Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Today's First Evolutionary Psychology Critique

Now here is a fascinating popularization of a study about the gender difference in orienteering abilities:

MEN might be better at reading maps, but women have an in-built sense of direction for good food.

Research suggests that, contrary to the stereotype, women's navigation skills can be better than men's. But this ability comes to light only when there is food to be found — in particular, items laden with calories.

It is thought the gender differences may be a legacy of the ancient hunter-gatherer way of life on the African savanna.

Men, the hunters, honed their spatial skills as they chased their prey "over erratic and unpredictable courses". But women, the gatherers, had to remember the locations of stationary food resources, such as fruits and berries, more accurately than men.

Isn't that fascinating? Do you think that someone has actually tested women's navigational abilities with every possible non-food item? I don't.

I also love those last two paragraphs. The beginning "It is thought that" is all we have to remind us that none of what follows has any actual proof. It's a speculation about prehistoric sexual division of labor and could be off in all sorts of important ways.

Can you guess what the female navigational superiority in this study amounts to? Guess. Where the women 60% better than the men? Thirty percent better?

They were nine percent better in that study (consisting of 86 individuals). Put that into your pipe and smoke it.

I also wonder how exactly the research can control for the experience women have gained by being responsible for the bulk of food shopping. They supposedly did so, but it's difficult to see how that can be done in a way which would eradicate all the advantage practice conveys.

Further criticism of the study and the point that it is not actually based on genetic knowledge can be found here.
For the sake of fairness I should notice that the popularization also contained this short sentence of criticism:

But Dr Monica Minnegal, a senior lecturer in anthropology at Melbourne University, is sceptical about suggestions humans have stopped evolving. "To reduce everything to what happened on the savanna way back then is, for me, problematic," she said.

See how strong and clear that was?