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Fossilized dinosaur eggs. (NICK UT/NICK UT/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Fossilized dinosaur eggs. (NICK UT/NICK UT/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Economy Lab

What dinosaur eggs reveal about male attractiveness Add to ...

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University, where she teaches public finance

The most recent issue of Journal of Economic Psychology contains an article by Menelaos Apostolou entitled “Why do men collect things? A case study of fossilized dinosaur eggs.”

According to Dr. Apostolou, it’s all about sex. But how does a collection of dinosaur eggs increase a man’s sexual attractiveness?

A man’s collection might not make him more attractive to women. But Dr. Apostolou argues that this is not the point. Historically, women have not chosen their own partners. As Dr. Apostolou puts it, “men have been selecting other men as spouses for their female relatives during most of human evolution.”

What do men look for in a son-in-law? According to Dr. Apostolou, “parents in general, and male parents in particular, consistently prefer as sons-in-law men with traits such as industry and working ability which are directly associated with a man’s ability to provide resources.”

So how can a would-be son-in-law prove that he is would be a good provider? Peacocks prove their reproductive fitness by growing a spectacularly beautiful – but otherwise useless – tail. Dr. Apostolou argues that a man hoping to mate should create the human equivalent of a peacock tail: a collection. Accumulating material goods shows he can obtain resources. Findings goods that are beautiful and hard to obtain shows he is capable of putting an effort into acquiring things for his spouse.

The evidence Dr. Apostolou has to support this far-fetched theory comes from fossilized dinosaur eggs.

Dr. Apostolou argues that his theory predicts: “rare items are valued more than common ones, larger items are valued more than smaller ones, and aesthetically pleasing items are valued more than unattractive ones.” Using eBay data on 177 dinosaur egg sales between May 2006 and May 2007 he finds that this is indeed the case. For example, raptor eggs, which are relatively rare, command a higher price than hadrosaur eggs.

But basic economics dictates that rare eggs will be more expensive than others -- this evidence does not prove that collecting items is motivated by a desire to prove reproductive fitness.

A more interesting prediction of Dr. Apostolou’s theory is that: “intensity of collecting behaviour will peak around the age of 20 when men are looking more vigorously for mates.” (Though Dr. Apotolou adds “the nature of collecting …mandates that the peak of a man’s collection will be when he is in his 50s or 60s.”) Also he argues, collecting behavior will be most intense when a man is looking for a mate. “If mating effort is successful, it is expected that men will reduce the channelling of resources to honest signals [collecting]and divert most of these resources to their children.”

That’s a prediction worth testing: are married men, and older men, less enthusiastic about collecting? That’s not been true in my own personal experience, but perhaps Globe and Mail readers can prove me wrong.

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