I’m supposed to be writing the second part of a post about birds, but I’m finding it a little difficult to concentrate. I am, you see, preoccupied with thoughts about naked people. And my father-in-law. This sort of thing happens to me quite often. It’s a little disconcerting.
I’ve always found it difficult to focus. There is always some idle thought tugging away at the edges of my mind. It gets in the way sometimes. It drags me up out of the book I’m reading and thrusts me into another space entirely. It makes studying an ordeal. And it can get a bit tricky when I’m trying to write. It’s hard to rattle on about Oxpeckers when all you can think about is naked people. And your father-in-law.
So today, I’m going to do something different. I’m going to go with it. You are not going to read about Oxpeckers. Instead you are going to bounce around the distracted edges of my mind with me and see what I have to cope with. And some days, I have to cope with quite a lot.
By the time I settled down to write about birds this morning, my head was humming with thoughts about nudity, the Iditarod, sweaty horses, long distance running, pubic hair, Bushmen, swimming monkeys, lice, perspiration, my father-in-law, deserts, weakness and why we stand upright. I’m going to spend a little time tying them together. We can pretend it’s a science post.
Where it all starts.
I wrote a post the other day about tracking. And reading. Part of the post touched on why a species that spent the vast bulk of its time on earth wandering about naked on the sun-blasted plains of Africa should be not just capable of, but ideally suited to storing and retrieving complex information on pieces of paper.
Reading is a very new thing indeed. We’ve only been reading and writing for a couple of thousand years, certainly not for long enough for us to have evolved any sort of aptitude for it. So that aptitude must have been there for some other reason, and just coincidentally turned out to be perfectly suited for the lofty heights we have reached with “50 Shades of Grey”.
I won’t go over it all again, but writing that post did get me thinking about another human curiosity. Where did all our hair go?
There are lots of questions like this. Why are we so weak? Our closest relative, the Chimpanzee, is perfectly capable of tearing one of our arms off. Why are our skins so ridiculously thin? The hide of a buffalo can stop a bullet, while we can shed litres of blood when we knock our heads on a kitchen cupboard. Why are we so slow? Embarrassingly slow. The nimble white rhinoceros, over 2000 kg of plodding, lumbering bulk, can run at over 50km/h. The best Usain Bolt has done is about 37km/h. He’s a phenomenon. At full tilt he can just keep up with a hippopotamus.
But today, one question fills my head. Why are we naked? Not in the “always use safe-search when looking at Google Images” sense, but in the “almost everything else has a thick coat of fur” sense.
Evolution is an elegant but complex theory. It’s very easy to subvert it with lazy thinking. It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at what we are now and thinking everything up until this moment was leading up to this. We get trapped into thinking that we became weak and naked and slow because we are just so damned clever. Our bodies have begun to wither and atrophy because we’re some way down the path that ends with us being enormous pulsating brains floating in levitating robot jars, and the loss of all our hair is part of that.
This simply isn’t the case. Our bodies didn’t become hairless because we invented clothes. We invented clothes because we were hairless.
The truth is that we are naked for a reason. We actively shed our hair because losing it was a good thing. The problem is that no-one can agree as to what that reason is. There are a few different theories out there, some better than others.
Dolphins have no hair. Neither do whales. They’re quite good at swimming. Hippos have very little hair. They, believe it or not, cannot swim at all, but they do spend a lot of time in the water. And so we come to the first “why we are naked” theory; we used to swim too. A lot. We swam so much we lost all of our hair and grew fat instead. And grew funny shaped noses.
The theory is that for at least part of our long history on this planet we were aquatic apes. Swimming monkeys.
On the face of it, this is a very silly theory indeed. Otters are quite good at swimming. So are seals. And they are hairy. So hairy that we like to shoot them and wear them out to exclusive dinner parties. If we were ever aquatic apes, we spent far less time in the water over the millennia than seals did. Or otters. And then we emerged, water dripping from our funny shaped noses, and wandered back out into those sun blasted plains of Africa.
But it’s not actually that silly. We are phenomenal swimmers. Throw a dog, a deer, a chimp, a baboon and a person into a pool and let them have a race. There is no comparison. The person would be fully dressed and trying to hail a taxi by the time any of the others reached the other side.
On top of that, hair isn’t great for swimming. Just look at the male swimmers in the Olympics. They’re as smooth as babies. They shave, because every millisecond counts, and hair slows you down. The reason we wear otter and seal fur out to dinner parties is that it is special. It’s thick, incredibly dense, and waterproof. And it’s smooth. It’s there to keep the cold out. But there is a better way of doing this. Fat.
Whales and dolphins don’t need fur coats because they have a thick layer of fat under the skin. This doesn’t look quite so stylish out on the town, but we shot them too, because apparently fat is also quite handy. And we, too, have a layer of fat under our skins.
We can hold our breath, too. Most terrestrial animals have no control over their breathing- it’s like a heartbeat. This gives us an unusual skill. We can dive.
