15 March 2007

Why Aren't Humans Furry?

A fascinating proposal -- viz., that Stone-Age mothers may have regarded furry babies as unattractive and thus abandoned them, in order to devote the community's limited resources to nurturing and rearing hairless (or less hairy?) babies deemed to be attractive -- was recently offered up by the distinguished developmental psychologist, Judith Rich Harris. Harris' conjecture has received quite a bit of attention this week, after being awarded the 2006 David Horrobin Prize for Medical Theory on Tuesday. Here is the press release.

While I have no trouble accepting the suggestion that parental selection may have been a non-trivial factor in the evolutionary development of our species, I find rather incredible the suggestion that the basis of such selection can be put down to attractiveness. I'm also rather reluctant to concede this "just so" story:

Harris suggests that Neanderthals must have been furry in order to survive the Ice Age. Our species would have seen them as "animals" and potential prey. Harris’ hypothesis continues that Neanderthals went extinct because human ancestors ate them.

Then again, I haven't read Harris's work yet, so it's important to try to keep an open mind. To that end, I'm likely to pick up her No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality (Norton 2006) just as soon as the budget allows (Amazon link).

Incidentally, Harris herself has led a wholly unconventional career, as this brief bio confirms. Since the 1970s, she has suffered from a chronic autoimmune disorder -- a combination of lupus and systemic sclerosis -- that has left her physically incapacitated. As far as I can tell, all of her work has been done while bedridden.

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