August 25, 2007

"The generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl."

"The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger colour is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl." So said the Ladies' Home Journal back in 1918, which makes Ben Goldacre wonder what the evolutionary biologists think they are doing when they figure out the genetic basis for the female preference for pink.

Here's the story he's reacting to.
"The explanation might date back to humans’ hunter-gatherer days, when women were the primary gatherers and would have benefited from an ability to home in on ripe, red fruits," Anya Hurlbert, who led the team of researchers, said. "Culture may exploit and compound this natural female preference."...

There is already evidence that human’s ability to see in colour is likely to have evolved because of the usefulness of being able to distinguish red fruits from green backgrounds.

The female role as gatherers while males hunted could have favoured a particular preference for reds and pinks, the scientists said.

Pinks are also involved in showing changes in emotional states, and might be picked up preferentially by women. "Again, females may have honed these adaptations for their roles as care-givers and 'empathisers'," the researchers said.

The great thing about this kind of speculation is that if the results were different, you'd be able to make up reasons why men and women evolved to prefer whatever they ended up preferring. As Goldacre writes, it's like "just so" stories.

For example, assume the study showed that men prefer stripes and women prefer polka dots or men prefer pastels and women prefer dark colors. Your assignment is to explain why evolution would produce that result. You know you can come up with something!

18 comments:

Gahrie said...

Men prefer stripes because as hunters they developed the ability to peer between the stalks of long grasses while sneaking up on their prey. Women prefer polka dots, because of their need to quickly scan bushes and trees to detect bunches of fruit from the background of the green foilage.

Men prefer pastels because as hunters they spent much of their time in the shade of the jungle and long grasses while hunting where colors were muted. Women prefer dark colors because that was a way to tell the difference between ripe and unripe fruit.

Daryl said...

Yes, the "just so stories" are not very useful. They are speculation that other scientists might draw on when formulating hypotheses in the future, but really add almost nothing of value to the discussion.

That doesn't change the FACT that boys are hardwired to prefer blue and girls are hardwired to prefer pink.

And, realistically, only an explanation coming out of evolutionary biology can explain this, even if we can't ever know WHICH explanation it is.

Daryl said...

I will say this further: the evolutionary biology explanation may not have its roots in early humans. It may go back further than that. It's probably not more recent.

ricpic said...

When I read that story I had an immediate, aha, reaction. The reason: I have always had a marked affinity for the blue-green end of the spectrum. Also, I knew a woman, a very womanly woman I might add, who had an almost physical, positive, reaction to red.

From Inwood said...

OK, so, what's the significance of Monica's wearing a Blue dress for the occasions(s)?

DKWalser said...

Ann, your assignment reminds me of why I gave up being an English major. Too much of what passes for literary criticism is the finding of meaning in the meaningless. It was like asking the class to explain the "truth" in a pattern made by trowing a handful of sticks on the floor (or the entrails of a goat). Whoever came up with the most creative explanation got the best grade. While I could get good grades, I could not imagine a more pointless use of time.

Wide Boy Agamemnon said...

"Researchers have found that there could be sound historical reasons why women have developed a heightened appreciation of reds and pinks..."

Oh, bosh. The number-one most likely reason that any organism has a given character or trait? It's because its ancestors had it too. A very brief search can show anybody with a browser sites like this, which points out that humans, all great apes, all Old World monkeys, and many New World monkeys all have color vision. And it is frequently the case, even more so in New World primates than in Old World ones, that the ability to perceive reds is much better in females than in males.

Not even the 'fruit-distinguishing' hypothesis is new, having been around since at least 2003, when it was developed by somebody else.

As somebody who was actually trained as an evolutionary biologist, it always steams me when a psychologist masquerading as an evolutionary biologist comes up with a just-so story demonstrating they have no real acquaintance with the field that they're playing at being a part of.

Gahrie said...

You all get F's. Not one of you addressed the topic assigned. For shame.

michael farris said...

Wouldn't the fact that females prefer red and males prefer blue be tied to neotony? (the state resulting when juvenile characteristics are retained by the adults of a species )

An interesting fact is that with only sporadic minor exceptions, there is a hierarchy in color terminology. That is if a language has two terms for colors they're dark and light. If it has three it's more like black, white and red, yellow is the fourth added color, then blue/green (usually not distinguished) then blue and green distinguished (or pink, I forget).

The linguist Derek Bickerton thinks this might be related to the development of color vision. That is red was the first color that humans could distinguish beyond dark and light, yellow the next, etc.

Therefore, red is a more 'basic', 'earlier' color while blue is a later, more 'evolved' if you will, color.

Generally speaking (with exceptions in both directions of course) women are more neotonous than men (one reason why female to male transexuals are generally are harder to detect than the reverse) so their vision is more attracted by the more basic color, while men who are less neotonous prefer the more recently perceived blue.

michael farris said...

