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Just-so Stories: Sex Differences in Color Preferences

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Charles Darwin

Denis Noble

JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson

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Women may be hardwired to prefer pink“, “Study: Why Girls Like Pink“, “Do girls like pink because of their berry-gathering female ancestors?“, “Pink for a girl and blue for a boy – and it’s all down to evolution” are some of the popular news headlines that came out 12 years ago when Hurlbert and Ling (2007) published their study Biological components of sex differences in color preference. They used 208 people, 171 British Caucasians, 79 of whom were male, 37 Han Chinese (19 of whom were male). Hurlbert and Ling (2007) found that “females prefer colors with ‘reddish’ contrast against the background, whereas males prefer the opposite.

Both males and females have a preference for blueish and reddish hues, and so, women liking pink is an evolved trait, on top of having a preference for blue. The authors “speculate that this sex difference arose from sex-specific functional specializations in the evolutionary division of labour.” So specializing for gathering berries, the “female brain” evolved “trichromatic adaptations”—that is, three colors are seen—which is the cause for women preferring “redder” hues. Since women were gatherers—while men hunters—they needed to be able to discern redder/pinker hues to be able to gather berries. Hurlbert and Ling (2007) also state that there is an alternative explanation which “is the need to discriminate subtle changes in skin color due to emotional states and social-sexual signals []; again, females may have honed these adaptations for their roles as care-givers and ‘empathizers’ [].

The cause for sex differences in color preference are simple: men and women faced different adaptive problems in their evolutionary history—men being the hunters and women the gatherers—and this evolutionary history then shaped color preferences in the modern world. So women’s brains are more specialized for gathering-type tasks, as to be able to identify ripe fruits with a pinker hue, either purple or red. Whereas for males they preferred green or blue—implying that as men evolved, the preference for these colors was due to the colors that men encountered more frequently in their EEA (evolutionary environment of adaptedness).

He et al (2011) studied 436 Chinese college students from a Chinese university. They found that men preferred “blue > green > red > yellow > purple > orange > white > black > pink > gray > brown,” while women preferred “purple > blue > yellow > green > pink > white > red > orange > black > gray > brown” (He et al, 2011: 156). So men preferred blue and green while women preferred pink, purple and white. Here is the just-so story (He et al, 2011: 157-158):

According to the Hunter-Gatherer Theory, as a consequence of an adaptive survival strategy throughout the hunting-gathering environment, men are better at the hunter-related task, they need more patience but show lower anxiety or neuroticism, and, therefore would prefer calm colors such as blue and green; while women are more responsible to the gatherer-related task, sensitive to the food-related colors such as pink and purple, and show more maternal nurturing and peacefulness (e.g., by preferring white).

Just-so stories like this come from the usual suspects (e.g., Buss, 2005; Schmidt, 2005). Regan et al (2001) argue that “primate colour vision has been shaped by the need to find coloured fruits amongst foliage, and the fruits themselves have evolved to be salient to primates and so secure dissemination of their seeds.” Men are more sensitive to blue-green hues in these studies, and, according to Vining (2006), this is why men prefer these colors: it would have been easier for men to hunt if they could discern between blue and green hues; that men like these kinds of colors more than the other “feminine” colors is evidence in favor of the “hunter-gatherer” theory.

berries

(Image from here.)

So, according to evolutionary psychologists, there is an evolutionary reason for these sex differences in color preferences. If men were more likely to like blueish-greenish hues over red ones, then we can say that it was a specific adaptation from the hunting days: men need to be able to ascertain color differences which would have them be better hunters—preferring blue for, among other reasons, the ability to notice sky and water, as they would be better hunters if they did. And so, according to the principle of evolution by natural selection, the men who could ascertain these colors and hues had better reproductive success over those that could not, and so those men passed their genes onto the next generation, which included those color-sensing genes. The same is true for women: that women prefer pinkish, purpleish hues is evidence that, in an evolutionary context, they needed to ascertain pinkish, purpleish colors as to identify ripe fruits. And so again, according to this principle of natural selection, these women who could better ascertain colors and hues more likely to be seen in berries passed their genes on to the next generation, too.

This theory hinges, though, on Man the Hunter and Woman the Gatherer. Men ventured out to hunt—which explains the man’s color preferences—while women stayed at the ‘home’ and took care of the children and looked to gather berries—which explains women color preferences (gathering pink berries, discriminating differences in skin color due to emotional states). So the hypothesis must have a solid evolutionary basis—it makes sense and comports to the data we have, so it must be true, right?

Here’s the thing: boys and girls didn’t always wear blue and pink respectively; this is something that has recently changed. Jasper Pickering, writing for The Business Insider explains this well in an interview with color expert Gavin Moore:

“In the early part of the 20th Century and the late part of the 19th Century, in particular, there were regular comments advising mothers that if you want your boy to grow up masculine, dress him in a masculine colour like pink and if you want your girl to grow up feminine dress her in a feminine colour like blue.”

“This was advice that was very widely dispensed with and there were some reasons for this. Blue in parts of Europe, at least, had long been associated as a feminine colour because of the supposed colour of the Virgin Mary’s outfit.”

“Pink was seen as a kind of boyish version of the masculine colour red. So it gradually started to change however in the mid-20th Century and eventually by about 1950, there was a huge advertising campaign by several advertising agencies pushing pink as an exclusively feminine colour and the change came very quickly at that point.”

While Smithsonian Magazine quotes the Earnshaw Infants Department (from 1918):

The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink , being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.

So, just like “differences” in “cognitive ability (i.e., how if modern-day “IQ” researchers would have been around in antiquity they would have formulated a completely different theory of intelligence and not used Cold Winters Theory), if these EP-minded researchers had been around in the early 20th century, they’d have seen the opposite of what they see today: boys wearing pink and girls wearing blue. What, then, could account for such observations? I’d guess something like “Boys like pink because it’s a hue of red and boys, evolved as hunters, had to like seeing red as they would be fighting either animals or other men and would be seeing blood a majority of the time.” As for girls liking blue, I’d guess something like “Girls had to be able to ascertain green leaves from the blue sky, and so, they were better able to gather berries while men were out hunting.”

That’s the thing with just-so stories: you can think of an adaptive story for any observation. As Joyner, Boros, and Fink (2018: 524) note for the Bajau diving story and the sweat gland story “since the dawn of the theory of evolution, humans have been incredibly creative in coming up with evolutionary and hence genetic narratives and explanations for just about every human trait that can be measured“, and this can most definitely be said for the sex differences in color preferences story. We humans are very clever at making everything an adaptive story when there isn’t one to be found. Even if it can be established that there are such things as “trichomatic adaptations” that evolved for men and women liking the colors they do, then, the combination of functional effect (women liking pink for better gathering and men liking blue and green for better hunting) and that the trait truly was “selected-for” does not license the claim that selection acted on the specific trait in question since we cannot “exclude the possibility that selection acted on some other pleiotropic effect of the mutation” (Nielsen, 2009).

In sum, the causes for sex differences in color preferences, today, makes no sense. These researchers are just looking for justification for current cultural/societal trends in which sex likes which colors and then weaving “intricate” adaptive stories in order to claim that part of this is due to men’s and women’s “different” evolutionary history—man as hunter and woman as gatherer. However, due to how quickly things change in culture and society, we can be asking questions we would not have asked before due to how quickly society changes, and then ascribe evolutionary causes for out observations. As Constance Hilliard (2012: 85) writes, referring to Professor Michael Billig’s article A dead idea that will not lie down (in reference to race science), “… scientific ideas did not develop in a vacuum but rather reflected underlying political and economic trends.


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