HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Less Love for "Ugly" Children

The New YorkTimes science page has an article on a recent study by several researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton who studied how parents interacted with their children while shopping in supermarkets.   They found that the allegedly ugly children were more neglected and allowed to engage in potentially dangerous behavior.  One researcher states an evolutionary rationale for such behavior.

Dr. W. Andrew Harrell, executive director of the Population Research Laboratory at the University of Alberta and the leader of the research team, sees an evolutionary reason for the findings: pretty children, he says, represent the best genetic legacy, and therefore they get more care.

Fortunately some other experts disagreed with this rationale:

Not all experts agree. Dr. Frans de Waal, a professor of psychology at Emory University, said he was skeptical.

"The question," he said, "is whether ugly people have fewer offspring than handsome people. I doubt it very much. If the number of offspring are the same for these two categories, there's absolutely no evolutionary reason for parents to invest less in ugly kids."

Dr. Robert Sternberg, professor of psychology and education at Yale, said he saw problems in Dr. Harrell's method and conclusions, for example, not considering socioeconomic status.

"Wealthier parents can feed, clothe and take care of their children better due to greater resources," Dr. Sternberg said, possibly making them more attractive. "The link to evolutionary theory is speculative."

Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, has some further comment on this study in her column today.   I find studies that proclaim that physically attractive people receive more benefits from love to money rather repugnant, even if they do turn out to be true someday.  If we are hardwired evolutionarily to prefer physically attractive individuals, then perhaps I could be persuaded to favor some sort of genetic engineering to remove that from our wiring - it seems to be a very ugly trait that leads to undesirable behavior. 

On a separate note, I must admit that I don't think the study proves very much other than parents may sometimes be more lax than they should be when taking care of their children.  Luke, age 2, now likes to play with the seatbelt in the cart - taking it on and off.  So, I am one of those parents whose child is not always strapped into the cart securely.  That said, I happen to think that he is quite the cutie (and I say that as a parent who looks nothing like her child) and love him very much.  I even love him and find him adorable looking when, as a result of crying fits during a haircut, he ends up with a crooked bowl cut which is decidedly unfashionable. [bm]

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