The Giraffe’s … tale.

“The great tragedy of Science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.“

Thomas H. Huxley (1825 – 1895)

English biologist; supporter of Darwin;
father of Aldous & Julian Huxley.

Missed Opportunities

In the lead up to this, the 200th anniversary year of Darwin’s birth, I’ve attended my fair share of evolutionary research seminars. Surprisingly, few presented alternative hypotheses, or better yet, multiple alternative hypotheses. In fact, rarely was a specific evolutionary hypothesis enunciated. And when one was, the speaker usually failed to point out what critical experiment or observation could falsify it. Admittedly, these talks were directed toward a general, non-specialist audience. But many of those in attendance were students and this “omission” seemed like a missed didactic opportunity. Moreover, Evolutionary Theory is championed (all too often in courthouses in the United States) as a true science (as opposed to Creation “science”) because its hypotheses are falsifiable. So where are all these falsifiable hypotheses????

My undergraduate Invertebrate Zoology professor, Demerest Davenport emphasized (i.e. drummed it into our skulls) that adaptive questions can be addressed using “Strong Inference”. He had us all read the 1964 SCIENCE article of that name, by John R Platt1. At the time I was not especially impressed because it sounded like what we had been taught in General Biology and General Chemistry and had already accepted as standard operating procedure. In his recent blog, Massimo Pigliucci2 suggests that the main point of Platt’s article was to explain why the “soft sciences” (including the evolutionary sciences) were less successful than the new (at the time) “hard sciences” like molecular biology and modern physics. I am not sure I agree with Pigliucci’s hard- vs soft-science dichotomy (perhaps that is a discussion for a later blog). In any case, as a young scientist, my take home message was that “Strong Inference” could be applied to all kinds of questions and that it should have been applied more often than it had. Perhaps, that is still so today.

Strong Inference

“In its separate element, strong inference is just the simple and old-fashioned method of inductive inference that goes back to Francis Bacon. The steps are familiar to every college student and are practiced, off and on, by every scientist. The difference comes in their systematic application. Strong inference consists of applying the following steps to every problem in science, formally and explicitly and regularly:

1) Devising alternative hypotheses;

2) Devising a crucial experiment (or several of them), with alternative possible outcomes, each of which will, as nearly as possible, exclude one or more of the hypotheses;

3) Carrying out the experiment so as to get a clean result;

1′) Recycling the procedure, making sub-hypotheses or sequential hypotheses to refine the possibilities that remain; and so on.”1

The advantage of testing a main hypothesis against multiple, alternative hypotheses is that it protects the scientist against what T.C. Chamberlin called over “affection for his intellectual child”:

“The moment one has offered an original explanation for a phenomenon which seems satisfactory, that moment affection for his intellectual child springs into existence and as the explanation grows into a definite theory his parental affections cluster about his offspring and grows more and more dear to him….There springs up also unwittingly a pressing of the theory to make it fit the facts and a pressing of the facts to make them fit the theory….”1

A Beautiful Hypothesis

Dr Stephen Colbert (Hon DFA) has pointed out, sometimes you have to think with your gut. And evolutionary theory can generate some great gut-worthy hypotheses that simply “feel” right. Here is an example: You all know “Why” the giraffe has a long neck? As long ago as Lamarck, the explanation has been “to get to the top of the acacia tree to reach the tender, most nutritious leaves'” Darwin and Lamarck may have differed in their notion of “How” the giraffe acquired its long neck but they would have agreed that it was advantageous in competing for food. We’ll call this the Interspecific Foraging Competition Hypothesis (IFCH). Soon after Darwin and Wallace proposed Natural Selection theory, the IFCH had become the accepted explanation for the giraffe’s long neck.

Now you have to admit that the IFCH is a beautiful hypothesis. It just feels right (sensu “Truthiness”). It just makes sense. It fits (with Darwinian natural selection).

Why ruin it by testing it?

