Roger’s Rules

Stumbling over stubble, or misusing Darwin, number 456

“Women,” says a story in the London Telegraph , “prefer men with stubble for love, sex and marriage.”

Except, of course, for those who don’t.

But let’s leave aside this “finding” that catapults folks like Geroge Cloony and (let’s not forget) Yassir Arafat to the head of the line marked “romance.” Let’s grant, for the moment, that this is true. What explains it? Here’s what the story says:

The explanation for the preference is not clear, but experts in human evolution say that that facial hair may be a signal of aggression because it boosts the apparent size of the lower jaw, emphasising the teeth as weapons.

Have you ever heard anything as silly? Well, if you trundle through the literature penned by “experts in human evolution” you undoubtedly have. It’s full of things that make the contention that gals prefer chaps like Yassir because he has menacing looking canines look positively tame.

Consider this, from eminent sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, a great man with the ants, but a theorist who also asserted that “an organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA.”

Now, just sit back and think about that. Think, for example, of your favorite organism–your spouse, for example: is he or she only DNA’s way of making more DNA? Is E. O. Wilson himself only a mechanism for the production of deoxyribonucleic acid?

Or how about Richard “Mr. Selfish-Gene” Dawkins‘s claim that “we are . . . robot-vehicle blindly programmed to preserves the selfish molecules known as genes.” We’ve heard something similar, of course, from astrologers, who think people are “robot-vehicles” programmed by the stars, Freudians, who think peoples are “robot-vehicles” directed by the Id, and Marxists who think people are “robot vehicles” programmed by economic forces.

Or how about the claim made by the British evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton who said that “we expect to find that no one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but that everyone will sacrifice it for more than two brothers [or offspring], or four half brothers, or eight first-cousins.” Really? Want to make a bet about that?

What if Hamilton turns out to be wrong? I mean, what if you have a chap who does not sacrifice his life for two brothers, or four half-brothers, or eight first-cousins? What if you have a 100, or a 1000 such chaps? Would it make him or his followers change their theory? Dream on! As Wittgenstein said in another context, a “picture holds them captive” and the automatic response to contrary evidence is to blame the evidence. William Miller, a 19th-century Baptist preacher, predicted that Christ would return to earth on October 22, 1844. When he failed to make the appointment, many of Miller’s followers left, but a hardy band of true believers honed their hermeneutical skills and kept the faith.

No, such details as the 1000 chaps who don’t sacrifice themselves for their eight first-cousins are said to be “difficulties,” or “anomalies,” or perhaps even “problems” for the theory. But one recalls David Hume’s remark about the absurdity of “calling a difficulty what pretends to be a demonstration and endeavouring by that means to elude its force and evidence.” Where’s Hume when we need him?