A simple implication of sexual selection is that there should be a correlation between features that attract us sexually and characteristics that make our offspring more fit. Here is an article that studies the link between physical attraction and success in sport.

The better an American football player, the more attractive he is, concludes a team led by Justin Park at the University of Bristol, UK. Park’s team had women rate the attractiveness of National Football League (NFL) quarterbacks: all were elite players, but the best were rated as more desirable.

Meanwhile, a survey of more than a thousand New Scientist Twitter followers reveals a similar trend for professional men’s tennis players.

Neither Park nor New Scientist argue that good looks promote good play. Rather, the same genetic variations could influence both traits.

“Athletic prowess may be a sexually selected trait that signals genetic quality,” Park says. So the same genetic factors that contribute to a handsome mug may also offer a slight competitive advantage to professional athletes.

Studies like this are prone to endogeneity problems because success also feeds back on physical attraction. At the extreme, we know who Roger Federer is and that gets in the way of judging his attractiveness directly. More subtly, if you show me pictures of two anonymous athletes, the one who is more successful has probably also trained better, eaten better, been raised differently and these are all endogenous characteristics that affect attractiveness directly. Knowing that they correlate with success doesn’t tell us whether “success genes” have physically attractive manifestations.

One way to improve the study would be to look at adopted children. Show subjects pictures of the athletes’ biological parents and ask the subjects to rate the attractiveness of the parents. Then correlate the responses with the performance of the children. If these children were raised by randomly selected parents (obviously that is not exactly the case) then we would be picking up the effect of exogenous sources of physical attractiveness passed on only through the genes of the parents.

And why stop with success in sport. Physical attractiveness should be correlated with intelligence, social mobility, etc.

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