And then there are our noses. They are a funny shape. You don’t realise it, because you’re used to it, but check out some pictures of animals on the internet. Most animals have noses built into their jaws structures. We are primates. Most primates have flat faces like ours, but their noses are different. They have holes in their faces. We have beaks. Huge, fleshy protuberances that snap like twigs when we play rugby or walk into glass doors. There is no immediately obvious reason for them to be like that. Our sense of smell is lousy. But they are quite handy for swimming. They point downwards, which keeps the water out.
There is one monkey out there with a nose that rivals ours. In fact it makes ours look a little conservative. It’s called a proboscis monkey, and it has a nose sent by the gods. A conk. A whopper. And here’s the thing. They are semi aquatic. They are swimming monkeys.
But then it all starts to fall apart. Firstly, there is simply no evidence for the theory. No fossils of aquatic apes have ever been found. On the surface, this is not a big deal. Our fossil record is patchy at best. There are huge gaps in it. But there is a caveat in that. Fossils form better in water than they do on land. We have million-year old teeth and bones from relatives who lived millions of years ago. In dry, hot places. We have none from places that were under water.
And there’s something else. No-one is suggesting we took to the water permanently. We would have come out at night, for a start. And we would have come out to give birth. And look after our children. In fact, if you look at the serious proponents of the theory, you find that what they’re suggesting is not that we powered through the depths like Aquaman. They are suggesting that we, as a species, spent a time living along the shore and getting much of our food from the water. By wading. Occasionally. Like Proboscis monkeys. Which have full coats of fur.
Every part of the theory has a rebuttal. The fat? If you have no fur out of the water, you need to make alternative arrangements for insulation just as much as in. The noses? The noses of people indigenous to Africa are flatter and less prominent than those of populations that left Africa and moved north. Whatever is happening to our noses has nothing to do with swimming. The breathing? We can control our breathing better than most animals because we can talk. Human speech takes incredibly fine control.
And so the theory fails. No-one reputable buys it. Which is sad. Because it was cool. Cooler than cooties.
If you suffer from OCD, brace yourself. At least half of you reading this have mites living on your eyelashes. They are tiny, and hide away in your hair follicles. And when you go to sleep at night, they come out and wander around your face.
As the poem goes “Big beasts have little beasts, upon their backs to bite ‘em. Little beasts have smaller beasts, and so ad infinitum”. Every mammal plays host to cooties. As do we. What is puzzling, though, is that we have so few.
This is nothing to do with living in an age of soap and laundry. Even when we bathed ourselves once a year, and sewed our toddlers into their clothes, we had far fewer external parasites. Because they simply don’t exist. Which is a bit of a puzzle. Everything else has them. Why not us?
The answer to that might be hair. Hair is the anchor which holds these creatures on the bodies of their hosts. So maybe, just maybe, we lost our hair to rid ourselves of our cooties. Getting rid of your cooties can be a very big deal. Because some cooties can make us sick. Bubonic plague sick.
We do still have some cooties big enough to bother us. There are head-lice. And fleas. And when we find ourselves infested with them, we shave off the rest of our hair. Which makes the theory all the more plausible.
There is a problem with the theory, though. Cooties like dark, moist, sheltered places to hide away in. Guess which hair we didn’t lose. It knocks some of the shine off the whole “get rid of the cooties” theory that we did hold on to a few patches of hair. The hair on our heads is one thing; it’s out there in the sun and the rain. But we kept our armpit hair too. And our pubic hair. The hair that we kept is the best hair for keeping cooties. And cooties we have kept. Pubic lice. Crabs. Although there is something a little odd about our pubic lice. It’s not ours. We got rid of our own, and stole the current lot from gorillas a couple of million years ago. I will not speculate as to what we were doing at the time.
That whole “survival of the fittest” thing can be a bit misleading. It makes us think of evolution as a system the favours the strongest. The fastest. The sneakiest. It doesn’t. It favours the ones who have the most sex.
Peacocks are very badly designed indeed. They are big, juicy, turkey-sized birds. They share their natural home with tigers. And leopards. And instead of being sleek, fast, and camouflaged, they have decided to grow a huge, ungainly, gaudy tail to drag around and flash at Peahens.
If evolution was all about the survival of the best survivors, there would be no peacocks. Those tails slow them down. They make it harder to fly. They make it very hard to hide away. But they do something else, too. They drive Peahens wild. It’s all rather simple for peacocks. Tails are sexy. The bigger and brighter your tail, the more sex you have. The more sex you have, the more babies you have. And so those big, bright, burdensome tails get bigger, and brighter, and more burdensome.
Sex explains that enormous conk on that proboscis monkey up there, too. The males’ noses are so comically enormous for one reason. Girl monkeys find them sexy.
And maybe, just maybe, sex explains why we are hairless. What if hairlessness was sexy? What if the men and women with the least hair had the most sex? Or at least got the best mates. That would explain why we’ve ended up naked. Sounds silly, doesn’t it?
It’s not. Pop down to the mall. Count how many beards you can see. Shaving is not new. It’s been around for so long that it predates blades. Men used to shave by plucking out their beard hairs. Why? Because, generally, women find clean shaven men more sexy.
