A few months ago, I had a bit of a ‘go‘ at the Horizon two-parter How Mad Are you? because I was unclear what science it was actually exploring. I came to the conclusion that it was a good piece of social programming, and that it could only have beneficial consequences in terms of stigma, but that I really didn’t see why it had been broadcast as part of the BBC’s premier science strand. It didn’t concentrate enough on hard-nosed science to warrant the inclusion, in my opinion.
Well, it seems they were just getting started. On Tuesday, Horizon broadcast a programme, What’s the Problem with Nudity? (available on the iPlayer here), that aimed to answer the questions: what is wrong with nudity; why are people embarrassed about their bodies; how and why did they get the way they are? Their method of investigating these issues was to lock a bunch of ‘ordinary people’ in a house in London, and make them wander around the place with their kit off, doing embarrassing things.
Now I don’t know about you, but even without having seen the programme, I had an idea I could answer the three questions they’d posed fairly easily:
What is wrong with nudity? Nothing, although you might at times find that it gets a little draughty round the Trossachs…
Why are people embarrassed about their bodies? Because there are social taboos against nudity.
How and why did they get the way they are? Because in growing up we all adopt the prevailing social taboos.
To be fair to Horizon, they interpreted the last question in more general terms than I’d expected. As well as looking at how people had become embarrassed about public nudity, they also answered the question in terms of why human being evolved away from having fur in the first place. This way of looking at the question did allow them to do some proper science reporting.
To summarise very briefly, the currently prevailing theory is that there was an evolutionary advantage in being able to sweat (we are apparently a lot sweatier than other primates), because it means we can dissipate the heat generated by our large brains. This in turn gave rise to an evolutionary advantage in losing fur, because fur (like clothing) limits the effectiveness of sweating. At the usual incremental-changes-over-millennia pace, this led to our ancestors gradually becoming hairless. This theory seems to have been partly confirmed by genetic analysis of lice, which has shown that the lice that live in the fur of chimpanzees and the lice that live in human hair diverged into separate species well before the emergence of modern humans.
This was all very interesting (well, ok, interesting if you’re me – people who get out and about a bit more might be less fascinated by lice…). I was slightly less certain about the method the programme-makers used to illustrate it, which was to make two of the volunteers (one clothed and the other naked) stand in front of a massive electric fire with a fan playing over them, and then film them with a thermal imaging camera to show how they were handling the heat. The trouble was that, in addition to the thermal images, there was also a lot of footage shot with a normal camera, and although they weren’t dwelling on the genitalia, the full-frontal approach left nothing to the imagination. This highlighted what was, for me, one of the major problems with the programme.
Even if you accept that it was necessary to show naked skin sweating in order to illustrate the point (and I’m not sure I do), there was absolutely no need for the guy sweating to be completely naked. Exactly the same point could have been made if he’d been allowed to keep his underpants on, so the full-frontal nudity was completely gratuitous. Now, I know there’s a lot of focus at the moment on how to make science more interesting and appealing, and documentary makers are part of the discussion. You could, I guess, take the view that, by smuggling some hard science in under the cover of a promise of lots of gratuitous nudity, the BBC were helping to broaden the reach of their science programming. Also, I’m really not a prude, and nudity doesn’t bother me in the slightest. If there had been lots of good science reporting happening with naked people involved, that would have been fine by me. The problem is that the naked people had the effect of deflecting attention away from the science, to the point where there was precious little science left.
The limited emphasis on science was reflected, I thought, in the fact that, for the bulk of the programme, they concentrated on some fairly dubious psychological experiments without, and this is the key problem, bothering to highlight the problems and limitations of those experiments. A good example of this occurred in the section of the programme that was looking at the reasons for the evolution of hairlessness. Before moving on to the sweat-related theory, the programme noted that Charles Darwin’s hypothesis had been that human ancestors had been more attracted to less hairy mates, and that over time this repeated sexual preference had led to the eradication of most body hair. The first thing that struck me about this hypothesis was that it was unprovable – unless someone invents a time machine, there’s no way of witnessing the breeding habits of extinct species. The programme did note, however, that some ‘evolutionary psychologists’ had begun to examine the issue, and had designed an experiment that the Horizon volunteers were invited to take part in.
