James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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Hairy attempt to teach evolution

Dr James Le Fanu has no time for theories based on far-fetched sexual conjecture.

LAST month an Australian Professor of Physiology complained in The Lancet about what he called the "woeful scientific ignorance" of his medical students. The professor, R.V. Short, had circulated a questionaire asking for their views on the origins of life, only to find that a quarter thought that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was just plain wrong, and a further quarter were "not convinced" that man was decended from a hairy ape-like common ancestor.

Clearly something had to be done, so Prof Short organised a course of lectures on human evolution, at the conclusion of which he circulated his original questionnaire once again. To his "utter dismay", their opinions were unchanged. "I was shattered," he said.

Personally, I find it reassuring that Prof Short’s students proved so impervious to his lectures. Evolution by natural selection may, in some instances, have contributed to the diversity of the natural world, but it does not begin to explain even the simplest aspects of human physiology.

The hairiness of our ape-like "cousins", for example, protects them against cold nights and sudden chills in wet weather. When, for some reason, this protective coat is lost, they die, as they are unable to maintain their core temperature. What evolutionary advantage could there possibly have been in man becoming progressively less hairy to the point where hair effectively still functions – whether on our heads, in our armpits or groins – as a social adornment.

Darwin did acknowledge that man’s progressive denudation was difficult to reconcile with natural selection, and so proposed an alternative hypothesis: men and women, he argued, choose their partners on the basis of physical attractiveness, and, as the less hairy would have the advantage of superior beauty, they would be the most successful in mating.

It is difficult to understand how anybody can take seriously this sort of speculative conjecture, let alone credit it with the status of a scientific theory. So perhaps Prof Short’s students were a lot wiser than he himself in refusing to be impressed by pseudo explanations of what are, in essence, unfathomable biological mysteries.

In a rejoinder published last week, Alan Johnson, Professor of Surgery at Sheffield University, suggested that Prof Short would have "enhanced his reputation and had more success if he had pointed out the many things evolution does not explain, and presented the theory of natural selection merely as a hypothesis for a mechanism by which God created animals and the physical part of man".

If teaching the theory of evolution requires the presentation of conjecture as fact, sex education involves downright falsification. Opinions may differ about how and when to teach the subject. More attention should be paid to its content.

This struck me forcibly when I was interviewed by three pleasant six formers from Edinburgh for a school television programme because of my "controversial" views on the miniscule risk of contracting Aids by heterosexual intercourse.

I tried to explain, by analogy with the pattern of the spread of the Hepatitis B virus, that it was unlikely that there would be a heterosexual aids epidemic in this country, but that none the less the experts had cooked the statistics to make things appear more serious than they were. This seemed to come as a revelation to my interviewers. The version of events they had been taught turned out to have been based on a Government-approved booklet for teachers, HIV and Aids: a guide for the education services.

This advises that children should be taught that "the commonest route of infection is sexual intercourse with an infected person", which is true, but one would have thought it necessary to distinguish between the risks attached to different types of intercourse. Teachers are discouraged from making this distinction because "it is important to avoid any impression that Aids is a disease confined to high-risk groups".

It seems to me intellectually and morally dishonest for the Department of Education to promote material that exaggerates out of all commonsensical proportions the putative threat of the HIV virus to teenagers, and then, under the guise of "sex education", seek to protect them from that threat in a way that destroys their innocence and degrades sexuality. Mr Patten, please note.

FINALLY, some further contributions sent in by readers on the beneficial properties of urine.

Mr Frederick Perks from Hampshire writes: "When old houses, built with lime mortar were demolished, it was economical to pay a pensioner to ‘dress’ the bricks for reuse by chipping away the mortar. This made the man’s hands very sore, and relief was obtained by urinating on them – though I never saw anyone wash his hands before eating his ‘snap’."

Mrs Diana Heywood has brough to my attention the uses of urine mentioned in The Compleat English Physician, printed in 1693: "Cow’s urine is good against Pains of the Ears, if dropt in, and allays inflammations. A Dog’s urine cures warts, ulcers in the head, and Dandruff. Deer’s urine is good against the Collick, the Sciatica and stitches in the side." It would be interesting to know how the author, Wiliam Salmon, acquired this arcane wisdom.

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd