Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Purpose of Baldness

Experts say they have discovered what they believe is the root cause of male pattern baldness - faulty stem cells. [Cause of male baldness found, BBC News 5 January 2011]

The BBC News story puts the word "cause" into inverted commas, presumably to indicate that it sees a problem with the attribution of causality, but it doesn't seem to see a problem with the word "fault". And yet on what grounds does it make sense to identify this feature as a "fault"?

The human body has many features that reveal one's age and health to potential sexual partners. Evolutionary biologists are fond of attributing purpose to these features, which supposedly help to bias reproductive activity towards the "fittest" members of the population; these biologists often speculate that these features have evolved because of the possible advantage they could confer, both to those individuals who send the "right" signals and also to those individuals who respond "correctly" to these signals. This kind of argument supposedly explains why men are attracted to certain kinds of women, and women are attracted to certain kinds of men.

An interesting example is the lack of a penis bone in humans, which Richard Dawkins has explained by the argument that it is biologically useful for young women to differentiate between those men who can produce a decent erection and those who cannot. On the same logic that would regard male pattern baldness as a "fault", an impotent man might regard the lack of a penis bone as a "design fault" that prevents his competing with younger and more vigorous men.

Obviously there is plenty of money involved in faking the signs of youth and good health - everything from hair transplants and botox to plastic surgery. But men and women are often conned into spending substantial sums of money on painful treatments that don't make them any more attractive to the opposite sex and merely make them look ridiculous. Maybe it's easy for me to say, but there are worse things than baldness.

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