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Bering in Mind

Bering in Mind

A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior

Getting a Little Racy: On Black Beauty, Evolution and the Science of Interracial Sex

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A few weeks ago, Satoshi Kanazawa, a blogger at Psychology Today who was already notorious for his dubious claims about racial differences, especially with respect to intelligence, proclaimed on the basis of a bizarre data analysis that Black women are “objectively” the least attractive females of all the races. Objectively, mind you, which implies that it’s a matter of fact rather than his personal taste. Kanazawa, a Reader in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics (and not, incidentally, a psychologist, though he refers to himself—much to that discipline’s chagrin—as an evolutionary psychologist) and presently a visiting scholar at Cornell, scratched his head over these results. “ The only thing I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women,” explains Kanazawa, “is testosterone. Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other races, and … [w]omen with higher levels have more masculine features and are therefore less physically attractive. ”

I suspect Kanazawa is already self-flagellating in a remote cave somewhere, so I won’t address the many flaws in his disarmingly indelicate approach—that’s been done without pause, and deservedly so, in many other forums already. Neither will I revisit his troubled methodology for arriving at these strange conclusions, which have since been rebuked roundly by other researchers, one who failed to replicate Kanazawa’s controversial findings. I’ll simply say that, even if you are a racist, you must accept that Kanazawa’s assertion that attractiveness is measurable as an “objective” quality is erroneous.

The old saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is not just your worldly aunt’s favorite euphemism—it also happens to be true. My dog, Gulliver, and I, for instance, would probably have trouble getting on the same page about which is more attractive—that demure, two-year-old bitch down the road with an immaculate pedigree, or the airbrushed twenty-four-year-old-coed on this month’s cover of Playboy. To declare that one of us is “right” and the other “wrong” exposes the evolutionary error in trying to classify attractiveness in objective terms. It doesn’t matter how handsome he is—and he is quite handsome, I should say—but if Gulliver preferred supermodels to Shih Tzus, this wouldn’t be a very wise strategy from the mindless perspective of his genes. Likewise, and although there are more zoophiles out there than you may be aware, a heterosexual man of my age that finds canines in heat decidedly more attractive than fashion-industry supermodels would also run into severe problems in perpetuating his genes. I realize no female from any species would be sexually appealing to me, but that’s beside the point, just as is Gulliver’s status as a eunuch. Incidentally, Kanazawa also once crunched the numbers to conclude that gay men are uglier than straight men. (He’s obviously never heard of Bel Ami.)

Now, when it comes to “race”—a deeply flawed concept and term, since there are only minor heritable differences between human groups and these negligible differences reflect a fairly recent history of reproductive isolation—America and many other Western nations have shamefully demeaned, enslaved and oppressed non-Whites for centuries. But remember, centuries are fractions of milliseconds on Darwin’s clock, and whichever epidermal color has the upper hand today wouldn’t necessarily have it that way in another place and time. In fact, the deck of natural selection would have been stacked heavily against the melanin-impoverished people in sun-baked, southern Africa for a long time after our species’ initial appearance on the human stage there. For our African ancestors to have found someone of lighter skin (and lighter hair and eyes) more attractive than someone with a comparatively darker complexion may not have been as catastrophic as their being attracted to members of another species, but it still would have been a rather unhealthy strategy in terms of their overall genetic success. The paler one is, after all, the more susceptible he or she is to developing deadly melanomas and other skin-related ailments due to everyday sun exposure, and this is especially true for people living close to the Equator, where photoprotection has always been—at least since humans lost their fur—vitally important for survival.

Interracial dating is a mating scenario, however, that our ancestors simply would never have encountered. Cases of albinism in ancient Africa would have occurred just as they do today, but they wouldn’t have been frequent enough to significantly alter the gene pool. Furthermore, these albinos would have run an extremely high risk of developing skin cancer; and African albinos today face horrible social obstacles and are severely ostracized—unspeakably so, in many nations. But the critical point here is this: the phenomenon of very light and very dark people coexisting in a single geographic space is an evolutionarily novel development for our species.

This is because variations in skin color reflect many millennia of unobservable changes occurring within geographically circumscribed human populations, changes resulting from our species’ slow and partial migration out of Africa and its subsequent settlement and adaptation northward into the chillier, foreign terrain of Asia and Europe. Among other physical changes, the selection pressure for darker skin relaxed under those gloomy Baltic skies; there’s even evidence that nature began to instead favor genetic variants of pale skin in the lowest solar-radiating conditions, since reduced melanin levels actually promoted Vitamin D-absorption during those long, bleak winter months. Having lived in Northern Ireland for the last five years, I can assure you of two things: the sun is a rare sight in Belfast, and Black people rarer. (Probably as rare as a ginger Irishman in Zimbabwe.)