An Ugly Fact

Why? Because there might be a better explanation. One obvious test of IFCH is to determine how giraffes actually USE their neck? In 1996, Robert Simmons and Lue Scheepers decided to do just that, and in their review of the literature, Simmons and Scheepers found that giraffes don’t use their neck in a way consistent with the IFCH — they tend to spend most of their time foraging at about shoulder height even when food is scarce and competition high. Now you could attempt to “save” the beautiful hypothesis by special pleading, or by suggesting that all of the many studies cited by Simmons and Scheepers “missed” something. Of course, then you would be reduced to simply refuting ugly facts. However, if there were plausible alternative hypotheses, then those could be explored and perhaps we can reject the IFCH without feeling empty-handed. The irony of the story of the giraffe’s long neck is that Darwin had developed another theory (Sexual Selection Theory) that could have been used to generate plausible alternative hypotheses to IFCH (although he didn’t know it at the time, he came close when he recognized that male giraffes use their long necks to swing their heavy skulls and stubby horns as weapons). But the rest of Simmons and Scheepers story will have to wait until next time.


In the next few months, I plan to discuss other missed opportunities and other ugly facts. I invite you to comment and perhaps suggest your own ugly facts, and/or alternative (beautiful) hypotheses. One difficulty is developing multiple, plausible, alternative hypotheses and this could be a place to air your ideas and perhaps get feedback. Science really is a collaborative effort.

— Tom Nolen, New Paltz, NY


Citations (Read these before posting comments –start by Googling the authors)

  1. Platt, JR (1964). Strong Inference: Certain systematic methods of scientific thinking may produce much more rapid progress than others. SCIENCE 146(3642), pp: 347-353.
  2. Pigliucci, M (2009). Strong Inference And The Distinction Between Soft And Hard Science. cited on the web, May 31, 2009.
  3. Chamberlin, TC, cited in Platt (1964) above.
  4. Simmons, R and Scheepers, L (1996). Winning by a neck. Sexual selection in the evolution of giraffe. American Naturalist. 148(5), pp: 771-786.

About Tom Nolen

Tom Nolen is an evolutionary biologist with an interest in sexual selection, as well as the neural basis of communication and sensory function. He is the chair of the Department of Biology at SUNY New Paltz and a founding member of the EVoS program there. While he mostly studies insects, snails and jellyfish, he has been known to observe the occasional Hominin, being one himself.
This entry was posted in Evolution and Biology, Evolution and Psychology, Evolution and Scientific Method, Fact, Hypotheses, Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Giraffe’s … tale.

  1. Avatar araujo says:

    You must see this:
    Cameron, E. & Toit, J. T. du. Winning by a neck: tall giraffes avoid competing with shorter browsers. American Naturalist, 169: 130-5, jan. 2007.

  2. Glenn Geher Glenn Geher says:

    Tom – what’s great about your post here and the resultant discussion with Bill is that it’s borne of genuinely critical and scientifically informed points that you raise. Do the data from observations of giraffe behavior bear out the adaptationist account based on natural rather than sexual selection? This is an important and empirical question.

    What I love about this discussion is the fact that you show that evolutionists can be highly critical of ideas presented by other evolutionists within the confines of an evolutionary perspective.

    With critics of our EvoS program, we so often see criticisms that try to take down a single idea or study and then follow with an implied “aha – so this evolution stuff is all washed up” sort of ring. Evolutionists are generally bright folks who are critical of research – but one can be critical of ideas rooted in an evolutionary perspectives without being dismissive of the whole thing and concluding that the “evolutionist account” is all wrong.

    Any phenomenon related to any life form (and yes, last I checked, we’re life forms) is necessarily the result – in some way or another – of evolution.

  3. William Tooke William Tooke says:

    Mea culpa…I didn’t mean to “tip your hand” by referring to the later paper. I incorrectly processed the to-be-continued nature of your post.

    Regarding the Mitchell, Sittert, and Skinner paper, I’m not completely persuaded by their argument as it suggests that minimal sex differences in morphology mitigate against a sexual selection explanation. This ignores the fact that there is clear BEHAVIORAL dimorphism in neck/head function, with morphological similarities being explained by common embryogenesis.

    As your post suggests, this is what makes the science fun. Congratulations on your new blog and I look forward to more…


  4. Avatar Tom Nolen says:


    I didn’t intend to imply that Simmons and Scheeper’s paper was the final word. I’ll discuss this new paper in the Journal of Zoology and Simmons and Scheeper’s paper next month, but it does make my point….. ;->

    — TN

  5. William Tooke William Tooke says:

    You may want to check out this recent set of facts about this particular issue:

    This is also of interest:

    It’s hard to keep up with this stuff, isn’t it?

Comments are closed.