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Discuss evolutionary explanations of food preference (24 marks)
To understand the evolution of food preferences passed on by our distant ancestors, we must
understand the environment they lived in. The environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA) refers
to the environment in which our ancestors lived and evolved, over 2 million years ago in the African
savannah. The adaptive problems faced by our ancestors in the EEA would have shaped our early
food preferences; for most of human history, humans lived together in hunter-gatherer societies
which would have led to a preference for high calorie and easily available food for energy.
As a result, this preference for fatty foods is an adaptive response to early diets because harsh EEA
conditions forced humans to seek high-calorie foods which promote survival, achieved through high
energy to keep warm and catch food. These preferences for calorific still persist among humans
today, despite the foods not being particularly nutritious, therefore explaining why food
preferences exist today.
There is supporting evidence for the importance of calories in early diets through research by Gibson
and Wardle (2001) who found that the best way to predict which fruit and vegetables would be
preferred by a 4/5 year old was to measure how calorie-rich they were. Bananas and potatoes are
rich in calories and mostly preferred, supporting the claim that humans have an evolved preference
for food-preference which has an adaptive value.
On the other hand, methodogical issues raise doubt over the internal validity of the study because it
could simply be that children were attracted to certain fruits because such as potatoes and bananas
because of their soft and bright texture, as opposed to a dull non-calorific food such as a kiwi,
therefore making the evolutionary explanation of food preference hard to support.
In addition, many food preferences can be traced back to adaptive EEA-pressures but it is not always
the case; some modern preferences, (such as low cholesterol foods) could not have evolved during
EEA because they would hinder our ancestor's survival, suggesting it's a modern adaption.
Similarly, many things which were important to our distant ancestors (such as saturated animal fats)
are harmful in modern environments, so we are more likely to avoid them today because they are no
longer adaptive to live a healthy life, which suggests that although the process is slow there are still
changes in our food preferences to match our environment.
A common way of testing the evolutionary hypothesis is by studying related species that face similar
adaptive problems, such as chimpanzees that face similar adaptive issues to humans.
Stanford found that after starving a sample of chimps for most of the year, they went straight for the
fattiest parts of their kill to take on as much energy and fat as possible, supporting the adaptive
Though there are ethical issues with Stanford's study by starving and causing extended pain to
animals, which doesn't stand to reason against BPS guidelines, thus making the research unreplicable
and unfalsifiable in supporting the evolutionary explanation. In addition, Stanford's study can be
criticised as being an imposed etic as researchers assume findings are relevant to humans as well,
though the anatomy between both species are vastly different and findings cannot be
Instead, the evolutionary explanation may mask proximate causes of the same behaviour, such as
advertising and availability of food- thus a person's food preference may be explained through
behaviourist explanations such as the social learning theory, because parental modelling of attitudes
to food affects their offspring's own attitudes because parents control what's being served in the
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house. For instance, Brown and Ogden found correlations between parents and children in terms of
snack intake and eating motivation because the offspring have observed their parents' behaviour
and are motivated to reproduce that behaviour.
Another evolutionary explanation of food preference is taste aversion, first discovered by farmers
trying to get rid of rodents.…read more