But back to attractiveness, if we insist on discussing race and beauty in evolutionary terms, it’s critical to understand that our perceptions are moulded not only by natural selection at the species level, but also at the individual level with our unique experiences, such as early erotic encounters, cultural ideals communicated to us through media, interactions with family and friends, and so on. This doesn’t mean that culture fills our big, blank-slate brains with invented notions of beauty willy-nilly; it clearly operates within a constrained evolutionary framework. For example, it’s an empirical question, but I suspect if you raised a kid on a desert island and inundated him with sexualized images and positive attitudes regarding a newly idealized female form—say, women with primordial dwarfism or ladies in their eighties—with men lusting over these females and women clambering to the salons to look just like them, the child would become a “sexual deviant” as an adult, preferring females of average height and somewhat younger women. In other words, yes, culture plays an obvious and important role in defining idealized beauty for people in a given society, but there are also obvious, evolutionarily defined limits to its powers of suggestion.

When it comes to skin color and the societal friction that characterizes race relations, the most plausible evolutionary account is that we consciously or unconsciously exploit this surface cue as a way to rapidly demarcate ingroup and outgroup members. It is abundantly clear that, since time immemorial, human societies have waged wars and been in conflict with other neighboring groups competing for the same limited resources. In the ancestral past, even the slightest physical, behavioral, or linguistic difference between camps would have served as a heuristic to help determine who was “one of us” and who was “one of them.” Again, evolutionarily, people of different skin colors would not have come into contact in the same geographic space (the divergent evolution of melanin-producing cells between human populations meant that, for the vast majority of our ancestral history, our ancestors would have never seen or known of another person with a skin color dramatically different from their own), other signals included accents and dialects, customs, gaits, fashion styles, and so on. In Northern Ireland, racism is subtly exuded by people trying to suss out the Protestant versus Catholic countenance of surnames, neighborhoods, word pronunciations, and facial features. One of the most startling pieces of evidence demonstrating the innateness of ingroup favoritism, reported a few years ago by psychologist Katherine Kinzler of the University of Chicago, is that, regardless of their nationality, ten-month-old infants actually shun adult playmates with foreign accents and prefer to interact with native speakers.

So it’s only in recent centuries, when the human animal found itself rather suddenly face-to-face with those of an entirely different hue, that this especially salient cue triggered our species’ more general pre-existing mechanism for ingroup- and outgroup-member demarcation. Being “color blind” is a beautiful idea, but unfortunately our retinas are sensitive to light of different wavelengths, and our visual systems cannot help but to process the color of people’s skin. My little eight-year-old nephew, Gianni, who lives in a fairly rural area in Ohio that is disadvantaged of ethnic diversity and multiculturalism, was telling me the other day about “this black girl” at school whom he was quite fond of. My sister, listening in, corrected him, noting that the girl was, in fact, Indian. “Fine,” he started over, “this brown girl …” (To which I gave him an emergency lesson in the etiquette of racial discourse). He’s clumsy with his politically correct language, granted, but he’s also quite smitten with this girl, which I see as a very positive sign for his future race relations—and love life.

Actually, many sociologists believe that the best barometer of a society’s race relations lies in its practices regarding interracial romantic relationships. And on this note, the dynamics between Blacks and Whites are still embarrassingly rocky here in the U.S. In an article published last year in the Journal of Black Studies, Richard Lewis and Joanne Ford-Robertson of the University of Texas reviewed the interracial marriage trends between the years 1980 and 2006. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, these authors found that, although the percentage of interracial marriages rose significantly over this twenty-six-year period, from 3% of all marriages in the US in 1980 to approximately 8% in 2006, this change is owed primarily to increases in the frequency of legal unions between Hispanics and non-Hispanics.

“It is interesting to note,” write Lewis and Ford-Robertson:

… that the percentage of interracial marriages not involving a Black spouse has increased from 69% of all interracial unions to nearly 78% over the investigation period. During the same period, the percentage associated with Black/White marriages made up 26% of all interracial marriages in 1980, and they declined to less than 18% by 2006. [italics added]

Even after accounting for changes in racial composition of the population, the least common of all the many different possible configurations of interracial marriages were those that included an African-American partner. Precisely why Blacks are not intermarrying with other races more frequently remains the subject of considerable controversy. Although public attitudes regarding interracial relationships have been on the upswing ever since 1967, when the Supreme Court struck down the last sickly anti-miscegenation laws, and such relationships are now perfectly legal, Black-White relationships, especially, are still extraordinarily rare in our society.

