“Nasty, Brutish, and Short” was not the name of a 17th century law firm, and neither was it a completely apt depiction of the six foot Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679), who coined the phrase to describe life in mankind’s natural state. What he thought about lawyers, accountants, and others who tend towards some of life’s more unnatural states probably could not be printed here. As Hobbes is considered the founder of modern political science, his words pack a punch, a punch that has even reached into the future to rock modern evolutionary science. No matter the century, science always seems to take it on the chin, as evidenced now by a fight over the theory that human hands evolved to throw punches in concert with the human faces that evolved to receive them, and the advice of other scientists that the author be checked for a concussion.
In one corner we have David Carrier, a University of Utah biologist who has quickly moved up to the heavyweight division. Not everyone agrees he belongs there. An aggressive challenger to the establishment, David leads with a hard-hitting combination theory that the hands and faces of human males evolved to hit and be hit in response to selective pressures for mates and resources. He does not say whether the selective pressures of clubs and rocks might have produced a different theory, or different faces. David’s height and weight are unknown, but his reach is impressive, having been published in the Journal of Experimental Biology and Biological Reviews, and covered by media outlets like NPR and the BBC, both of which profess to have no money on the match. Questions of intimidation have gone unanswered however.
In what he calls the “protective buttressing hypothesis,” Carrier contends that the protruding jaw, sturdy cheekbones, and thick brow ridge of our early male forbears evolved to protect the face from injury during fist fights. He comes to this conclusion based in large part on his study of skulls through the ages. Also of his observation that it is these very bones that are most commonly broken in a fight, a fact which I had heretofore ascribed to what I called the “piñata theory” of skull development. Regardless of the name, a key component of Carrier’s hypothesis stems from his other observation that these same bones evolved to be structurally slighter in females, who are not so prone to fisticuffs. Females, who have been observing males for some time themselves, suggest that such skull reinforcement might have evolved to protect what’s left of the male brain.
Carrier also proposes that the unique ability of human hands to form fists arose in part due to the same selective fighting pressures, and performed experiments to demonstrate the pressure that various types of hits exerted without damaging the hand. In what must have been a surprise to Carrier alone, fist punches beat slaps three to one, and only succeeded in damaging his reputation. To be fair, he does not dismiss the primary theory that dexterity was the primary driver of hand evolution, which really accelerated tool making capabilities, but he will fight anyone who says the fist did not also belong in every Homo habilis (handy man) tool box.
In another corner we have J V Chamary, not only an evolutionary biologist, but also a bare knuckle boxer, who likely believes Carrier could not only benefit from a science lesson, but also a few minutes in the ring with him. He notes that Carrier’s experiments failed to account for the facts that a swinging hook is far more common than a straight punch, and that the head will rotate away from a punch, lessening both the impact of the punch and the impact of Carrier’s theory. More importantly, Chamary says Carrier completely overlooked the role females have had in shaping the male face, and that a strong jaw, cheekbones, and brow might easily have been selected by them for their implied masculinity and survival prospects. Either way, it was no time to be chinless. The only thing the competing theories prove for sure, however, is that males are completely justified now in blaming females not only for the way they act, but also for the way they look.
And in yet another corner await the paleoanthropologists, and who wouldn’t want a paleoanthropologist or two in their corner when the going gets rough. Owen Lovejoy of Kent State University and Andrew Kramer of the U. of Tennessee claim that the human face is merely a spandrel, a byproduct of other evolutionary forces that were responsible for the real shaping, namely our increasing brain size, and the bones and muscles needed for chewing hard foods. Carrier responded swiftly with two hypothetical uppercuts that may have reshaped the paleoanthropologists thinking, if not their jaws. He replied that neither of those forces would explain the gender differences in our faces. To date, all parties have been reluctant though to point out that the male brain is in fact ten percent larger than the female brain, perhaps for fear that females might respond by reshaping their faces yet again.
At issue in this fight is the question of whether violence is central to the evolution of our species, or if, as Jean Jacques Rousseau postulated in his Theory of the Noble Savage, we only became violent with the advent of civilization. While we wait for either an answer from the scientists or the advent of civilization, it should be noted that scientists as a rule are not more inclined to brutality than other humans, aside from literary critics, and that it is actually a good thing when they fight. When scientists fight, science advances, slowly but surely, leaving behind only bruised egos, and, unfortunately, a segment of the population who would rather trust politicians. While painful to watch at times, it is not nearly as painful as watching politicians fight. With their proven abilities to reshape the face of science itself, we may all soon have a ringside seat to the fight for our lives.