Scientific Dncehall
Published: Sunday | January 15, 2006

What do dancehall deejay Elephant Man and Nature ­ the world's leading scientific magazine ­ have in common? The answer is Robert Trivers, the world famous biologist who was cited in a special issue of Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest thinkers and scientists of the 20th century. Dr. Trivers has lived on and off in Jamaica since 1967, and once described himself as "Jamaican in my soul or spirit". Recently, he and six other colleagues had a cover story published in Nature called 'Dance reveals symmetry, especially in young men'. It was based on a study done in Jamaica which used Elephant Man's Let Dem Bawl as the base music.

I met Robert for the first time last week at his home in Southfield, St. Elizabeth. Apart from being a scientific genius, he's a fascinating man with absolutely no airs about him. I was happy to find that he shares my profound respect for female beauty, and judging by the frequency and enthusiasm with which he discussed the subject, he apparently seems convinced that a beautiful bumper is one of the greater things ever created by God or nature.


A friend once called him 'the blackest white man I know' and he was once a 'bonafide' of former Black Panther leader Huey Newton. To call his life 'colourful' ­ it includes, among other things, 10 days in the Half-Way Tree lock-up ­ would be an understatement. According to an August 27, 2005 London Guardian article, "Robert Trivers could have been one of the great romantic heroes of 20th-century science if he'd died in the '70s, as some people
supposed he would."

In his 20s he wrote five papers that changed forever the way evolution would be understood. E.O. Wilson, who coined the term 'sociobiology', described him as "one of the most influential ­ and consistently correct ­ theoretical evolutionary biologists of our time."

Sociobiology, also referred to sometimes as evolutionary psychology, attempts to explain conduct and outlook in terms of the evolutionary advantages of social behaviours. Though applicable to any organism with a nervous system, it's naturally most interesting when applied to ourselves. Its basic argument is that the primary biological human goal is to leave behind as many surviving copies of our genes as possible ­ usually in the form of children, but also in other relatives. Because, looked at one way, 'a human being is merely a gene's way of making another gene'.

Not everyone accepts the premise behind evolutionary psychology. But even casually observed reality suggests that many, and maybe most, human preferences and actions are shaped by the desire to pass on as many of our genes as possible. The males and the females of our species certainly compete intensely for the mates most likely to ensure the continuance of their genetic line. Women usually prefer big, strong men who they think will give them big, strong babies. Males usually prefer young, beautiful, hourglass figure females because these are the most likely to get pregnant and produce healthy babies.

Yet, I can't buy the concept that all our behaviour is determined solely by our survival instincts, for unlike animals men are not slaves to their genes. Some of us wear condoms and take birth control pills and become nuns and priests. Indeed, to me the most fascinating aspect of evolutionary psychology is the human behaviours it can't explain.

"Give us enough time and all will be unravelled," maintain extremist sociobiologists. The more fanatical ones claim Darwinism explains everything, when in fact it has nothing to say about the fundamental cosmological question ­ why is there anything rather than nothing?

One of the best known names in the field, Richard Dawkins, is also an aggressively proselytising atheist. Yet, ironically, there is a sociobiological school of thought that belief in a non-materialistic world ­ call it Heaven or Paradise or Nirvana ­ is genetically imprinted and may confer evolutionary advantages.

For the most strongly religious societies are also the most biologically vigorous, at least in the sense of having higher birthrates than non-believing ones. In America God-fearing 'red' states are out-breeding secular 'blue' ones. Birthrates in 'Post-Christian' Western Europe are now well below the 2.1 children per adult replacement level, a
situation which in the long run would amount to mass national suicide. In fact, the Japanese population is already in decline. One lesson of history may be that societies die with their gods ­ witness Ancient Greece and Rome.

God may or may not exist. But in Darwinian terms the actual truth of what people believe is beside the point. What ultimately matters are the consequences of beliefs. So does the fact that the vast majority of humans are religious prove that the 'god' gene ­ if it exists ­ is so successful at propagating itself that believers will always numerically dominate non-believers as, say,
heterosexuals do homosexuals?

I personally find evolutionary psychology one of the most intriguing fields of intellectual endeavour. So I was delighted to meet in person a guru on the subject whose name I had come across in so many books and articles.


How did Robert Trivers end up in Jamaica? Well, his adviser for his doctorate in biology suggested he study lizards in Jamaica, and "When we flew to Jamaica I took one look at the women and a second look at the island and decided that if I had to become a lizard man to pay for frequent visits to Jamaica I would humble myself and become a lizard man."

He has since lived off and on here for 12 years and married two Jamaican women with whom he has five children.

He is now the director of a long-term research project at Top Hill Primary in St. Elizabeth called 'The Rutgers Jamaican Symmetry Project'. Its focus is bodily symmetry ­ the degree to which the right side of the body resembles the left ­ in young people. His team has measured over 250 children and created the most detailed set of bodily measurements on symmetry available for any group of human beings in the world. The plan is to monitor the long-term health, growth, development and social behaviour of the individuals involved.

Symmetry is important in Dr. Trivers' theories because it's a general measure of the ability of the genes to achieve the body they are aiming for, and thus health and desirability. Studies show symmetrical faces are usually judged more attractive than non-symmetrical ones. There's even a correlation between male symmetry and female preference for his body odour and voice, even when the differences are not consciously discernible. All in all, symmetry is probably the most reliable scientific shorthand measure of biological quality.


The 'dance' study was an offshoot of the Top Hill programme as it provided a large group of young people whose symmetry had been measured on which to test the relationship between symmetry and dancing. To quote the paper:

"Dance is believed to be important in the courtship of humans, but nothing is known about what dance reveals about the underlying phenotype ­ or genotype ­ quality of the dancer. One measure in evolutionary studies is the degree of bodily symmetry (fluctuating asymmetry), because it measures developmental stability. Does dance quality reveal FA to the observer, and is the effect stronger for male dancers than female? To answer these questions we chose a population that has been measured twice for FA since 1996 in a society (Jamaica) in which dancing is important in the lives of both sexes."

Dr. Trivers feels this paper "cracks open the subject of the biology of the dance once and for all. We showed that in Jamaica symmetrical individuals of both sexes are perceived to be better dancers but that this was especially true for male dancers. Flipping the matter over, we showed that women are more sensitive to symmetry in their evaluation of dance. That is, the individuals they prefer as good dancers are more symmetrical than the individuals men prefer as good dancers."

So the better dancers ­ especially the men ­ are in general more symmetrical and hence better quality mates. And women do place more emphasis on dancing ability in men than vice versa. So with all their stops, twists and turns good male dancers are basically making a statement ­ I am a good dancer because I am highly symmetrical and hence a top biological prospect who will produce genetically superior offspring. And the women agree.

It's always been a taken for granted fact in the dancehall, but now there's scientific proof ­ girls go for the guys with the good moves on the dance floor because these guys usually have the goods in the reproduction department as well.

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