Splitting hairs

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Thousands of years ago, oh best beloved, man (oh, and woman too) was covered in fur. We know this from pictures in the reference books showing a slouching male - branch in hand - sloping across the high veldt, his smaller, hairy (and invariably pregnant) mate a couple of paces behind. Yet today, as Haagen-Dazs ads make perfectly clear, perfect human beings possess no body hair whatsoever. What happened? Why did the hominid lose his fur?

According to a report in this newspaper yesterday, Dr Charles Goodhart, a retired zoologist from Cambridge University (and therefore about as advanced on the evolutionary ladder as it is possible to conceive), has the answer. It wasn't because the end of the Ice Age left our forebears in danger of overheating, or because they kept mistaking each other for the dogs and goats that were being domesticated at the time (with inevitably embarrassing consequences).

No - the reason, says Dr Goodhart, is that somewhere between 70,000 and 120,000 years ago, personal fur just became unfashionable. Jutting brows, poor personal hygiene, bad parenting techniques - these were all tolerable, but a face covered in hair was de trop. So Darwinian sexual selection took place. The smoother ape-gal was in demand - and thus mated more successfully and more often. Hairier troglodettes got left at the back of the cave, forced to make a living by drawing mammoths and antelopes.

What I want to know is whether Dr Goodhart realises the terrifying implications of his theory? For what he is telling us is that fashion is not the ephemeral phenomenon that we have always thought but is a force so powerful that it can affect our physical construction.

Thus what you see on the catwalks of Paris today is the prototype human of tomorrow. Legs will become so long that we will totter along on top of them like stiltwalkers; noses will become so retrousse that only a tiny tip will protrude; babies will be born complete with nose studs and navel rings.

But is this nightmare vision of frivolity guiding evolution actually true? In the first place, do we actually prefer the hairless? Certainly, my early adolescence was spent craving hair. I wanted it everywhere (except the palms of my hands, of course). How I envied my friend Mike, who by the age of 13 had tendrils of thick, curly hair surging like beanstalks up each thigh. One morning, aged 14, Mike didn't shave, and by the end of afternoon break had grown a beard Marxian in its luxuriance and dimensions. And the girls? They leapt at him then, just as I see their daughters leap now at that species that strolls be-thonged along the beaches of the Mediterranean, the Tufted Greek.

Even if Dr Goodhart's determinist view is correct, how come that 100,000 years afterwards British women spend 20 million quid a year on creams, potions and machines designed to remove unwanted hair? Why is my Innovations catalogue advertising a gadget that can be inserted into both the aural or nasal orifice to clip away unwanted follicles? (though it fails to recommend the order in which this should be attempted)?

I can quite believe that sexual selection affects the evolution of stupid and unsocial beasts like peacocks and praying mantises. You can imagine them failing to mate because their tails aren't gaudy enough, or something trivial. But the same just isn't true of humans. Let's go back to that cave for a minute. All the smooth cavepersons are busy chasing each other round the fire, leaving two sad, hairy unwanted individuals staring gloomily at the sabre-tooths circling outside. Sighing, the hirsute male gets up, strolls over to the simian female and - with a swift uppercut to the jaw - suggeststhey console each other.

And that is how we are. We may prefer what is fashionable, but we will happily make do with what is available. Humans - in the immortal words of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young - if they can't be with the ones they love, they love the ones they're with.