In this experiment, the subjects were shown a sequence of pictures of male torsos, some of which had body hair, and some of which did not. The subjects were then asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how attractive they found each torso. The ‘twist’ to the experiment was that each torso appeared twice, once with hair, and once after being shaved, which should mean that it’s possible to adjust the results to take account of the effect that factors other than hairiness (body type, age etc) might have on the scores. The experiment found that, on average, the Horizon volunteers preferred hairless torsos to hairy ones. If I understood right, the formal academic experiment is still ongoing, and has not yet published any analysis of its results, but the Horizon voice-over drew the provisional conclusion that there was a marked preference for hairlessness, and implied that this supported the assertion that repeated expressions of sexual preference were, in part, responsible for the evolution of hairlessness. As far as I can see, that implication was entirely wrong.
Any experiment carried out in the present day can only capture present-day responses. In other words, all this experiment can ever hope to show is whether or not contemporary human beings prefer hairless men. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the ‘ideal body type’ for women is heavily influenced by the media, and that the use of exceptionally tall and thin models in fashion, especially, has had the effect of shifting this ‘ideal’ away from the more voluptuous curves of 1950s film stars to the ‘size zero’ body type that is celebrated today. It seems to me that, if the presumed ‘ideal’ of the female form can be affected in this way, the presumed ‘ideal’ of the male form will be equally susceptible to change. This would mean that the preference for hairless men isn’t some time-immemorial constant that has been driving evolution since before the dawn of the human species, but is rather a very short-term reflection of the types of men that have been celebrated as attractive in contemporary culture. It would seem as though this might be borne out by the fact that male ‘heartthrobs’ of the 1970s (e.g. Tom Jones) tended to be considerably more hairy than their 2000s counterparts (e.g. Brad Pitt).
I know very little about ‘evolutionary psychology’ (in fact, I hadn’t even heard of it until I watched this programme), but I do worry that the entire basis of the discipline might be a little shaky. Given that there are, by definition, no records of the psychology of extinct species, and no way of carrying out observations of them because they no longer exist, it seems to me that all an ‘evolutionary psychologist’ will be able to do is speculate, on the basis of responses by modern humans, what might have driven early hominids to behave in particular ways. These speculations would seem to be of limited benefit, given that an experiment intended to look at sexual preference for hairlessness across millions of years and multiple species is apparently unable to rule out the possibility that its data may have been contaminated by social changes occurring across only 30 years, and within only one species.
This same problem of treating socially-determined phenomena as though they are unchanging constants seemed to be something that had affected the thinking of all the ‘evolutionary psychologists’ who had taken part in the programme. One such person was Professor Dan Fessler, who the programme-makers presented as being able to provide the answer to one of their fundamental questions: why are people embarrassed about their bodies?
Professor Fessler began by speculating that embarrassment is what people experience when they break a social taboo in a minor way, for example as a result of brief, inappropriate nudity, and that it is one end of an emotional spectrum at the opposite end of which are the severe feelings of shame that people experience when they violate a taboo in a more important way, for example through sexual infidelity. He went on to suggest that feelings of shame are associated with sexual infidelity because a disruption of the pair-bond between two parents impacts on their ability to care for their offspring. Finally, Professor Fessler proposed that, since public displays of nudity would represent enhanced temptations to sexual infidelity, the embarrassment associated with nudity is part and parcel of the social taboo against unfaithfulness.
It seemed to me that there are two main problems with this hypothesis. Firstly, it’s based on the presumption that nakedness enhances sexual temptation. Secondly, it assumes that having multiple sexual partners will disrupt the rearing of offspring.
The weakness of the first of these presumptions was actually demonstrated by the programme itself, although they didn’t explicitly draw the connection. By means of an eye-tracking experiment on two of their volunteers, the programme-makers established that, regardless of whether they were faced with a clothed or unclothed body, the ‘natural’ instinct of human beings is to look primarily at the shoulders, hips, and waist, rather than at the genitalia, or secondary sexual organs. In other words, visual perception of sexual desirability seems not to be related to the visibility or otherwise of the genitalia, but rather to assessments of other body parts that can be made regardless of whether or not the body is clothed. The programme also speculated that differences in scent between individuals may affect how desirable they seem. Needless to say, if judgments of sexual attractiveness are not based on the presence or absence of nudity, then it cannot be assumed that embarrassment regarding nakedness is related to shame about provoking sexual infidelity.
