I have to be honest, I had never heard of the Science: So what? So everything campaign until representatives from it were invited by the BBC to provide model answers to the ‘difficult questions’ that children ask their parents. Most of the answers the representatives from the campaign give are quite good, although one or two seem to be a bit complicated. I guess the fundamental problem is that there’s no information as to the age of the child asking the difficult question – you’d answer the question ‘Why is water wet?’ rather differently if you were talking to a 4 year old rather than an 8 year old. (Or at least I assume you would – given that I’m not a parent, and I didn’t have a younger sibling, my experience of kids is severely limited.) However, one of the answers is very far from good, and it’s given by a psychologist. Judging by the nature of the answer given I would guess that he may be especially interested in evolutionary psychology, which I wasn’t all that persuaded by last time I came across it.
The question concerned is ‘Why do I like pink?’, and this is the answer given by Dr Stephen Briers:
Traditionally it is thought girls like pink more than boys do. Scientists have found there may be a biological basis for why girls prefer pink, or at least more reddish colours than boys. Research has found that although more people prefer blue, women tend to prefer pinker shades. Some biologists say that this is because in Stone Age times a woman’s role was to pick out reddish-coloured fruit, so they became more sensitive to reddish colours. Another scientist has suggested females may also prefer reddish colours because they need to be more able to spot when their children are ill with a fever (and therefore have a more reddish tone to their faces), or because changes in skin colour can let you know what a person is feeling and help females to read emotions better.
Ok, first of all, and unlike some of the public’s responses to the same question, Dr Briers doesn’t even raise the possibility that a liking for pink amongst girls is a cultural phenomenon. In other words, that girls learn to like pink because their parents give them lots of pink things, or because manufacturers and advertisers show girls having fun playing with things that are coloured pink, or that little girls see lots of other little girls dressed from head to toe in pink, and decide that they want to wear pink as well in order not to stand out from the crowd. Now, you could make a claim that this kind of an answer isn’t, strictly speaking, science, but the problem with this line of defence is that the answers Dr Briers does suggest also have so little to do with science.
So, to start with, he tells us that ‘scientists have found that there may be a biological basis for why girls prefer pink’. Now I don’t know about you, but I immediately found myself wondering why, if a preference for pink is biologically based, little girls from all cultures don’t show the same preference. Given this apparent problem with Dr Briers’ assertion, I was expecting him to follow it up with some fairly compelling evidence – comparative physiological studies of the retinas of males and females which show that women have more cells that react to light in the ‘red’ wavelength, perhaps. Or, failing that, a study which showed that women were able to pick out a pink pattern against a white background more accurately, or with greater sensitivity, than men. But that’s not what we get. No, instead we’re told that
Research has found that although more people prefer blue, women tend to prefer pinker shades.
Now, the language here is vague (and we shouldn’t blame Dr Briers for this – this is a reply aimed at youngish children after all), but the use of the word ‘prefer’ makes me think that the research consisted of showing test subjects a range of coloured objects or colour cards, and asking them what their favourite was (or, possibly, tracking eye movements to see which colours they spent more time looking at). If this was the research that was carried out, then this certainly is evidence that women prefer pink, but it isn’t evidence of a ‘biological basis’ for this preference. Nothing in research of this nature can exclude the possibility that the women who were examined have been culturally conditioned to prefer pink.
Still, because of the entirely understandable vagueness of Dr Briers’ language, we can’t say for certain what kind of research he is referring to, and so it would be unfair to concentrate our criticism on hypothetical failings in hypothetical research. It would be especially unfair since there is so much else to criticise in the conclusions Dr Briers tells us have been drawn from this data. The first such conclusion is attributed by Dr Briers to ‘some biologists’, and it asserts that
in Stone Age times a woman’s role was to pick out reddish-coloured fruit, so they became more sensitive to reddish colours.
Ok, so here’s my first question: if it was a woman’s role to pick out ‘reddish-coloured’ fruit, why do women prefer pink and not red? Pink is not a colour that occurs all that commonly in fruit, as far as I know. I am by no means an expert (a fructologist?), but off the top of my head I can’t think of a single fruit that is pink (as opposed to red or purple) on the outside. I would suggest that if women are attuned to the colours of fruit, then one would expect them to prefer the colours that are commonly found in fruit.
This leads on to my second question: why would women be attracted exclusively to ‘reddish-coloured’ fruit? Why would they not also be attracted to the yellow skin of bananas, or to oranges, or to the green colour of grapes and pears and kiwi fruit? Why, for that matter, would they be exclusively attracted to fruit? Why not nuts and seeds as well? Both would form an important part of the diet of hunter-gatherers, after all.