Men like the three stooges because they display lots of male cameradie
(mixed with rough horseplay). The result is a constant reaffirmation and testing the limits of hierarchy. Further, they constantly train each other in physical endurance and ignoring pain, important skills in our hunter gatherer past.

Women dislike them because the kinds of behavior are disruptive to childcare and food gathering and would be a trial to live with (you take a stooge away from his stooge buddies and he's still a ... stooge).

Paul Ciotti said...

Females are associated with pink because the essence of their gender, the inner liabia, are pink. Blue is for boys because a hard glans penis has a bluish tinge.

Wide Boy Agamemnon said...

M.F.-

Humans do exhibit many neotenic traits, and females tend to exhibit these traits to a greater degree than males. But AFAIK there is no evidence that tricromatic color vision (what humans have) is one of them.

If color vision was something that other primates had when young, and then lost as they aged, you could make a very good case for color vision being a neotenic trait. But that's not what happens.

"The linguist Derek Bickerton thinks this might be related to the development of color vision. That is red was the first color that humans could distinguish beyond dark and light, yellow the next, etc."

I fear Bickerton is talking out of his ass on this one. If anything, the ability to distinguish reds probably arose more recently than other colors (based on the fact that almost all primates are at least dicromatic - they have color receptors for blues and greens - while tricromatic vision is more restricted in distribution).

Rohan Swee said...

"Wouldn't the fact that females prefer red and males prefer blue be tied to neotony? (the state resulting when juvenile characteristics are retained by the adults of a species )"

No. A juvenile characteristic is not the same thing as an "earlier evolved" trait. Anyway, there seems to be a serious confusion here between color perception capacity (which does differ by sex, and, as Wide Boy points out, is a difference that long predates our huntin' and gatherin' forbears), and universal color preference differences (which, as far as I can see, nobody has demonstrated).

michael farris said...

wideboy,

Just so we're clear, I was creating a just-so story too, using some realish data in a selective manner and some pseudo-logic to come up with a self-reinforcing, untestable theory.

The color-term thing is real though (that is, if a language has three basic color terms they're red, white and black and if it has four terms the fourth is yellow etc etc). At least AFAIK the whole theory hasn't been disproved though there are some exceptions here and there.

"almost all primates are at least dicromatic - they have color receptors for blues and greens"

Now that does bring up the interesting (to me) question of why no language with just the color terms 'dark, light, blue, green' has ever been found. I'm tempted to form another just-so story...

Wide Boy Agamemnon said...

M.F.-

sorry, I was getting all literal-minded there.

Gahrie-

Your just-so story was so good, I could not in good conscience put mine in the same comment thread with it.

Rohan Swee said...

Michael Farris: "Just so we're clear, I was creating a just-so story too, using some realish data in a selective manner and some pseudo-logic to come up with a self-reinforcing, untestable theory."

Ooops. I was dense, too. Sorry.

"The color-term thing is real though (that is, if a language has three basic color terms they're red, white and black and if it has four terms the fourth is yellow etc etc). At least AFAIK the whole theory hasn't been disproved though there are some exceptions here and there."

AFAIK, too. (Not that that's what's under dispute here, of course.)

"Now that does bring up the interesting (to me) question of why no language with just the color terms 'dark, light, blue, green' has ever been found. I'm tempted to form another just-so story..."

Please do. (My inner pedant interfered previously. "F" for me.) Let's see - no blue/green: avoidance due to primal fear of water and drowning! Or, the sky is blue and grass is green, so they're just default "background" colors to more pertinent things and don't need to be distinguished. (Hey, that one's not bad.) The first pigments were red and yellow ochres, no? So Og needed words for them so he could tell his assistant which one he was supposed to fetch to the art-cave or the war-paint party. Or, language and fashion sense evolved before particularly fair (blue undertone) skin evolved among humans, so people first came up with words for the far more flattering (to darker skins) red-orange and yellow hues. Or, bark and furs only come in a limited range of warm-ish shades...

michael farris said...

"Or, the sky is blue and grass is green, so they're just default "background" colors to more pertinent things and don't need to be distinguished. (Hey, that one's not bad.)"

That one's got potential. I've actually heard it given as a possible explanation for an anomalous group that distinguished three 'reds' as primary colors (hot pink, basic red and burgundy IIRC) and didn't think of blue as a color at all.
I can just imagine the conversation:
anthropologist: what color is the sky?
native: color? sky?

Rohan Swee said...

Michael Farris: Didn't think my sky/grass thing coulda been too original. But hot pink, basic red and burgundy? Do I really want to ask about what kind of lifestyle makes a priority of those categories?

Don't know if any of this is news to you, but here's a wikipedia page on blue-green.

Re sky color, I do have a tantalizing hazy memory of some group tending to describe their (nice clear blue sky) as "white", or somesuch. Damned if I can retrieve it from the neuronal archives, though.