Evolutionary psychology and hunting berries

I want you to know that I love evolutionary psychologists, because the ideas, like “girls prefer pink because they need to be better at hunting berries” are so much fun. Sure there are problems, like, we don’t know a lot about life in the pleistocene period through which humans evolved; their claims sound a bit like “just so” stories, relying on their own internal, circular logic; the existing evidence for genetic influence on behaviour, emotion, and cognition, is coarse; they only pick the behaviours which they think they can explain while leaving the rest; and they get themselves in massive trouble as soon as they go beyond examining broad categories of human behaviors across societies and cultures, becoming crassly ethnocentric. But that doesn’t stop me enjoying their ideas.

This is Ben Goldacre, saying it beautifully. He's not making the berries thing up. Read the whole thing.


  1. ns Says:

    I agree that the berries experiment reads like a joke but Peter Singer, Janet Richards, Helena Cronin and Richard Dawkins among others give some very compelling arguments in favor of Evolutionary Psychology. Much of it is based on intuition but some of the greatest scientific discoveries were based on first and foremost an intuition - the chemical structure of Benzene which had long elluded chemists actually struck Kekule in a dream! Point is to me Evolutionary Psychology and Darwin's Theory of Evolution in general seem to help put a lot of pieces of the puzzle in the right place and that they are theories just waiting for a stronger scientific backing.. - i am curious to know - Datacharmer, Do you believe in the theory of Evolution?

  2. datacharmer Says:

    I believe that the evidence fits the theory of evolution quite nicely, and the scientific backing for the central tenets is strong enough already. My (and Goldacre's) point is a much narrower one and it relates to the far-fetched and largely unfounded claims sometimes put forward to 'explain' certain observations. Yes, it is very likely that girls might like pink because such a preference used to confer an evolutionary advantage of some kind; but going from that to 'girls like pink because they used to hunt berries' is quite a leap.

    On your second point, intuition is in fact the sole driver behind scientific understanding. As I've said before, evidence does not self-interpret - you have to 'fit it' in a theoretical framework that makes intuitive sense. Sometimes that framework is so simple that it does not warrant explicitly justifying it, but it sure is always there when making inferences from observing the world.

    'Eureka' moments - such as Kekule's - certainly have their place in the process of scientific discovery. They provide the spark for putting a theory together that will then be refuted or not. In other words, they refer more to the scientists' thought process rather than the process of scientific discovery.

    And by the way, Kekule's insight was actually arrived at in a day-dream, not a dream (that's how I first heard the story too, but looking into it a bit more it turned out that wasn't quite the case). Kekule's entry on wikipedia has more.