When they do occur, it’s much more often a Black men with a White woman, rather than the reverse. This pattern is often interpreted within a sociological theory of “upward mobility”—as a strategic means for Black men to obtain status in an implicitly color-graded society such as the US. Numerous investigators have examined the many difficulties encountered by those in interracial relationships, challenges stemming from nasty racial stereotypes involving sexuality, hostile societal attitudes, and disapproval by family and friends. Hunter College sociologist Erica Chito Childs, for example, went more than skin-deep in her analysis of many Black women’s disdain for Black men seeing White women. “For single young women,” writes Childs, “a Black man’s choice to be with a White woman is seen as a specific betrayal of Black women because the decision to date interracially does not mean just choosing White women but also rejecting Black women.”

Childs cites several young "angry Black women" and their thoughts about interracial relationships:

* “Blacks just like to see other Blacks, especially Black men who are successful, to stay Black, to be with a Black woman … It’s just about respecting and applauding those who don’t go interracial.”

* “I don’t know how or why someone could ever get over the racism of Whites to date a White person.”

* “As a Black woman, it is difficult enough to have to deal with Whites who [act] as if [Black] is inferior, but it is even harder to have your own men act like White is better and systematically choose White women over you; it is hard not to get angry because it feels as if no one values your worth as a woman.”

Certainly, the terrible residue of the embattled relationship between Blacks and Whites in this country, when combined with the evolutionary factors described previously, remains a major hurdle—indeed, our strained past may well be the main obstacle in our moving beyond the staid, monochromatic dating economy as it’s reflected in the census data. Still, there are also many legitimate biological questions—not only sociological ones, though they’re of course central to these discussions—that do remain. Many social scientists, for instance, believe that the “I’m just not attracted to those of other races” defense is only a thinly veiled form of symbolic racism. Yet it also seems plausible to me that, racist or not, this comment does in fact represent many people’s true sexual arousal patterns.

That humans tend to be homogamous creatures—orienting romantically and sexually toward prospective partners who resemble us physically—is well-established in social psychology. Ask yourself this: When you look at porn—and I’m talking to you, grandmotherly readers of Scientific American—do you stick with your own race, or do you prefer another? There are certainly individual differences in this regard. I, for one, find myself hideous and prefer those who look the least like me as possible. My partner, Juan, is Mexican. Actually, I’ve never thought of it quite this way before, but I can count the number of men I’ve been with on one hand; each digit, starting with my thumb, represents an Asian, an Indian, an African American and a Latino. We’ll save my pinkie finger for that White gentleman from Cambridge.

But I’m an anomaly. One study by Hungarian psychologist Tamas Bereczkei and his colleagues even found that, when their parents’ faces were morphed unknowingly with that of a stranger’s, people judged the morphed image as being significantly more attractive than the face of the stranger alone. For women, the more emotionally supportive the father had been in her childhood, the stronger her attraction to adult males that physically resembled him. Especially interesting was the fact that adult females who’d been adopted in early childhood showed this effect for their adopted father, which led the authors to posit a model of sexual imprinting occurring during early development. “These results,” reason the authors, “suggest that mate choice depends on physical and emotional exposure to the opposite-sex parent, as the sexual imprinting model predicts. In accordance with this theory, individuals shape a mental model of their opposite-sex parent’s appearance and search for a partner who possesses certain traits.” Given that so many American children, of so many races, have such minimal—if any—positive interactions with adults of other races, it’s not terribly difficult to extrapolate Bereczkei’s sexual imprinting model to the pathetic interracial marriage statistics we see today.

Unfortunately, because it’s such an incendiary and emotionally laden topic, and because egregious missteps by sensationalists such as Satoshi Kanazawa frighten off those who might conduct controlled, rigorous studies that are informed by genuine curiosity rather than racism (that is possible, of course), we know nothing—absolutely nothing, zilch, nada—about the development of people’s sexual attraction to those of other races, how this connects to contemporary race relations in the US, and least of all how these factors can be understood within an evolutionary framework.

Image: from This Next

About The Author: Want more Bering in Mind? Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBering, visit www.jessebering.com, or friend Jesse on Facebook. Jesse is the author of newly released book, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny and the Meaning of Life (W. W. Norton).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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