Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton: Wacky evolution and the survival of the unfittest theories

It's official: early humans lost their coats of fur to rid themselves of disease-carrying parasites - and became sexy in the process.

I love wacky evolution theories so the nattily entitled A Naked Ape Would Have Fewer Parasites was just the excuse I needed for some self-indulgent surfing.

I fell upon the story under the Sci/Tech section of Google.

Professor Mark Pagel's and Sir Walter Bodmer's thesis explains why our ancestors, unlike apes, lost their hair. Apparently, the less hair early hominids had, the less parasites there were on their skin and the more desirable they became as a mate - leading to the natural selection of less hairy partners.

Being naked meant you stood out among your hairy clan, which rather than causing embarrassment, was like carrying round an advertisement saying "No parasites on me".

Hairless men had women begging to bear their children, and women had suitors lining up at the cave mouth.

The aversion to parasites also helps to explain why women (and now, men) spend millions every year tearing their hair out with wax strips and depilatory lotions.

This latest wisdom supplants the hypothesis that humans became naked to keep cool. Which is just about as silly as Elaine Morgan's "aquatic ape" espoused in her 1972 book The Descent of Woman, which you can still find at

Morgan's notion was that early humans had a phase of living by the seaside - and often ran into the water to escape predators.

Which not only explains how we lost our body hair, but also how we acquired our upright walk, a layer of subcutaneous fat and sweat glands that secrete waxy sebum.

Critics said the theory did not hold water - anatomically, biochemically, behaviourally or archaeologically. But that's never stopped a crackpot.

My favourite is Oscar Kiss Maerth and his outrageous The Beginning Was the End, which proposes that we evolved from a twisted, mutant, cannibalistic race of apes with a penchant for eating brains.

The book was also the inspiration for 1970s band Devo's lyrics: "They tell us that we lost our tails evolving up from little snails. I say it's all just wind in sails. Are we not men? We are Devo!"

But eating brains also has unfortunate side-effects: increased sex-drive, increased brain size (yes, intelligence can be eaten), plus driving the eater (and offspring) slowly insane. Hence the human race today.

If this is all getting too silly, pay a visit to Seductions Of Pseudoarchaeology: Pseudoscience In Cyberspace. It has a top five of other off-the-planet (literally) evolution websites.

The site also leads to the Hall of Ma'at which aims "to provide a well-reasoned case for the mainstream version of ancient history".

As it points out, this can be quite dull "so it is not surprising that many readers are attracted by the more exciting version of events provided by the proponents of a lost civilisation." But the site does have some great debunking articles.

If you like serious academic stuff, try the Antiquity of Man. And if creation/evolution controversy is your thing, go to Talk Origins.

I tend to prefer the bizarre and liked Arguments we think creationists should NOT use which shows how hard it is to be an intelligent fundamentalist these days.

Then I discovered some news that threw my world view into turmoil early modern humans (about 25,000 years ago) and Neanderthals probably did not interbreed.

Italian scientists have extracted mitochondrial DNA from Cro-Magnon skulls that shows a clear genetic link to modern humans but not to Neanderthals.

You have to ask why, given that Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal fossils date to the same time and were found in the same general location, there wasn't any casual sex.

Were Neanderthals perhaps too hairy and riddled with parasites?

If Neanderthals did not contribute to the human gene pool, how do we explain Arnold Schwarzenegger?

* Email Chris Barton

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