Thursday, December 10, 2009

Hardwiring 101 for Shoppers

I am not a violent person, but do wish from time to time that Charles Darwin would rise from his grave and give some of the "scientists" who pervert his ideas a resounding whack on the head. "YOU ARE WRONG!" Darwin would shout.

I didn't know whether to laugh or to cry when I read Richard Alleyne's article "Shopping styles of men and women all down to evolution, claim scientists" in the The "scientist" whose work Alleyne writes about is Daniel Kruger of the University of Michigan: 
"Prof Kruger decided to conduct the study after a winter holiday trip with friends across Europe.
"After exploring sleepy little villages and reaching Prague, the first thing the women wanted to do was shop, Prof Kruger said, and the men could not understand why."
(I swear, I'm not making it up!)

Simply, women like to shop, know about sales and selecting the best quality goods because they were the gatherers in hunter-gatherer societies. When selecting nuts and berries, women had to be discerning and picky and know when the good stuff was available. So today, when shopping for scarves and sweaters, women are driven by the same imperatives. (No, really, I'm not making it up!)

Men, on the other hand, had to be analytical (the laughing/crying response is bubbling up again) and precise. Plan the hunt, which prey. Out and back quickly, no window shopping (maybe it's nausea I'm experiencing).

I am all for academic freedom and Professor Kruger's right to study whatever he wishes to, but I am amazed and angered by the ignorance he displays about Darwin, anthropology, and some obvious objections to his claims. (And I must be fair here. I have read only Alleyne's article about Kruger's work; however, from Kruger's quotes, I find enough material to object to.)

The most obvious is Kruger's use of Darwin. I don't claim to be an expert on Darwin and evolution, but I have read  The Origin of Species and have an interest as a lay person. The whole Galapagos trip made Darwin realize that in isolation, in a particular environment with particular features, species will develop because individuals with certain traits more successful for that environment will be more successful in reproducing. And eventually, the traits are ongoing prominent features which define (in the sense of a biological class definition) a new species.

Kruger makes a sweeping generalization about humans, assuming that in all environments in the very long hunter-gatherer stage of human existence there were no variations in a gendered division of labour regarding subsistence foraging and hunting. In effect, he is saying that all societies, in every geographical environment on the planet were static and homogenous. Sloppy evolutionist thinking here (and very common, too).

Anthropologists know differently. They know that the male hunter/female gatherer divide is not universal. There were many cases in which the roles were often reversed and/or shared, and places in which either hunting or gathering was non-existant because of the geography. The division of food-procuring labour was quite fluid, not the rigid one that Kruger's argument assumes. The variations preclude the universal existence of  hardwired shopping behaviour in women.

At the level of obvious objections, it's hard to know where to start, but a quote from Kruger works well:
Men on the other hand, decided in advance what animal they wanted to kill and then went looking for it. Once it was found - and killed - they returned home.
Does Kruger know that hunter-gatherer societies spanned more than two millions years? His claim is meaningless without details of time and method - like persistence hunting and hunting with weapons - details that are important for evolution. I also dispute the ease Kruger imagines in selecting and finding prey- it is called hunting, after all.

Also, obviously, with tired bodies and carrying a carcass which could spoil or be stolen by other humans or predators, who would stop and pick berries - or browse to look at the attractive yam foliage? Really, do we need evolutionary explanations when simple physical ones will do? Wouldn't similar kinds of limitations exist for gatherers when they had their hands full and were tired?

And, just as with the claims about women and maternal instinct that I discussed earlier this week, Kruger's claims leave out all the people who don't follow his pattern - men who like to shop, browse, and don't know in advance what they want; women who don't like to shop, who want to dash in and get that one specific item; couples who like to shop together; and all the millions of people in the world who neither can, nor want to shop at all. Even shopping isn't universal in the way Kruger understands it.

This steroetyping is insulting to everyone.

Kruger's research begs the question and is unscientific and illogical. I really do wonder whether Kruger has read Darwin. Nonsense like Kruger's is damaging, sometimes funny, but still damaging. More and more I am deeply suspicious of the agenda of some evolutionary psychologists.

And now I'm off to go Christmas shopping; I've planned all the purchases, have a list and just want to dash in, get the stuff and go home! Hmmm.

(man shopping photo credit)


Owen Gray said...

At Christmas time, it's wise to remember that the man who wrote "A Christmas Carol" offered us several portraits of pomposity.

And he knew that not all human change was evolutionary.

ChrisJ said...

Owen, Very astute - and nice connection to make, not only to Dickens, but to Christmas shopping!

Zuri said...

The Galapagos Islands are the most incredible living museum of evolutionary changes, with a huge variety of exotic species (birds, land and sea animals, plants) and landscapes not seen anywhere else.

ChrisJ said...

Zuri, sounds as if you have been there. If so, you are very lucky; what an experience!

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ChrisJ said...


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