January 8, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Lice and Licentiousness in Paleoanthropology

A paleoanthropologist believes our ancestors ran nudist colonies for 830,000 years before inventing clothes, and can prove it from lice genes.  The story is on Science Daily.
    By comparing head lice and clothes lice genomes, David Reed at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida came up with a date for the invention of clothing: 170,000 years ago.  With taxpayer funding via the National Science Foundation, Reed pieced together clues from genes, ice cores and evolutionary theory to weave his story, which includes a long period of social nudity.
    According to Reed, humans lost their body hair one million years ago, but started wearing clothes 170,000 years ago.  That leaves 830,000 years for our imaginary ancestors to cavort around in birthday suits.  “It’s interesting to think humans were able to survive in Africa for hundreds of thousands of years without clothing and without body hair, and that it wasn’t until they had clothing that modern humans were then moving out of Africa into other parts of the world,” he said.
    Parts of this story don’t hang well together, though.  Africa is pretty warm, but he said they invented clothes to survive one of the Ice Ages, presumably in Europe.  Ian Gilligan, another colleague on Gilligan’s island of Australia, said, “It means modern humans probably started wearing clothes on a regular basis to keep warm when they were first exposed to Ice Age conditions,” even though there were warm areas they could have remained in, like Africa.  But if they needed warmth, why did humans lose their hair in the first place, and why didn’t other mammals invent clothes?  The alleged human ancestors could have dug burrows, or stayed by the fire they were inventing while evolving technology.
    Of course, there’s no way to know what early evolving people were wearing, if anything, because textiles do not preserve well in the fossil record.  And estimating the evolution of clothing by lice genes assumes that humans and lice evolved, a circular argument.  It doesn’t matter to Reed, though.  It would be impossible to go back in time and check his theory out.  Maybe next he will investigate the evolution of shame, and the evolution of evolutionary storytelling.

One can’t make a case on such threadbare evidence.  This contrived tale is merely a fig leaf, made up of NSF dollars, covering up shameful science.  Don’t tell the Discovery Channel, Science Channel and History Channel.  Now that the FCC has apparently opened the door to more nudity on television (Fox News), those apeman documentaries could really start to get risque.  The lice, though, may love all the new real estate.

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