In a thousand years, the human race will be a lot prettier. Women will have perky breasts and great hair, and the men will be square-jawed baritones with larger penises.
Those are the predictions of Dr. Timothy Curry, a research associate at the London School of Economics specializing in the evolution of human behavior and morality. (It should be noted Dr. Curry’s theories were prepared for Bravo, an English television channel that bills itself as “a televisual broadcaster for the modern gentleman.” Bravo’s Web site has plenty of examples of what the breasts of the future might look like.)
Moving forward one hundred thousand years, Dr. Curry predicts humans will split into two sub-species: one smart, tall and athletic, the other dim-witted, short and ugly. The driving force behind this divergence is mate selection – choosing reproductive partners on the basis of traits we find attractive.
It’s a troubling thought, perhaps more on account of shoddy science than the moral implications. Most scientists would probably agree that the public has a poor grasp of basic science and that we need to do a better job of communicating ideas and advances in a range of disciplines. Unfortunately, Dr. Curry’s thoughts on the evolution of human sexual selection seem more likely to create misconceptions than educate.
The idea that humans select partners based on their attractiveness is nothing new, but there are some key problems that need to be addressed. Dr. Curry suggests that IQ and sexy features are all that really matter in mating. Indeed, he predicts that in roughly ten millennia, our reliance on technology will make our descendants so socially inept that love will essentially cease to exist. Basic biological urges would seem to be all that matter.
Yet our attraction to the opposite sex at the most basic levels may be more unconscious and less prurient than we think. In a highly cited paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in 1995, Dr. Claus Wedekind and others provided evidence that our noses may be more important than our eyes in choosing mates. When presented with only a T-shirt a member of the opposite sex had worn for two nights, men and women were more attracted to the T-shirts of people who had an immune system different from their own. Mating with such a person would confer greater health in the resulting offspring.
As Dr. Wedekind and coauthors reported, “One substantial benefit of sexual reproduction could be that it allows animals (including humans) to react rapidly to a continuously changing environmental selection pressure such as coevolving parasites” – hardly pillow talk.
Even if we ignore emotion, our ideas of what is attractive have more to do with health and fitness than phallus size and the degree to which women are hairless from the neck down. For instance, in a world where air quality is increasingly poor and severe health consequences can result, we might expect people to select as mates those who are less affected by smog. One trait that may be selected in such a situation could be a dense thicket of nose hair to keep particles from entering our lungs combined with copious amounts of flowing mucus to flush them out.
There are plenty of ways to communicate, effectively and accurately, the principles of sexual selection to a male audience – footage of clashing rams and elk locking antlers, for example. If Dr. Curry were interested in educating the public, charismatic mammals would have been a wiser choice.
Thankfully, the scientific community has responded in a public forum. For a good response from an expert, read geneticist Steve Jones’ piece in the London Daily Telegraph. While it won’t make your IQ leap or give you chiseled abs, you will be a small bit more informed and knowledgeable of the world around you.
And some folks still think that’s an attractive trait.
Daniel Gibson-Reinemer is a fishery and wildlife biology masters student. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.