Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, September 14, 2006

A CHALLENGE, PART II: WHY DO WE WEAR CLOTHES?

There are two accounts in the Book of Genesis (in the Bible) of the origin of mankind. They are not entirely compatible with each other, though they could be reconciled fairly easily. The first describes how God made the world in seven days, and what he made in each one, with man being made on the 7th. Man is given stewardship over the world. The second is the story of Adam and Eve. In this one language is invented: looking for a mate for man, God brings all the animals, and man names them, but none are suitable; then God makes woman. In the beginning, Adam and Eve are naked, but they feel no shame. There is a tree there called "the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil." Adam and Eve (tempted by a serpent) eat of it against God's orders, "and their eyes were opened, and they saw that they were naked." Then God expels them with various curses.

Now, very few people today accept the historicity of this account. And yet as etiology, there are profound insights here.

The first Genesis story I will describe as a homo sapiens account of the origin of man. It is parallel to the Darwinian creation-myth (I used the word "myth" in a truth-neutral way here) in its sense of progression from sparsity to abundance, from simplicity to complexity. Indeed, if you assume that the "days" do not imply days in the normal chronological sense, but simply periods of time, the first Genesis account can actually be mapped onto modern natural history to some extent. In the first Genesis account, the uniqueness of man rests in his reason and his rulership of the earth: quite similar to the Darwinian conclusion.

The second Genesis story I will describe as a homo vestitus story, because it emphasizes a different unique aspect of man: man wears clothes. This is really an astonishing thing, isn't it? As Thomas Carlyle writes (in Sartor Resartus):

The Horse I ride has his own whole fell: strip him of the girths and flaps and extraneous tags I have fastened round him, and the noble creature is his own sempster and weaver and spinner: nay his own bootmaker, jeweller, and man-milliner; he bounds free through the valleys, with a perennial rainproof court-suit on his body; wherein warmth and easiness of fit have reached perfection; nay, the graces also have been considered, and frills and fringes, with gay variety of colour, featly appended, and ever in the right place, are not wanting. While I-- Good Heaven!-- have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beasts; and walk abroad like a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly! Day after day, I must thatch myself anew; day after day, this despicable thatch must lose some film of its thickness; off into the Ashpit, into the Laystall; till by degrees the whole has been brushed thither; and I, the dust-making, patent Rag-grinder, get new material to grind down...


I daresay that a satirist can find no theme more timeless than clothes, for we wear clothes from age to age, incessantly, and yet it is quite mysterious why. And in this respect evolutionists have made some incredibly stupid mistakes. Ebenezer Scrooge remarks that: "Garments, Mr. Cratchit, were invented by mankind for protection against the cold. Once purchased, they can be used indefinitely for the purpose for which they were made." What nonsense! Is Scrooge not aware that people in warmer climes also wear clothes? Perhaps he should travel to Africa or India and see for himself! But then, why should he do that, when he can learn the same lesson by observing his fellow man's behavior-- or his own!-- on a hot day in London? For no matter how miserable they are in their shirts and pants and waistcoats and socks, it is a fair bet that in all of London not a single person will do the logical thing and take off his grimy, sweaty rags and cool off in the open air.

Evolutionists have not become any less stupid on the subject of clothes in the past 150 years, if this tidbit from an article in Think magazine is any indication:

Once upon a time, clothing was like food: necessary and free. Almost as soon as we left the jungle, our ancestral naked apes began forming groups which provided the elements of survival for its members.

The clothing was basic and utilitarian at first - designed merely to protect our abnormally large free hanging genitalia - but later evolved into something we moderns might recognize as fashion.


"To protect our naked, free-hanging genitalia?!" Guys, let me asked: when you walk around the house with no clothes on, how worried are you for the safety of your "abnormally large free-hanging genitalia?" Personally, I think mine would be all right. I think I could walk to the store with my abnormally large genitalia hanging freely and be quite confident that, upon my return, they would still be hanging. Honestly, what would happen to them? Now, if I'm going to barge through bushes, maybe some genitalia-protection would be useful (though even then I think I'd do all right). But even if we accept that the genitalia-protecting argument has some force in the case of men (though certainly not enough to explain the universality of the practice) what about women? The author's name is Jonah Weiss, a male name, so I presume he has large free-hanging genitalia. But perhaps Jonah Weiss should be informed that there is a large group of humans which are quite differently configured, who in fact do not have large, free-hanging genitalia. And yet, nonetheless, they too wear clothes, if anything even more universally than men do!

The reason we wear clothes is not heat nor the form of our genitalia, but shame. Alone among all animals, including even our nearest genetic relatives such as chimps, human beings feel an intense sense of shame when our genitalia are exposed to view. Now, the Book of Genesis provides at least an account, albeit one that hardly qualifies as an explanation from the contemporary point of view, of this mysterious human trait. What is the evolutionist explanation of homo vestitus? Why do people wear clothes?

UPDATE: Nato thinks my challenge is easy. He's mistaken.

He writes:

If you want an evolutionary account of clothes, I'm sure it wouldn't be hard to offer a few, but it's fairly difficult to summon conclusive evidence on these topics unless one has a truly encyclopedic knowledge of human populations, their specific histories and traditions. FOr me, it's a matter of embarrassment of riches - there's so many different reasons to wear clothes coming from so many different directions (status markers, tool holders, sexual selection modulators, climate controllers, soft-spot protectors...) that this layman would be astonished to find a culture that hadn't found many uses for acoutrements such that they became part of tradition.


