The scientific case for cougars

Do older women have smarter children?

Published March 17, 2009 1:51PM (EDT)

This week New York magazine dares to ask: "Do Cougars Have Smarter Kids?" Hell yes, says Emily Nussbaum, citing a study released earlier this month. If this is news to you, it may be because the study made headlines for different reasons: It concluded that older fathers have dumber children, at least according to tests designed to measure "thinking, reasoning, concentration, memory, understanding, speaking, reading, and motor skills."  The simultaneous finding that older women have smarter kids, according to the same measures, was often buried in the second to last paragraph. Crunching the numbers, Nussbaum concludes: "The most intelligent children must be the outcome of 45-year-old career women inseminated by their 21-year-old personal trainers."

Cougars unite! No more Diane Arbus jokes at your wedding! No more cheesy photo spreads featuring poorly fitting synthetic clothing in some sort of animal print! Instead, perhaps older, established women with corner offices who mate with their underlings will be portrayed as the shrewd, yes, perhaps even altruistic women they are -- like their male colleagues across the hall seeking nubile birthing hips, these ladies are just thinking of the children. As Nussbaum writes:

At last, science has produced the case for cougars. As Madonna understands intuitively, nature clearly intends aging women -- whether married, divorced, or single; on vacation in Cancún or just killing time on line at the DMV -- to snatch up passing youths in our talons and gestate a race of supersmart children. Who themselves, I presume, will be smart enough to self-select their partners likewise, forming a superrace of egghead Demis and Ashtons, a Cleopatran paradise of trophy studs and December-May embryos. Denying this is denying biology itself, and far be it for me to deny biology!

Ah, once we start talking biology, you know the evol psych trolls are lurking nearby, just waiting to pounce. And while I would dearly love to see the outraged letters about narcissistic women who shirk their biological duty, exploit youth, etc., ad nauseam, I suppose it's time to point out that Nussbaum's piece is meant to be taken as satire.

We're not saying that the raw data doesn't hold up: The study, published in PLoS Medicine, is a reanalysis of data collected on more than 50,000 pregnant women and tests conducted on 33,437 of their children at 8 months old, 4 years old and 7 years old. Children whose fathers were 50 had lower IQ scores than those whose fathers were 20, regardless of the mother's age. Children of older women, by contrast, scored higher than their peers on the same tests.

But a few caveats: The data was collected between the years 1959 to 1965, a period when I think we can all generally agree parenting demographics were a bit different than today. At a time when the average age of marriage was 20.6, as Nussbaum points out, that 20-year-old father would have been much closer to the mainstream than he is now (and women of any age would have had to have a male co-signer for a loan).

This matters much more for mothers than for the fathers because, according to the researchers, the findings about older fathers are most likely due to biology, while they attribute the high scores of kids raised by older women to "more nurturing home environments associated with the generally higher income and education levels of older mothers." Hello, nature vs. nurture. Writes Nussbaum:

If social factors account for older mothers' big-brained kids, I'm more than a little confused about why biological ones must account for older fathers' dumber broods, but that might be because my mother foolishly had me in her twenties ... But why not jump to conclusions? We do it every time a study comes out that confirms a cultural bias in the opposite direction -- any bit of data that contributes to the portrait of women as desperate for an early sell date, while their roguish counterparts seek ever younger and more symmetrical reproductive targets. But the larger issue is that even the most nuanced scientific data tend to transform, in the popular consciousness, into "magazine science," all caveats excised in the name of that greater sociobiological theme: that men and women are the way they are because this is the way they have to be. So if there's something sickly refreshing about the bad news for older dads, let's just admit that this is more about social gamesmanship than hard facts. If Us Weekly begins to print pictures of Owen Wilson with worried captions about stale sperm, would that be so bad?

The larger point, of course, is not that we should start giving male celebrities the Jennifer Aniston treatment somewhere around their 35th birthdays, and certainly not that we shouldn't take the mounting evidence of troubles -- including higher risks of autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia -- for older fathers seriously (for a thorough, and non-satirical look at the larger issues of older fatherhood, check out this piece by Paul Raeburn in last month's Scientific American, linked to in the comments section on Nussbaum's piece). Taking glee in such things would be less about science and more about extracting social vengeance, which helps out exactly no one.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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