Now here’s my third question: why would it be ‘a woman’s role’, as distinct from a man’s role, or a human’s role, to gather fruit? The thought process (if you’ll forgive me for using the word ‘thought’ so very loosely) seems to run: early humans were hunter-gatherers, so women must have done the gathering bit because…well, because they’re girls, and girls aren’t going to know what to do with a spear, now, are they? The assumption that early man went out hunting and early woman stayed back at the cave and did domestic things is itself culturally conditioned. It sprang up mainly because the people who did the initial thinking about the subject were wealthy 18th and 19th century men, and the women they knew were prevented by social custom from doing any work at all, let alone hard physical labour outside the home.
Given that hunter-gatherers were nomadic, and that they hunted animals and gathered fruit and nuts and seeds and berries as they came across them in their wanderings, it would seem rather surprising that they wouldn’t all have been involved together in doing whatever needed to be done. This is particularly the case because the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers must have been extremely precarious, based as it was on what was to be found naturally occurring in the environment. There’s a reason, after all, why humans who mastered agriculture supplanted those who didn’t, except in areas where the land was too poor to farm – it provides for much greater food security.
The idea that early humans, teetering as they were on the brink of extinction in a cruelly hostile environment, would develop an absolute separation of male and female labour is itself somewhat surprising. To say that this division of labour was so deep and long-lasting and profound that the resulting colour preference still persists millennia after there has been any reason for it to exist seems to be moving in the direction of abject nonsense. Apart from anything else, it seems highly unlikely that early humans could, as a species, have afforded for a man to walk past ripe fruit without noticing it – they were too close to starvation. Certainly, I am not aware of any evidence – as opposed to speculation of the kind currently under discussion – that would allow the hypothesis to be presented as ‘science’, that it as something that can be demonstrated through experiment.
The second conclusion, Dr Briers tells us, has been reached by ‘another scientist’, so we are not even clear in what discipline s/he works. The first part of this conclusion runs as follows:
females may also prefer reddish colours because they need to be more able to spot when their children are ill with a fever (and therefore have a more reddish tone to their faces)
Well, now, I don’t want to endlessly belabour the same points, but I notice that this conclusion is based on the assumption that childcare is something that women, and only women, do. It seems likely that this may be a cultural rather than biological phenomenon as well – once children are weaned, there’s no need for them to remain in the exclusive care of their mother. Even if we were to accept that, amongst early humans, childcare was an exclusively female task, wouldn’t there still be an evolutionary advantage in a man being able to recognise that a child was sick? Wouldn’t a man better able to recognise the symptoms of ill-health be more likely to avoid people with infectious disease, therefore be more likely to live longer, and so be in a position to father more offspring?
Still, let’s give Dr Briers’ ‘scientist’ the benefit of the doubt, and set aside those issues. Let’s, against our better judgement, pretend that there are good reasons for believing that women need to be more responsive to the symptoms of ill-health in children than men do. Why would this involve a sensitivity to the colour pink? Don’t children – and, for that matter, adults – frequently have a rosy glow in their cheeks when they are ‘in the pink’, if you’ll allow me to use a colloquial term for a condition of perfect health and happiness? In fact, aren’t pink cheeks fairly often seen as being a sign of good health, of vitality and vigour and liveliness, not as a symptom of ill health? Then again, what about excessive paleness, and dark grey circles under the eyes? Or the blue colour that appears in the skin when someone, for example a child with whooping cough, is lacking oxygen? Aren’t they all visible signs of ill-health as well? If girls have a preference for the colours that signify illness then why, I wonder, don’t they like toys and clothes made in these colours too?
Still, let’s persist in our practice of kindly setting to one side the obvious problems with the ideas Dr Briers’ ascribes to his anonymous scientist. We’re already presuming that it’s more important that women know when children are ill. Let’s add to that the presumption that the colour pink only appears in children’s cheeks when they’re ill, and the related presumption that pink is the only colour that signifies ill-health in children. While we’re at it, let’s also ignore the fact that the shocking pink colour beloved of millions of small girls looks nothing like a colour that would appear naturally in a child’s skin under any circumstances. Even setting aside all that, the conclusion is still nonsense, for one very basic reason. Why on earth would little girls take pleasure in being surrounded by a colour that evokes in them a concern for the health of their offspring? If pink is associated in the minds of women with ill-health, then wouldn’t its presence in the environment make girls and women uncomfortable, anxious, even scared? Who would derive comfort and pleasure from surrounding themselves with a colour that suggests to them illness and death?
