Why blue-eyed men prefer blue-eyed women – but not vice versa

Most people learn in high school (if they’re paying attention) that human eye color is a genetic trait which follows fairly simple rules. The primary gene that controls eye color exists in several forms, called alleles. The protein produced by one of the alleles causes the eyes to be brown, while a variant allele producing a slightly different protein does not. Since the human genome contains two copies of each gene, if even one of these copies is the allele for brown eyes, brown will be the resulting color, regardless of the other allele. Such an allele is said to be “dominant”. Another eye color (e. g. blue) will result only if both copies of the gene are non-brown alleles. Such alleles are said to be “recessive”.

Children receive one copy of each paired chromosome from each parent. It follows that if one parent has two copies of a dominant gene, every one of their children will receive at least one copy, regardless of what the other parent has. All children of this mother and father will have brown eyes, if even one parent has two brown eye alleles, and even if the other parent has two blue eye alleles.

If both parents have one brown and one blue allele, then for any particular child, there’s a 1 in 4 chance of receiving two brown alleles, a 1 in 4 chance of receiving two blue alleles (the only case that will result in blue eyes), and a 2 in 4 chance of receiving one brown and one blue allele (hence brown eyes). If one parent has blue eyes, and the other has both a brown and a blue allele, then the odds are 50/50 for each of their children to have either brown or blue eyes. So if one or both parents have brown eyes, it’s possible for them to have blue-eyed children. But when both parents have blue eyes, so all of their alleles are for blue eyes, all of their children will have blue eyes. In that case, if any child has brown eyes, it must be the case that one parent – most likely the male – is not the biological parent. Oops.

So a blue-eyed man has an interesting advantage over men with brown eyes – a very dependable way of knowing that he is not the father of a particular child, provided he mates with a blue-eyed woman. Further, a blue-eyed man who regards blue-eyed women as more attractive than women of other eye colors is more likely to mate with blue-eyed women. And so such a blue-eyed man has a selective advantage over other blue-eyed men who have no such preference (or a preference for brown-eyed women).

This would be advantageous, at least in prehistoric times, if in addition such a man was less inclined to provide for a child without blue eyes – even if there was no conscious recognition that the child could not be his own. Some recent research has indicated that blue-eyed men sometimes actually, if unconsciously, do have a tendency to regard blue-eyed women as more “attractive”, and hence (presumably) are more likely to choose them as mates:

Eighty-eight male and female students were asked to rate facial attractiveness of models on a computer. The pictures were close-ups of young adult faces, unfamiliar to the participants. The eye color of each model was manipulated, so that for each model’s face two versions were shown, one with the natural eye color (blue/brown) and another with the other color (brown/blue). The participants’ own eye color was noted.

Both blue-eyed and brown-eyed women showed no difference in their preferences for male models of either eye color. Similarly, brown-eyed men showed no preference for either blue-eyed or brown-eyed female models. However, blue-eyed men rated blue-eyed female models as more attractive than brown-eyed models.

Since a mother almost always can be sure a given child is hers (except for rare events like accidental switching of infants), a mechanism that provides a way to recognize that a child isn’t her own provides little additional advantage. And so, blue-eyed women do not have an evolutionary advantage from a tendency to regard blue-eyed men as more attractive than others. So they do not, in fact, have that tendency.
If you’re looking around for an example of specific, and unexpected, behavior for which evolutionary psychology offers the simplest explanation, this may be a good choice.