The scientific sin of a ‘just-so story’

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by Neil Godfrey

In his enormously popular but scientifically questionable bestseller The Naked Ape, the writer Desmond Morris suggested that lipstick was an attempt to make women’s facial lips resemble the engorged sexually aroused genital ones. It might be a superficially attractive argument, but upon the slightest degree of scrutiny it vanishes in the haze, for there is just no evidence for this to be true. If it were true, we would expect to see selection for lipstick wearing, and higher reproductive success in women who wear lipstick. It also doesn’t account for the changes in styles and colours of lipstick, or the fact that most women haven’t worn lipstick for the vast majority of human history, yet still somehow managed to give birth to a healthy cohort of progeny. It is an example of the scientific sin of a ‘just-so story’ – speculation that sounds appealing, but cannot be tested or is devoid of evidence.

Rutherford, Adam. 2018. The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 83
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3 thoughts on “The scientific sin of a ‘just-so story’”

  1. • “If someone charges that my endeavor here is wholly speculative, I congratulate him on his grasp of the obvious.” [Price (2012) The Amazing Colossal Apostle p. 249.]

    Nothing wrong with speculation per se, as long as it is not taken out of the context of speculation and asserted as fact.

    For example, one might think Morris incorrect and thus examine women’s upper lips, noting that the thickness decreases with age. They might then speculate that lipstick is a cosmetic that makes a women look younger and perhaps more desirable in evolutionary terms, if it is true that men prefer younger mates (ceteris paribus).

    1. Sexuality can also be influenced by societal norms to eroticize the young- E.g. institutionalized same sex pederastry (boy love) and thiasos (girl love) in ancient Greece. In our time, it’s interesting that heterosexual men encourage lesbianism as erotic, but heterosexual women don’t get turned on by gay male behavior- Heterosexual Male Harem Mentality. And for some reason we’ve reached the point in culture where men are no longer attracted to adult women (hairy legs, pits, and vagina).

  2. I would have chosen another example to demonstrate the just so story, just so to illustrate that, the psychoanalyst joke:

    Look a here, what do you see in this inkblot, first that comes in your mind?:

    It’s a gorgeous naked woman with her legs spread, doc.

    Hmm, interesting, and this one?

    Another gorgeous naked woman with legs spread, but with bigger cans.

    Now, now, and this one?

    Ooooh, that’s another bare-naked beauty with her legs spread, she’s winking at me!

    Sir, you have a serious pathological condition, a perverted sexual fixation with women, you see them everywhere, naked and all that, we must do something about that.

    That’s rich coming from you, who is showing of all the porn hidden in his drawer then? You pervert, you!

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