V. S. Ramachandran

In 1997, V. S. Ramachandran published an article in the journal Medical Hypotheses (48:19-20), titled “Why do gentlemen prefer blondes?” In this article, he offers an adaptationist account of a putative male sexual preference for blond women. He has subsequently claimed that this article was a hoax, designed to reveal evolutionary psychologists’ gullibility to any remotely adaptationist claim. The following is Don Symons’ [slightly edited] email to Helena Cronin on the matter:

Herewith a few points about V.S. Ramachandran’s (VSR) “hoax” (see his book Phantoms in the Brain, NY: Morrow, 1998). First, it wasn’t a hoax in the sense that Sokal’s was. Sokal’s paper was inspired nonsense with no chance of being correct because there were no genuine hypotheses there to be correct or incorrect. VSR, by contrast, gives his hypothesis less than 10% chance of being true, implying that it IS an actual hypothesis, albeit not a very good one. (John Ziman, in Reliable Knowledge, guessed that 90% of what is in physics textbooks is correct and that 90% of what is in physics journals is incorrect…so maybe a 10% chance isn’t too bad.) Second, VSR’s paper was NOT published in an evolutionary psychology journal, it was published in Medical Hypotheses, which has nothing whatever to do with evolutionary psychology and, as far as I can tell, publishes every off the wall paper it receives, however absurd. If Medical Hypotheses is peer reviewed, it must be by chipmunks. If VSR really had a hoax in mind, why didn’t he submit it to Evolution and Human Behavior and see if he could slip it past peer review by actual adaptationists?

Third, at the most fundamental level, what VSR fails to comprehend is that adaptationism pervades every level of biological inquiry, and always has, because at every level descriptions of relevant phenomena are almost invariably functional descriptions. The only scientifically coherent account of the origin of adaptations, and hence the only scientifically coherent account of “function”, is evolution by selection. Thus, e.g., he claims that Margie Profet’s hypothesis about the function of pregnancy sickness is “untestable” (after misstating the hypothesis and failing to cite her scientific papers on the topic). VSR doesn’t understand that the logical status of the hypothesis that the function of the heart is to pump blood is EXACTLY the same as that of the hypothesis that the function of pregnancy sickness is to minimize the embryo’s exposure to teratogens in the maternal diet (or that the function of fever and of iron sequestration is to thwart pathogens). As Margie has elegantly shown in her Adapted Mind paper, her hypothesis is eminently testable.

Actually, VSR is inconsistent. On the one hand, he states that the brain is an organ, just like the liver and pancreas, and like every organ evolved by natural selection. On the other hand, he implies that hypotheses about brain adaptations are almost all untestable; the exceptions seem to be those that he personally happens to like, such as the hypothesis that women are monogamous and men are polygamous, but why this is somehow different from Margie’s hypothesis about pregnancy sickness is not explained.

When VSR cites the finding of Van [sic] der [sic] Berghe and Frost that lighter-than-average female skin is attractive universally, he places the word “scientific” in ironic quotation marks without giving any justification for his irony and without giving any criticism of their research. (The single biggest regret I have about The Evolution of Human Sexuality is that I let that one slip through my fingers. Anyone who even casually peruses the ethnographic record on sexual attractiveness can’t help but note that the lighter-than-average female skin preference comes up again and again, in places with very different absolute skin colors (and darker-than-average never comes up); but I foolishly tried to explain it away, rather than to explain it, because at the time I was in love with notion that the “central tendency” is maximally attractive. I really regret leaving that tasty morsel for van den Berghe and Frost to pluck!) All this said, however, I reckon that satire and parody are underused in science, including in evolutionary psychology. For example, my paper “FLOAT” (published in The Best of the Journal of Irreproducible Results) demonstrates conclusively that many puzzling and unique features of human anatomy and psyche were adaptive during the aerial phase of human evolution.

Don Symons
Santa Barbara, April 2000.