Monday, February 23, 2009


A few years ago, I read Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade. The topic of the book is human evolution, a subject I find fascinating. (I think I picked up some of this enthusiasm from John Derbyshire, which is how I also think I first heard of the book.) The quest to learn more about ourselves, today, based on the actions and needs of our ancestors hundreds of millennia and more in the past, the way different angles and aspects can be seen to fit together, and studies of that nature appeals to a part of my personality and mind. (The flip side is that reducing everything to chemicals, chromosomes, neurons, and instinct can take much of the mystery and wonder out of life from another end, and I'm not sure if the former balances out the latter. Of course, what this can do to religious belief is an issue as well. But I digress.)

One of the points Wade makes is a theory about the appearance of children. We've all heard people go on about how a baby "looks just like his father" or "has his mother's eyes" or whatever. The sad, cold, scientific fact is that while this certainly becomes true as a child ages (some of my cousins are virtually identical to one or the other of their parents when they were the same age), babies...don't really look like anyone. They all look pretty much alike. Some of the details of their appearance, we're told, stirs deep instincts we've got from way back- the disproportionately large eyes, for example, are supposed to make us more protective. (This is also why we like Bambi.) But the similarity of appearance, Wade cites scientists as alleging, has a deeper purpose.

Not to put too fine a point on it, paternity (as opposed to maternity) is never certain, and, very often, isn't what you may think it is. This was certainly true among the cavemen, and, studies have shown (now that we can test DNA), it even holds true, in large numbers, today. So the identical appearance of newborns is somewhat defensive: A man, thinking his woman/spouse's child is his own, will not be disabused of that notion too early on and is thus prevented from abandoning them, at least at that stage and possibly forever. Going hand in hand with this are assurances that "the baby looks just like you!"; there is one crucial detail, and proof, of this which I will discuss below.

I had reason to think of Wade when reading of this horror story in England- the one with the thirteen year old kid who fathered a baby with a girl a few years older. That's not the half of it, of course- just when you think things can't get worse, you read on in the articles and discover that they can, and do. And then another paragraph, and it gets worse. And then another... Theodore Dalrymple is right; civilization really is breaking down in the scepter'd isle. (But isn't it everywhere, each place in its own way?)

The thing that made me think of Wade was a statement of the young lad's. Amid suspicions (based on some rather obvious vocal issues and the fact that he looks about five years younger than his age) that he, erm, isn't yet able to procreate, revelations that the young lady, despite her protests, was a bit of the village bicycle, and the claims of at least two other of her "lovers" that they are the proud daddy (there's gold in them thar tabloid hills, which seems to be one reason why a lunatic on another continent had fourteen kids in six tries), the young paterfamilias protested that his whole dysfunctional family claims the spawn looks just like him: "My Mum says she has my eyes!"

His eyes! Ha! Nicholas Wade lives! Some bearskin clad mammoth hunting ancestor of this kid (and, if statistics are to be believed, most of us) just moved his (more likely her- see below) lips in the grave!

Now, lest you think that living the stone age life somehow vindicates our modern day messed up choices, let me remind you that we should, in fact, evolve, not just physically and mentally but morally as well. (It is here that God enters- or, better, re-enters- the picture.) Not only is there no moral evolution in this picture, and not only has there been a regression since, oh, only a few decades back, it gets worse than that. Worse than the aforementioned mammoth-hunter, in fact.

You see, Wade points out that there's an interesting proof to the claim that "he has your eyes" (true or not) is a defense against paternal abandonment: Studies have shown that overwhelmingly, the claim is made by the mother's relations to the father regarding his appearance. Simply put, it's an instinctive move on behalf of the person and family who would be harmed by abandonment- namely, the mother's- to appease the father by assuring him that, indeed, it is his kid.

But note the crucial difference in the English story: The lass and her family need fear nothing. Abandonment is a way of life (Exhibit A: the father's family) and a coddling nanny state will surely provide. Here, it's the (alleged) father's family that's pushing paternity. And why not? It's not like he's going to have any responsibilities (he doesn't even know what "financial" means), no matter how old he'd have been, and, more importantly, there are the aforementioned tabloid fees, which seem to be the thing most on the family's mind (the baby being referred to as a "business interest" by the great-grandmother being a particularly sad touch).

Our supposedly primitive Cro-Magnon ancestors (and, to be fair, much more recent forebears as well) worried about such things as responsibility, care, support. We worry about getting on TV and making a buck. (Or, alternatively- just so we don't forget what's really at stake here- blowing ourselves up for Allah.) Regression indeed.

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