And vice versa. Women shave much more than men. They shave their legs. They shave their armpits. And now that technology has caught up, they get Brazilian waxes, too. Why? Because most men find it sexy.
There is another theory. It’s my favourite one. It just feels right to me. Maybe that’s because it’s the one in which we are not weak. We are not puny. We are not slow. We are, in fact, tougher than most animals. In a very particular way.
My father-in law was a long-distance runner. Very long distance. There is a race here called the Comrades. It’s an ultra-marathon. It’s about 90km long. He ran it thirteen times. He also did a race called the Washie. Once. That was about 160km long. It is remarkable to me that anyone should want to do this.
But what is more remarkable is that we can. Almost nothing else can. Cheetahs run blindingly fast. They’re the fastest land animals in the world. But half of their hunts end in failure. This is because they can only keep going for about 500 metres. Any more than this and they will overheat. And collapse. The same is true of lions.
Hyenas do a lot better. They don’t stalk their prey. They run it down. They can go for about 5km. At night. Wild dogs do the same thing. But they do it by day, usually early in the morning when it’s cool. This form of hunting is far more successful. The prey just runs out of steam. They can’t go on. They overheat.
But there is another predator in Africa. Us. This is a Bushman.
The last of the free living Bushmen live in a desert called the Kalahari. And they might just be able to explain why my father in law could run 160km. But not why he would want to. They are incredibly resourceful people. They have to be, or they will die. And one of their hunting methods is the same as those hyenas and wild dogs. They run.
They pick out their prey, and they start running after it. Usually they will shoot their target with a poison arrow, but poison isn’t magic. The black Mamba is Africa’s most poisonous snake, and a puny human can live for about an hour after getting bitten. A buck hit with a poison arrow doesn’t lie down and die. It runs. It runs far faster than that rhino that makes Usain Bolt look so slow. And far longer.
The Bushman’s prey disappears. But the Bushman has a trick up his sleeve. He can follow an animal that isn’t there, because the Bushmen are the best trackers in the world. They can pick out an individual trail and follow it to its end. And then they start to run. And run. And run. And they can do it in the heat of the day.
At first, they will hardly see their prey. Apart from the odd glimpse, they are following signs on the ground. But the animal they are chasing can’t go on for long. It will overheat. It will begin to slow down. Every time the Bushman gets close, the animal sets off again. But each time, it gets a little slower. Even without a poison arrow, it is dying. It’s overheating. By the time he catches up, the bushman won’t seem very weak any more. Or slow. When he catches up with his prey, it will be weak and disoriented with heat stress. And his family will be fed again.
And this might be the answer to why we are what we are. Heat. Human beings are phenomenal at coping with heat. Most animals lose excess heat by panting. All the extra heat is lost through the tongue. Imagine your car having a radiator the size of a tongue. Not us. We sweat. A lot. And our sweat keeps us cool.
Most animals sweat. But very few of them sweat all over their bodies. They might sweat from the pads of their feet, or their armpits or groins. But we are the champions. There is no part of our body that doesn’t sweat.
There is another animal out there that sweats like us. The horse. And guess what? It’s a long distance runner too. But not as good as us. Because it has fur. The sweat loses heat and the fur retains it. We have eliminated one side of this equation, and on a hot day, we can run a horse into the ground.
There are some better long distance runners than us out there. The dogs that run in the Iditarod, a sled race, are phenomenal. The race is over a thousand miles long. We simply cannot to that. But here’s the thing. That race is in Alaska. It’s a little cold there. We did not evolve in Alaska. We evolved here.
Bring those dogs out to the Kalahari and set them off on a race with that Bushman, and they won’t get very far at all. It’s just too hot.
And there you have it. Maybe you are naked because the advantages of being able to run around in a furnace have turned you into an enormous, moist tongue.
But there will always be maybes. We’ll never know for sure. We can’t go back in time. And even if we could, all we would get is a snapshot. Evolution is slow. Tens of thousands of years slow.
Maybe one of these explanations is the right one. Maybe it’s a combination. Maybe we found each other’s hairlessness sexy because hairless humans had less cooties. Or brought home more meat. Or maybe we’ve missed something. Maybe there’s another reason altogether.
Not knowing doesn’t really bother me. I’m not a paleoanthropologist. I can barely even spell it. And the answer won’t really change the way we see ourselves. These sorts of things are just interesting to think about. They are riddles. Logic puzzles on a grand scale. Fun ways to pass the time. Or infuriating, if you’re trying to write about Oxpeckers.
Well there we go. I have exorcised my demons. I have cleared my mind. I am free. My headspace is my own again. Any day now you will be reading about hornbills. And go-away birds. It’s going to be super.
If I can just stop wondering why an animal that lives for 80 years only has two sets of teeth. Or what our appendix is for. Or how we learned to speak. Or why, given a choice, babies never go for sky-blue ice-cream. Or why we sing. Or why a delicate skinned, naked biped couldn’t find a more sensible place to keep their reproductive organs.
Oops. Don’t hold your breath for that Oxpecker thing.