The prejudices of Henry VIII live on

They might have concluded that if there is a boy in the family, men are less likely to chop their wives' heads off

Where would newspaper columnists be without polls, surveys and studies? They are the wind beneath our wings, the compost beneath our beans. I would like to commission a survey or a study to find out how many columns in the past 12 months have sprung from a study or a survey. The pattern, broadly speaking, is this: the Sunday papers treat them with considerable solemnity; the Monday and Tuesday columnists then take the mick.

The Sunday broadsheets in particular print loads of survey stories. After all, they have all that acreage to fill, and are unable to stuff it with huge pictures of a Fame Academy starlet canoodling topless in the Balearic surf with the boyfriend of someone who was once on Big Brother, so instead they manufacture 1,000-word news stories out of a "latest" poll, a "recent" survey, a "detailed" study.

And let me not snap at the hand that feeds me; these polls, surveys and studies are by no means all spurious. Some of them are based on formidable fact-gathering. For example, the economists Enrico Moretti, of the University of California, and Gordon Dahl, of the University of Rochester, have worked out from a careful examination of American census data from 1944 to 2000 that men are less likely to seek divorce if there is a boy in the family. Moreover, the more girls there are in a family, supposedly the greater the chance of divorce.

This was my favourite research finding from last Sunday's papers, and was rendered extremely topical by the transmission, that very evening, of the first part of ITV's much-hyped new drama, Henry VIII. Ray Winstone would have been a great deal happier with Helena Bonham-Carter had she borne him a son, especially as it was the dying wish of his father, Joss Ackland, that the Tudor line be secured.

As Ackland breathed his melodramatic last, Charles Dance in the background glowered magnificently, reckoning that he and his sons were the true heirs to the kingdom. But Winstone dealt ruthlessly with Dance, just as he would later deal with David Suchet, and indeed with Bonham-Carter. My point is that, had Messrs Moretti and Dahl been around in the 16th century, they might reasonably have concluded that if there is a boy in the family, men are less likely to chop their wives' heads off.

Plus ça change, as Henry VIII, if not Ray Winstone, might have said. Give or take a decree nisi instead of an axe, we don't appear to have moved on much.

And yet, considering that the laws of primogeniture do not encroach too much on 21st-century life, to say nothing of the Divine Right of Kings, it is startling to find that Henry's prejudices still apply.

Of course, anyone whose children have been born in big-city hospitals in recent years is aware of the reported reluctance of those carrying out early ultra-sound scans to reveal whether the womb contains a boy or a girl. The suggestion is that among some ethnic and religious groups, it is not unknown for female foetuses to be aborted by parents eager for a boy.

It has always seemed to me, incidentally, albeit without much insight, that this fear has been hugely exaggerated. I have heard white, middle-class parents-to-be saying quite matter-of-factly that they didn't want to know the gender of their child, but even if they did they understood it to be hospital policy not to let on, "because a lot of Muslims abort once they know it's a girl". Ye gods, whoever your gods are! A "lot" of Muslims? At least it took Josef Goebbels and the entire machinery of Nazi propaganda to convince Germans that most Jews ate babies.

But to return to the Moretti and Dahl findings about divorce, one explanation is that men trapped in unhappy marriages are more likely to stick around on the basis that their sons need a role model. An accompanying theory goes that daughters are perceived as being better than boys as post-divorce companions to their mothers, making divorce a more palatable step.

Inevitably, the Sunday newspaper story then cited the examples of Kate Winslet and Demi Moore. Strangely, it missed Bob Geldof and Paula Yates, as well as the Duke and Duchess of York. No survey or study these days is quite legitimate until a celebrity or a royal is dredged up to give it substance.

Winslet, mother of a daughter, divorced Jim Threapleton. Moore, mother of three girls, divorced Bruce Willis. Ergo...

Ergo nothing. If I had the time, inclination and a few back issues of Hello magazine, I could list 20 showbiz couples, with boys rather than girls, whose marriages have disintegrated. But it is hard to argue with the 56 years of evidence assembled by Moretti and Dahl. On the other hand, they and their statistics are American. Perhaps things are different here. Opposite, even. Either way, my wife and I have a girl and two boys, so we hope we've got all bases covered.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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