As for the second half of our anonymous scientist’s conclusion – that ‘changes in skin colour can let you know what a person is feeling and help females to read emotions better’ – well, we’re back in the role of culturally influenced presumptions, aren’t we? This time the thought process (and again I must beg forgiveness for using the term so vaguely) seems to be: well women are better at all that feelings and emotions stuff, aren’t they, so it’s probably something to do with that, yeah?
It also occurs to me that skin flushing is, on its own, a fairly crude indicator of someone’s emotional state. If I were only able to see the colour of someone’s cheeks – i.e., I had no access to other visual clues such as body stance and posture, the shape of the lips, direction and nature of the gaze etc. – I would be uncertain if someone flushing pink was embarrassed, or angry, or sexually aroused, or laughing, to name just a few of the more obvious possibilities. Even if we accept the implied hypothesis – that women are more adept at reading emotions than men are – it would seem likely that this greater ability derives from something other than a greater sensitivity to changes in skin colour, since changes in skin colour tell us comparatively little about emotional state.
There are really two reasons why I think all this matters. Firstly, this is an answer intended to be given to a child, and most likely a female child. It seems entirely wrong to me that a little girl should be told that her interest in something so stereotypically feminine as the colour pink is based in her biological status as female. There’s nothing wrong with a little girl liking pink, by any means, or spending her time playing with ‘girls’ toys either, if that’s what she wants to do. But telling her that what she’s doing conforms to a pattern passed down from the Stone Age, that she’s more in tune with what’s ‘natural’ for a girl than other little girls who like playing football and climbing trees – well, that seems to be moving in the direction of indoctrination to me.
This leads into my second reason for thinking this matters. This assertion – that behavioural differences between men and women are naturally derived from the biological differences between them – is extremely controversial. Women (with some male allies) spent most of the 20th century fighting for recognition of the fact that culturally-determined definitions of femininity have nothing to do with biological sex. They fought to demonstrate that women weren’t biologically incapable of voting, or of undertaking higher education, or of working as doctors and lawyers. They fought hard to overturn the idea that, just because women who choose to have children have a particular role in the biological process of reproduction, a whole range of other behaviours were also naturally female.
Most women who come across the idea that a preference for pink is biologically determined will respond with derision, but also with an undercurrent of anger. The anger will be there because, as a group, women have so often been told that the differences between what they and men are allowed or expected to do are rooted in the biological differences between the sexes. Of course, if there are good, scientific reasons for believing that the preference among little girls for pink is biologically determined, then scientists must not be afraid to speak about them, but, as we’ve seen, the suggestions put forward by Dr Stephen Briers wouldn’t appear to be particularly good, or even scientific at all. This is a shame for three main reasons.
Firstly, it’s a shame because, by allying himself so clearly with the suggestion that things as trivial as colour preference have been biologically determined across millennia, Dr Briers has shown that he lacks the ability to examine his own preconceptions. His answer to the question ‘why do girls like pink’ isn’t to begin by wondering if it’s a question that’s best answered by science, or if it’s a social or cultural phenomenon best explained by a sociologist or an anthropologist. Instead, he takes the assumption that there must be a biological explanation for the preference at more or less face value, and then compounds the error by presenting obviously problematic hypotheses without demonstrating any awareness of why they are problematic.
Secondly, it’s a shame that these ideas were included under the auspices of an attempt to popularise science, because they have so little to do with those important subjects. Science is, for the most part, knowledge gained via experiment, and that is not present in this case. The scientific answer to the question ‘why do I like pink’ is ‘we don’t know, and we haven’t been able to think of any experiments that would give us a definite answer, but it’s an interesting question, and we’re still thinking about it’.
Finally, it’s a shame that an answer that owes more to arbitrary assertion than it does to scientific investigation relates to an issue as controversial as the role of biology in determining gendered behaviour. This is going to increase the likelihood that women, who are already badly unrepresented in the sciences, will see science as something that is not for them, or even as something that’s actively hostile to their interests. Given that this will have negative effects, both for the women who miss the opportunity to study in an area they have an aptitude for and for the rest of us who will be denied the benefits that would have flowed from their expertise, it does seem rather a shame that this has all been done in the name of a campaign seeking to promote science.
[Disclaimer: in this post I have commented on scientific matters, which I am far from expert on – my highest scientific qualification is a D at A-level biology. Just to be clear: I am not claiming to be an expert, just an interested and, I hope, reasonably well-informed layman. Following a previous little contretemps, I've decided to add this disclaimer to all the posts where I venture into the scientific domain.]