Yes, clothes have many functions, but it doesn't take an "encyclopedic knowledge of human populations" to realize that those functions are secondary; introspection or everyday observations can quickly show it. Status markers? That's a reason to wear a suit and tie, not (typically) a reason to wear a T-shirt and jeans. Tool holders? Yes, I carry keys, a cell phone, my wallet, and my work ID in my pants pockets, but sometimes I don't need any of those things when I go out, and I don't even think about not wearing pants. Sexual selection modulators? Sure, sometimes people dress sexy, but no one says "Ah, screw it, I'm not expecting to pick up any chicks today, I'll just let it all hang out!" Climate controllers? Yes, but it's quite often uncomfortable to wear clothes, even in cold climates (in summer) let alone hot ones, yet we never go without. Also, when we walk into a warm room on a cold day we shed our jackets and overcoats, but not our shirts and pants. Soft-spot protectors? And how often, realistically, are our soft spots in danger? Always? Come on.

I sense the beginning of a different spurious line of argument in the last phrase: "... such that they became part of tradition." But why would tradition require people to wear clothes all the time? A utilitarian approach to clothing would be to wear it usually, but not always. And when traditions become counter-utilitarian, they generally fade away or are overthrown, at least by some people. There's a certain ad hoc Freudianism in this explanation, I think: clothes were useful for utilitarian reasons, but we evolved, either genetically or culturally, an instinct to treat them as imperative in all circumstances, and now this has become a law embedded in our sub-conscious. But seriously. Human beings are great experimenters. Their behavior is fantastically changeable and diverse. And yet in this respect we are one: we are all homo vestitus.

Let me rephrase the challenge: Why does a guy put on pants to go fetch the newspaper on a summer morning. It's really irritating for him: he wants to read the news, but he doesn't want to get dressed yet. The odds are 100 to 1 against anyone seeing him, and if they do it's likely to be a stranger driving by. None of the secondary reasons for wearing clothes apply: he has no tools to carry, no potential sexual partners to impress, it is absurd to imagine that his private parts are seriously threatened, there is no need for climate control, and he certainly is not concerned with displaying his status to anyone. And yet all of us will sigh, waste a valuable minute putting a chafing pair of jeans on our wonderfully sleep-relaxed skin, and go get the paper... What could possibly explain this?

UPDATE: Tom gives his pro-nudist, utilitarian take on clothes. He thinks nakedness/shame is a result of socialization. I don't think so. Of course we are socialized to wear clothes, just as we are socialized not to eat spoiled meat, but since we're free to change our habits, we'll keep them only if some other reason compels us to do so. Read Tom's comment, and ask yourself: Why aren't more people like Tom? Even in post-Christian Europe the clothing-habit is tenacious.

3 Comments:

  • It takes an unusually aggressive sociobiologist to be perfectly certain whence come various common human foibles. If you want an evolutionary account of clothes, I'm sure it wouldn't be hard to offer a few, but it's fairly difficult to summon conclusive evidence on these topics unless one has a truly encyclopedic knowledge of human populations, their specific histories and traditions. FOr me, it's a matter of embarrassment of riches - there's so many different reasons to wear clothes coming from so many different directions (status markers, tool holders, sexual selection modulators, climate controllers, soft-spot protectors...) that this layman would be astonished to find a culture that hadn't found many uses for acoutrements such that they became part of tradition.

    By Blogger Nato, at 11:39 PM  

  • I'd love to respond to everything you write, but I haven't the time nor inclination, but this post I just can't let pass, if simply for the fact that it directly contradicts my own personal experience.

    The *only* reason why I wear clothes in public (when there's no utilitarian reason, I should say) is because it's illegal not to. And the only reason I would ever wear clothes at home is because I'm either in transition between excursions outside, or because I have guests who are offended by nudity for whatever reason. And I'm not an anomoly. I know many, many people who are the same way. The first time I met my step-dad, he was butt-naked in his house; I knew what he looked like naked before I knew what he looked like with clothes on! Heck, walking around the house naked is something that just about everyone does at some point, I'm sure. I personally have walked out of my door butt-naked to pick up the mail or the newspaper or whatever. I've walked butt-naked down the halls of my dorm at CU. I've walked butt-naked down the streets of Boulder (when I was sure I wouldn't get arrested, that is). Every gym I've ever been to has men walking naked in front of each other. There are a ton of nudist colonies, there are a ton of nudist beaches, there are a ton of nudist bath-houses, and these things aren't simply a product of modern man, they've been around for millenia! The Roman bath-houses are a perfect example. Nudity exists all over the world in common advertising (though not in religiously fundamentalist countries like the US and Saudi Arabia). There are nudist airplanes, buses, trains, etc. Babies are born naked, children play naked, and they aren't ashamed or anything like that. So where does shame come from? Isn't it learned through social indoctrination and conditioning? After all, some women are ashamed to show even their faces in public. Oh, and where is that? That's right, in the Islamic fundamentalist Middle East. But shame doesn't stop at nudity, it also extends to say the size of a woman's feet in China (foot binding), the size of the human waist in Europe (corsets), the length of a woman's neck in parts of Africa (neck rings), the look of a person's face (plastic surgery, makeup), the color of a person's skin (bleach, arsenic), the amount of hair on a person's body (waxing, hair plugs). Very few of these things have a utilitarian component (unlike clothing, I might add). "Why do people wear clothes?" How about why do people fear those who don't?

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 12:24 PM  

  • I should point out that most of the examples I mentioned at the end of my post are cheifly done for aesthetic reasons, but the point remains, what do the people who deviate from that aesthetic internally feel? Shame.

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 12:37 PM  

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