affairs as satisfying as my decades long marriage with a brilliant woman.

  4. Alfred Etheredge

    Cynic tell the truth- she watched while you wrote that.

  5. Mike Elzinga

    I see a potential Ig Nobel Prize here.

  6. It seems the study only took into account BMI. But what about facial characteristics? A pretty face on a slightly plump figure would seem to trump an ugly anorexic.

    And why did they look only at feminine attractiveness? What physical traits in a man do women find more attractive? When it comes to mating, women are known to be much more choosy than guys, who are notorious for (how can I put this delicately?) their propensity to mate with anyone carrying a pair of x-chromosomes.

    The study looked at the evolutionary reasons why men might be attracted to slender women, and the reasoning makes sense as far as it goes. But why are we so attracted to a pretty face on a woman or a handsome, rugged face on a man?

    The main evolutionary benefit that I can see is that if you mate with a facially attractive person, you are more likely to have attractive children, who will then grow up to be more likely to attract a mate themselves; thus, your genes have a better chance of being projected into the future.

    Which, one might argue, is the meaning of life.

  7. Dave Luckett

    Sexual selection is real. It happens. It exerts a powerful influence on the direction of evolution of any species in which it occurs. The human species is no exception. It is worth researching, and this study strikes me as valid research. Others with expertise can no doubt criticise its methodology.

    Some attention should perhaps be paid to the question of changing standards of ideal BMI in what were considered the most desirable female bodies in earlier times. There can be little doubt that these standards have changed very markedly, even since the 1950’s. One has only to look at the few remaining neolithic “venuses” to see greater changes still. The two Praxiteles Venuses represented the most perfect and desirable female bodies for the time – and both of them would be brusquely told to lose 10 to 15 kilos if they wanted to work as a model, today. The same would be true of the reigning beauties of practically any time prior to the present. I’ve heard (I don’t know how true it is) that the dress Marilyn Monroe wore in “The Seven Year Itch”, the subway grating scene, is actually a size 16.

    If it is indeed the case that female “attractiveness” now requires a markedly lower BMI than heretofore, there are implications.

  8. And nowhere in these articles or posts do I see any mention of the value of a great smile.

    A great smile can instantly change an otherwise average, or even unattractive, person into a real beauty. Such a smile helps one realize that the other person really is beautiful, regardless of their looks.

    This works for both males and females.

  9. Coyote, a great smile contributes greatly to facial attractiveness, bolstering my hypothesis above.

    Going back to the original study that was criticized by SC —
    “Researchers then tested the prediction on more than 1,300 people, both males and females, from the UK and nine other countries. Participants were shown 21 image cards showing females with different levels of body fatness and were asked to reorder them from least to most attractive.”

    If the researchers were interested in evolutionary hard-wiring for choosing a mate, why did they ask other women to rate female attractiveness?
    It seems that only men’s opinion of sexual attractiveness would matter here. I would bet 20,000 quatloos that we would get totally different results if instead of just looking at fatness, we looked instead at the overall figure, and asked men only to do the ranking. To put it very crassly, boobs and butts would win. Just ask Kim Kardashian.

    And it makes sense, evolutionarily speaking. Wide hips = easier childbirth; large breasts = healthy, well-fed infants.

  10. Olivia assures me that females will always be repelled by our Curmudgeon no matter what his BMI…

  11. Megalonyx says: “Olivia assures me that females will always be repelled by our Curmudgeon …”

    What a coincidence! She just told me that the only person she found less attractive than Megalonyx was McConaghie. She paused for a moment and then added: “Well, on second thought, compared to Megalonyx, maybe McConaghie isn’t that bad.”

  12. Our Curmudgeon reports

    What a coincidence!

    Indeed! One can even say, that’s incredible!

  13. So incredible, I somehow double posted!

    [*Voice from above*] One load of your potpourri is sufficient.

  14. Holding The Line In Florida

    When I teach Evilution I break it down into the two Darwinian categories. Natural and Sexual Selection. The way to focus attention of 7th Graders is to mention the word SEX. They might not remember anything else in my class, but the girls do remember Chris Hemsworth and Sean Connery in swimming shorts as examples of changes in male beauty and the boys remember Penelope Cruz and Ursula Andress in James Bond Bikinis as examples of female beauty! It is my most popular class.