There are also, it seems to me, a number of problems with the second presumption. For example, why is it necessarily the case that, if a male is involved in a sexual relationship with more than one female, his children by previous partners will no longer be cared for? This assumes that children can only access food and shelter as a result of their association with their father. This might, perhaps, be true in a society based upon autonomous family units, but in a tribal society, in which resources are shared equally between all members of the tribe, it would seem not to apply. It is worth bearing in mind that humans, and our precursor species, lived in tribal structures for a lot longer than we have lived in families. This would seem to be a prime example of the kind of difficulties that can arise if (comparatively) short-term social structures like autonomous family units are presumed to be constant across evolutionary timescales.
I should probably stress that my objection isn’t that these theories were included in the first place – given that they are being promoted by a professor at a university as prestigious as UCLA, it would probably count as irresponsible not to include them. My problem is that the programme-makers didn’t emphasise that such theories are currently (and likely to remain) unsubstantiated, and that there are other plausible explanations for the same phenomena. I think it’s always regrettable when popular explanations of science don’t draw a distinction between the wilder hinterlands of speculation and established fact. It helps to encourage the view that all science is as vague and uncertain, and that, therefore, there’s no reason not to believe that, for example, being massaged with lavender oil is as good a way to combat cancer as having chemotherapy.
As with the How Mad are You? two-parter, I didn’t entirely hate this programme. I may complain about their lack of emphasis on what I think of as ‘hard science’, but Horizon documentaries are at least always intelligent, and thought-provoking. As such, they make a nice contrast to the kind of schlock-horror shows, like Catastrophe, that pass for science programming on Channel 4. It’s always good, as well, to see a science programme explain an aspect of evolution without feeling the need to mention the ‘debate’ with creationists. There’s been a lot of coverage of evolution in recent years, but almost all of it has been framed in terms of its ‘conflict’ with religion, not its ability to answer such a wide range of scientific questions.
Probably the thing I disliked most about the programme was the same thing that I disliked about the mental illness programmes – the way they used a ‘reality TV’ approach. The nudity programme included lots of voiceovers saying things like ‘Our volunteers have never taken their clothes off in public before, let alone in front of a TV camera. How will they cope?’, and it seems to me that it wasn’t encouraging scientific curiosity so much as it was voyeurism, and a particularly nasty kind of voyeurism that ‘gets off’ on the fact that the person stripping isn’t a willing exhibitionist. The voyeurism charge would seem particularly hard to sidestep with the section in which people were instructed to undress without realising that they were being secretly watched by another volunteer. The participants were asked about how the experience had made them feel, but there was absolutely no attempt to explore their discomfort in scientific or psychological terms.
The overarching justification for the nudity was that it enabled the programme-makers to explore the taboos that surround the subject. In a sense this was true, but I’m not certain a televised ‘experiment’ was necessary in order to demonstrate that people feel embarrassed taking their clothes off in front of strangers. I would suggest that something like this was self-evident enough not to have needed demonstrating in the first place. The only point at which I felt that nudity was scientifically justified was during the eye-tracking experiment, as without naked as well as clothed volunteers it wouldn’t have been possible to establish what effect nudity has on where people look.
The nudity was perhaps justified in another sense, in that it presented an opportunity to look at what ‘normal’ people look like naked, and to be reminded that the kind of people who are normally shown naked, like film stars and porn performers, have bodies that are highly unusual. The point was demonstrated with particular clarity with reference to women, as the programme included some shots filmed in a pole-dancing club, but there was also plenty of scope to reflect on the fact that the average size of male genitalia is rather smaller than the donkey-shaming appendages that appear in pornography would suggest.
As far as I’m concerned, the programme will have done a very positive thing if it goes even some way to helping to persuade ‘average’ people that it’s the ‘ideal’ models and actors and porn performers who are unusual, not them, and that there’s no reason why they should feel embarrassed or ashamed of their bodies. But, as with the mental illness programmes’ effect on stigma, it seems to me that, while that justifies the programme on social terms, it doesn’t necessarily justify it’s inclusion within a science strand. I don’t dispute the good intentions that lie behind programming decisions like these, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I wish Horizon could be allowed to concentrate on the straightforward reporting and explanation of science, and leave the social campaigning to other kinds of shows.