Among the many claims to American exceptionalism, there is one that may be unique to the U.S. As far as I know, we are the only nation that introduces the children of a politician to enhance his, and now her, image. This quintessentially American PR trick is a recent one, and I must admit, it works to a certain extent. Ivanka Trump’s polished, and surprisingly positive and quite progressive, testimonial at the Republican Convention brightened a bit the mental image I had of The Donald. Unfortunately, this only lasted a few minutes, when the man she described as her warm and fuzzy dad transmogrified into a dark and menacing prophet of doom and gloom, making the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada a cheery character by comparison. Chelsea Clinton’s engaging portrayal of Hillary as a warm and loving mother and grandmother succeeded in softening the image often painted of her as a cold and calculating politician. But, how long will that last? Probably only until the next inquisitive journalist brings up those damn emails again.

 

But, can we judge parents by their children?

A more fundamental question raised by these high profile political offspring testimonials is whether we can judge parents by their children? And vice versa: Can we tell how children will turn out by observing their parents?

As I watched the Trump and Clinton children presenting their father and mother, I was reminded of a curious tendency of mine from my dating days. I had a tendency to see my girlfriend de jour in the image of her mother. So that’s what she is going to look like 20 years from now. All of a sudden this vivacious and athletic girl morphed into a waddling obese woman—a devastating blow to a budding young love. I don’t think I ever told anybody about this unfortunate affliction of mine, until a week ago, when a friend of mine told me that he did the same thing, and so did his friends. In short, everybody was doing it—or, at least, that’s what it seemed like! My friend and I laughed it off, but it got me thinking: Why were we doing it? Is there a deeper meaning to it than just an adolescent behavioral quirk?

 

Sexual selection

When we think of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, we usually equate it with increased fitness to survive in a hostile environment. Our brains evolved a system of ‘fight or flight’ to deal with such circumstances. But Darwin, in his wisdom, saw that such an adaptation to a constantly menacing Hobbsian (or Trumpian) world doesn’t explain everything. Why does a peacock strut around displaying his beautifully ridiculous tail? Doesn’t he ‘know’ that lugging a cumbersome tail, however colorful, makes him sluggish, and an easier target for predators? What was the advantage that must have outweighed the obvious disadvantage?

“The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail,” Charles Darwin wrote in 1860, “makes me sick.” Why would he have such a visceral reaction to the gaudy display? Because the gaudy plumage did not fit with his theory of natural selection, in which traits that help to secure survival are passed on. He got over his nausea when he realized that there is another type of selection—sexual selection,in which ostensibly useless traits can evolve when they are preferred by picky females. But, of course, the number of eyespots in the plumage must signify something more than just ‘Wow, what a dude’. Indeed, French scientists found that males with lots of eyespots had stronger immune systems than less showy males, suggesting that the trait is an indicator of a male’s fitness. Later investigations found that the case of the gaudy peacock tail is a bit more nuanced. Like other things in life, size matters…but only up to a point. Above a certain level, the number of eyespots does not add an extra sexual advantage.

 

What about us?

Of course, I can think of the human equivalent to the peacock strutting in front of his peahen in all his glory, trying to impress her. But this is not quite the same as the politicians using their kids to enhance their own image. After all, when a gorilla silverback eyes an attractive young female, he goes straight for her, not her mother.

Pavol Prokop, a biologist at Trnava University in Slovakia, makes his living studying sexual attraction and mate selection. In a cool experiment, he asked a set of 260 female volunteers to rate the attractiveness of a series of men who had previously been deemed either attractive or unattractive by a separate set of female volunteers. Then, photos of their men’s faces were placed alongside photos of boys’ faces (both attractive and unattractive ones). The volunteers were informed either that the pair depicted was a real-life father and son, or a stepfather and son; in reality, none of the men and boys pictured were related.

On average, when a man was placed next to what participants believed was his handsome son, his own perceived attractiveness tended to rise—an effect even more pronounced among the unattractive men. The effect, however, disappeared when the man was identified as the stepfather of the boy, suggesting that the women may have been subconsciously adjusting their assessments based on a perceived genetic connection between the two individuals.

Of course, life cannot be replicated in the psychology lab. First, the experimental subjects were young Slovakian twenty-something students. Would older women, say in their late 30’s, select their mate the same way? Would the approaching end of their reproductive capacity influence their perception of a suitable mate? For a clue, see my previous blog. Second, how long-lasting is this effect? Can other traits of the father, possibly unattractive, trump the ‘attractive son’ effect? I, for one, was willing to see Donald in a much more positive light after Ivanka’s and Donald Jr.’s presentations. But that lasted only until their father tromped all over their glowing accounts.

The bottom line is that we are not peacocks nor are we silverbacks. Our mate selection is complex and, so far, unfathomable. But one thing is certain: Attractive offspring can help, but not when their father is an intolerant jerk.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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