Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Human Peacock's Ghastly Tail

He was violent?” 
She exhaled.  “I don’t know.  What’s ‘violent’ anymore?  He was a teenage guy.  Then, a guy in his twenties."
—Richard  Powers, The Echo Maker
Once upon a time, there was an editor of a short-lived academic journal called Evolutiona Pathologica who was fired in disgrace.  In an interview published after his dismissal, the editor, a notoriously fastidious man, reported that papers in his journal often had a pronounced impact on the field primarily because they were unsound; unsound in their conception, imperfect in their analysis, defective in their conclusions drawn from meager data, and inflated in the claims they made about their practical implications.  The papers were often wide of the mark, he conceded, and even occasionally bonkers.  Yet, many papers were masterpieces precisely because refuting the claims strengthened the subdiscipline of evolutionary pathology.  Or so he said. Kaveri River
Recently, while archiving the material from the defunct journal, I reread the manuscript the publication of which resulted in the editor’s dismissal.  I also discovered an internal report on the dismissal that shed light on the case.

Before reproducing the offending paper – some of you, of course, will remember it well – I’ll remind you of some of other mildly controversial pieces that appeared in the journal.  For instance, in a rather famous special issue on the pathological origins and implications of bipedality, Professor J. P. X deRossa-Ellman made the celebrated claim that upright walking evolved to reduce the overstimulation of reflexology points on the hands and to intensify the quality of the massage on the feet.  “As hominins shifted from an arboreal habitat,” deRossa-Ellman opined, “pressure on the hands, especially on the zones associated with the small intestines inclined Australopithecines to a frightful gassiness.  In contrast, the laudatory effects of passively massaging the feet by walking on the dewy grasses of the East African savannah produced a sense of well-being that disposed our primitive forbears to recreational coitus.  Those more upright proto-humans joyously copulated thus leading to increased fitness.” To the embarrassment of the journal it was later discovered that deRossa-Ellman ran a specialized massage parlor on the near North side called “Strange Beginnings/Happy Endings”.  He also did a brisk business selling “genuine savannah grass”.  Apparently you could also smoke the stuff.  

Read on at 3quarksdaily.com

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