Christopher Ryan Ph.D.

Sex at Dawn

Punch-Drunk Science

Scientists claim the human face evolved for getting punched.

Posted Jul 05, 2014

There's a lot of "science" out there that doesn't make much sense, and Evolutionary Psychology seems to feature more than its fair share, but I think Dr. David Carrier of the University of Utah and his colleagues may have set a new high (low?) with this one. The researchers' operating hypothesis was that australopiths—hominid ancestors who lived from about 1.7 to 3.9 million years ago—"were characterised by a suite of traits that may have improved fighting ability, including hand proportions that allow formation of a fist; effectively turning the delicate musculoskeletal system of the hand into a club effective for striking." Carrier goes on, ''If indeed the evolution of our hand proportions were associated with selection for fighting behaviour you might expect the primary target, the face, to have undergone evolution to better protect it from injury when punched.''

Got that? Our ancestors evolved fists for punching and then our faces evolved in response to getting punched by those fists. Presumably, those australopiths with the strongest facial structures that could withstand the punches raining down upon them survived to reproduce, while those unfortunate males whose jaws or cheekbones shattered more easily were knocked out of evolutionary history.

How many holes are there in this hypothesis? Let me count a few of them.

1. The first thing you learn in any martial art that involves striking with the fist is how easy it is to break it (and/or your wrist) on someone's face. The fist is not, in fact, the best way to hit someone with your hand. Having broken several bones in my right hand twice (once while studying Kung-Fu and the other while in a Taekwando class), I can personally verify that an imperfectly thrown punch is far more likely to damage the puncher than the punchee. So why didn't the hands and wrists evolve to be less delicate instruments, if our ancestors were pummelling one another with them?

2. If you want to hurt a guy, his face is not your best target. According to the logic of these researchers, our species should have evolved solid steel scrota and thick bone covering the solar plexus and throat. People who actually know how to fight will tell you that punching is a very small part of it. Real fighting doesn't involve a lot of gentlemanly pugilism. It's ugly and chaotic, involves choking, biting, and joint breaking, and quickly moves to the ground.

3. Presumably, our Australopith ancestors lived in areas with plenty of sticks and stones, both of which are far superior to fists for causing injury (and at a safer distance), thus effectively neutralizing the logic of this fist/face hypothesis.

4. The researchers claim that ''These bones are also the parts of the skull that show the greatest difference between males and females in both Australopiths and humans. In other words, male and female faces are different because the parts of the skull that break in fights are bigger in males.'' Great thinking there. So why do male dogs, bears, and sea lions have larger, wider faces with thicker bones? Did those male sea lions evolve more robust faces to absorb the blows of being repeatedly flipper-slapped over the millennia?

5. And so on.

I don't know how stuff like this gets published, but it does. I suppose it has something to do with the apparent logic of "explaining" something that seems obvious—as long as you don't think about it. Plus, there's the added bonus of propping up the ever-popular story of our bad-ass ancestors being locked in a bloody struggle for survival. But as far as I can tell, explaining how fists evolved for punching and faces for getting punched is on the same intellectual level as explaining how the nose evolved for holding eye-glasses and the thumb for hitch-hiking. Nonsense masquerading as science.