Indrikis Krams, a visiting professor at the University of Tartu took pictures of 74 young Latvian men, evaluated their physiques, and came to the conclusion that women see men with stronger immune systems as more attractive.
Wiry, soft-spoken, and slightly weary-eyed animal ecologist Indrikis Krams has come to Tartu from Daugavpils University. He is pondering the enigma of Brad Pitt.
“Brad Pitt – his face is absolutely average. I’ve seen faces just like that in the street all the time. It’s really nothing special!” Thanks to films, the veteran cover boy is well known. But if we consider his genes, or more precisely, the strength of his organism, he’s probably not exactly an alpha male.
Such a provocative claim, deadly to the ideals of Cosmopolitan et al., is made possible thanks to a study that will soon be published in a reputable journal called Nature Communications. The study concludes that when evaluating the attractiveness of men, women really “measure” their immune systems, or the gene quality of a possible father to their children.
“You can have quite an appealing face,” Krams explains. “But if your immune system is lacking, it’s actually written in your face. Women will perceive it right away, in 7–8 seconds.”
The handicap principle
The deeper motivation behind such “first sights” had already bothered Charles Darwin.
Female animals are attracted by markers that seem evolutionarily rather clumsy, such as horns, excessively striking plumage, and vain or dominating behaviour. How come?
In the 1970s, Israeli biologist Amotz Zahavi proposed the handicap principle, which postulates that while retaining many evolutionarily “costly” attributes, males expose the worth of their genes.
But parallels to human society are not limited to the choice of partners. For example, research has shown that of the cadets that studied at West Point in the 1950s, those that had better careers not only showed high intelligence but more naturally dominating features, too, such as stronger jawlines, etc. In other words, they displayed genes that were obviously more “male.”
But such genes don’t come without a price. The development of “male” attributes, as well as impulsive “male behaviour,” is sustained by testosterone. Its production exhausts the cells that control it, so the body’s defense system is compromised. Thus, when depending on their masculinity, men actually wreck their bodies.
“Maybe that’s the reason why many men have a shorter lifespan than women,” Krams hypothesises. “It’s like cars when they have their engines running really fast. Men want to be like turbo compressors!”
And only the men with really, really good genes can sustain being “turbo compressors.” Their testosterone is high and appearance attractive – without the body wrecking itself. For the first time, Krams’ research group was able show in a more direct way that this is the nuance that women can recognise straightaway, at first sight.
“Some other guy might look pretty good – but hard physical or mental work would bring him down,” Krams explains. “His genes are weaker.”
74 young Latvian men were injected with hepatitis B vaccine, which constitutes an attack on the immune system. The headshots of the boys were arrayed according to the resistance abilities of their bodies, and then shown to more than a hundred female students.
The result was that the vaccine caused stronger immunity to hepatitis B in men that were taller and more slender. These are the qualities that were used by the ladies – without knowing anything about the men’s immunity properties – when selecting “more handsome” guys.
“A woman’s first sight is actually really deep. A lot of parameters are perceived at once. It’s not simply about ‘attraction.'”
Still, only a few of these young men seemed to have truly excellent genes, resulting in really strong immunity and the highest grades by the ladies. On the other hand, amongst the owners of strong immune systems there were many that were considered to be “repulsive” on the outside.
Krams mentions a conference in which a Swiss professor even condoled with him about what a pity it was that young Latvian men were so ugly! “I said that it was a common disease when it comes to men: For some reason, we think that we look really attractive!”
Attractive vs. popular
Then again, Krams laughs whilst talking about his intelligent friend from Israel who is “Really very unattractive!” but still extremely popular with the ladies. The said Israeli friend thinks that a man doesn’t need much more in the appearance department than “just a little more than an orangutan has.”
“There must be some truth to it,” Krams says. “More masculine faces deliver a signal about the man’s quality, his health and ability to fight diseases. But quite often faces like that are not very attractive.”
Still, it doesn’t all mean that those with meeker faces are in such a bad position.
His evolutionary “deficit” – a lower level of testosterone – makes him more careful, but also more empathetic, and probably more analytical, too.
“One can guess that he wouldn’t leave his woman and child,” Krams ponders. “He cannot afford this – while overtly masculine men always know that they have a chance with others.” But they also know that the level of testosterone decreases with age, and that means that the attraction shrinks, too.
When it comes to having offspring, men have become gradually more thoughtful during the last hundred years or so. But the genetic “turbo compressor” with its origin in the stone age – driving men to make the number of partners as great as possible – is still there.
“Getting offspring and sex have been separated.” According to Krams, it’s quite possible that the entire way in which humans evaluate and choose partners is changing in a critical way.
In developed countries, more and more women have children without the father in sight. In such cases, “better genes” are probably sought after as donors. “Take Sweden, for example,” he discusses. “The women can raise their kids without fathers. They have enough money and the society is safe. There’s no need for a father.”
Where does it lead? There’s an idea that the sons of Swedish single mothers must develop to be noticeably masculine and attractive more quickly than in places where fatherly care is still sorely needed.
Last but not least, the 74 young Latvian men were also questioned by the scientists about the number of sexual partners they’d had and their experiences with prostitutes. It turned out that the boys with weaker immunity had visited brothels more often, and seemed to answer with blatant lies when asked about their partners thus far.
“I looked at some of them and asked: ‘Give an honest answer, please! How many partners?'” Indrikis Krams seemed really amused. “Some of them reduced their numbers by tenfold!” This seems to be a kind of compensation mechanism that guys with strong immune systems (and attractive looks) just don’t have. They don’t need it.
The Estonian version of this story first appeared in the Estonian weekly magazine “Eesti Ekspress.”
See also: Why Do Women Outlive Men? by Peeter Hõrak, UT Professor in the Physiological Ecology of Animals.
Rantala MJ, Moore FR, Skrinda I, Krama T, Kivleniece I, Kecko S, & Krams I (2012). Evidence for the stress-linked immunocompetence handicap hypothesis in humans. Nature communications, 3 PMID: 22353724