Fame, Fortune, and ... Fitness?

Who's your daddy?
Marlon Brando fathered an astonishing 11 children.


Winning an Academy Award almost guarantees an actor more fame, money, and scripts. Now a new study adds another perk: evolutionary fitness. Actors who get the award tend to have more children than the national average, according to the analysis. One idea is that the coveted golden statue, like a male peacock's elaborate feathers, announces to all prospective mates the superiority of its owner. Although the work suffers from some shortcomings, it does offer a lesson: The reproductive lives of the rich and famous are just as constrained by basic biology as those of many other animals. "This is a clever study and a fun dataset," says Michael Ryan, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Texas in Austin.

Academy Awards are already known to correlate with life span. For example, actors who win live longer than those who go home empty-handed (ScienceNOW, 18 May 2001). So it was natural to ask whether snagging an Oscar also confers reproductive fitness, says Mark Hauber, a behavioral ecologist at New Zealand's University of Auckland, and an avid watcher of the telecast.

Rolling up his sleeves, Hauber dug into the demographics on 59 actresses and 37 actors, including their ages, number of legal spouses and biological children, and Academy Awards (in the lead and/or supporting role) between 1929 and 2001. He found that male Academy winners have an average of almost four children, with Marlon Brando holding the record of 11 children. In comparison, ordinary Joes in the U.S. have just 1.2 kids on average. "It was surprising to me," Hauber says. Why might male actors do so much better? Hauber speculates that the award might be an "honest signal" of quality to potential mates.

The idea has been hit by some rotten tomatoes. "The concept that an academy award is 'an honest signal' is a startlingly unfounded assertion," says Mike Wade of the Indiana University, Bloomington. He notes that the "honesty" of the signal is tainted from the outset by "the immense political and social machinery mobilized by the movie studios to promote their products" and because actors often receive Oscars for "conspicuous dissembling"--that is there's an immense gulf between what they're honored for portraying on the screen and what their own lives are like. "It's hardly an honest signal," he says. Moreover, argues Wade, Hauber didn't control for potential confounding factors, such as comparing award winners with those who just got nominated. University of Texas's Ryan prefers two of Hauber's other explanations: Oscars may end up in the hands of people who already have the traits that are appealing to mates. Or, once you have an Oscar, you have more money and time for children.

The study, which appears in the May Journal of Ethology, also found that women with Oscars are only slightly more fecund than the rest of us, having 1.5 children--even though many of the actresses divorced and remarried several times. It's via just such serial monogamy that the male winners have achieved their extra offspring; but in women, there is no such benefit. That's because a male's success is limited only by the number of mates he can attract, whereas a female's success is constrained by the energy and time involved in reproducing.

Hauber says he's more than willing to expand his study with fieldwork at Hollywood's biggest event. "I would be delighted to accept an invitation and the offer of a Hugo Boss or Armani black tie dinner jacket to attend in."

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