Tag Archives: sex

The Trivers-Willard hypothesis

The Trivers-Willard hypothesis states that when conditions are good, parents have more male offspring; and when conditions are poor, parents have more female offspring. The thinking behind this is that in favourable conditions males will be able to mate with many females before they die and have a greater chance of passing on their genes; and when conditions are poor males will not be able to mate with as many females and are more likely to be out-competed, and therefore a female will have more chance of passing on genetic material than any particular male.

The Trivers-Willard hypothesis seems to hold true for human beings. In a study of the Forbes Billionaires List it was found* that the children of billionaires were 60% male, and if only male billionaires were considered then this percentage rose to 65%. The effect was the same whether the billionaires were self-made or had inherited their fortunes, suggesting that if there was a biological reason for success in business it was not relevant in selecting the sex of offspring.

It is uncertain what causes the Trivers-Willard effect, but a 2001 paper suggested† that “condition” was linked to the availability of food and of glucose in this food, and that the presence of elevated levels of glucose in the mother’s blood favours the survival of male blastocysts. This has led to the idea of the “Trivers-Willard Diet“, designed to enable parents to select the sex of their offspring.

* Elissa Cameron and Fredrik Dalerum, “A Trivers-Willard Effect in Contemporary Humans: Male-Biased Sex Ratios among Billionaires”, PLoS ONE 4(1) (2009): e4195. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004195.

† Melissa Larson et al, “Sexual dimorphism among bovine embryos in their ability to make the transition to expanded blastocyst and in the expression of the signaling molecule IFN-τ”, Proc Natl Acad Sci 98(17) (2001): 9677-9682. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.171305398.

Patterns in birthdays

If births were evenly distributed throughout the year (i.e. a 1 in 365 chance of being born on any given day) then the graph of number of births against birth month would look like the one below:

You’re least likely to be born in February, because it only has 28 days, and then slightly more likely to be born in the 31-day months of January, March, May, July, August, October and December than in the 30-day months of April, June, September and November.

I took the data from nearly a thousand pupils and looked at how their dates of birth compared with the expected values. (Included with the data are error bars of one standard deviation.)

The results for April, September and December (particularly December) show birth rates above what would be expected if births are random, and the results for July and August show depressed birth rates.

Considering the months where births are more likely than they should be and working backwards we find the most likely “sex months” to be March, July and December. These seem fairly sensible as all of these months coincide with major holiday periods: Easter, the long Summer Holiday and Christmas/New Year. People are more likely to be “celebrating” and to have more free time during these periods, and March and December have long, cold and dark nights when people are more likely to stay indoors in the evening than go out.

The “sex months” for the lowest birth rates are more puzzling: October and November. I suspect that it has to do with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and that the generalised depression that comes with SAD includes reduced sex drive; this is combated come December by the general presence of good cheer and plenty of alcohol to lower inhibitions. It is also possible that parents are deliberately choosing when to conceive in order to avoid their child being the youngest in the school year, something that has been shown* to have a negative effect.

Update: Thanks to @S3ym5n I’ve now included national data for 2010.

In the national data it is September and October that show birth rates above what is expected, making December and January the most popular sex months. April appears to be the only month with a significantly lower birth rate, making July, when people are out and about in the nice weather rather than stuck indoors, the least popular sex month.

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