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October 18, 2002

Evo Bio Questions -- Acne

Friedrich --

I couldn't be happier that evolutionary-biology thinking has been flourishing, and at the progress it's made in pushing aside the old models -- Marx, Freud, deconstruction, all of which have long outlived their usefulness, assuming they ever had any. And I couldn't be more eager to see evo-bio forms of thinking make more inroads in the arts.

That said, there are questions the evo-bio crowd hasn't addressed that I'd like to see them take on. The first one is acne. What kind of evo-bio sense does it make that acne is so common during puberty?

I don't think other animals suffer from it -- perhaps you, or some of our readers, know better. Why do we? Acne is so common among human teens that it should probably be considered a standard feature of adolescence. It's uncomfortable, humiliating, and disfiguring. Where's the evolutionary advantage in any of that? What exactly is being selected for?

I seem to recall someone theorizing that acne might be a way of discouraging humans from procreating until they're past it, the idea being that acne is so gross that kids will avoid sex until they have the acne under control. It's a try, which I appreciate, but I'm not sure it stands up. Where's the evidence that teens avoid sex? Or that people are prone to have more sex after adolescence than during adolescence? Or that acne plays a role in people's decisions whether or not to have sex?

Do we have to settle for an explanation along the lines of "well, it's an unintended consequence of blah blah blah"? That'd be lame.

Evo bio people -- give me your ideas!

Best, if still recovering from adolescence,


posted by Michael at October 18, 2002


You might find this interesting:

The basic idea is that skin texture is a signal of age / social status. The young have smooth skin. The old have rough skin. Oily skin emphasizes skin texture and also leads to acne. Coarse/oily skin may be "part of the intimidation signal" (presumably, it's harder to be intimidating if you have the skin texture of a young child). This is suggested by the fact that human males have oilier skin than females starting at puberty, and "stump-tail macaque, like man, has an inordinately well-developed sebaceous organ on the same areas of the face and the frontal part of the scalp. Males of this macaque species have a well developed sebaceous organ and females do not, suggesting that the organ has other functions than keeping the skin from drying out."

An excerpt:

Stature in most societies depends on accumulated knowledge and refined performance. In a folk society traditions and information are passed on orally and one depends heavily on the slow process of personal experience. Thus, it is the elders who are looked to for their wisdom. . . .

Though Western cultures have changed their attitudes toward aging to a great degree, our social relationships are still very age-dependent. We still cannot help but absorb the clues of age among our acquaintances and change our social posture accordingly. One of the chief clues our eyes search for is skin texture. The surface texture of ourselves and the people we meet is sort of a numerical social value, as if we wore our age stamped on our cheeks and the backs of our necks, like a quarterback emblazoned with a bright identifying number.

Well before the teens and sexual maturity, the "baby fat" decreases and the skin tones harshen. The appendage hairs become coarser, but still soft and small. As a human being reaches maturity, the skin has a grainier texture, and later the granular appearance grades into fine wrinkle patterns between the deepening pits that grow into cobbly corrugations among the very old. . . .

The presence or absence of skin oils tends to emphasize or hide skin texture. Adult skin that is not periodically scrubbed gets an oily, greasy surface that further highlights its coarse texture. This is particularly true of the face and frontal parts of the scalp. A special organ has developed (by sebaceous gland elaboration) in this area as part of the intimidation signal. The stump-tail macaque, like man, has an inordinately well-developed sebaceous organ on the same areas of the face and the frontal part of the scalp. Males of this macaque species have a well developed sebaceous organ and females do not, suggesting that the organ has other functions than keeping the skin from drying out. Also, there is a marked increase in sebaceous activity at puberty. Sebaceous secretions are more abundant in human males than females at puberty and continue that way throughout life. In human beings the onset can be easily mapped by observing one of the more obvious products of this sebaceous increase - the teenage acne problem.

As the skin coarsens it leaves large craters into which the oil glands empty. Dirt and smoke collect in these wells and accentuate the skin texture.

This is from an online book Body Hot Spots: The Anatomy of Human Social Organs and Behavior

Posted by: scyld on October 18, 2002 7:20 PM

Considering that you can largely control acne with the right antibiotics, I don't think it's necessary to look for evolutionary reasons for why acne benefits _you_. It's a side effect of the germs that are living in you, a situation that suits the germs just fine, and those germs don't care much about how it affects you as long as it doesn't completely kill you off and leave them homeless.

In general, modern pop evolutionary thinking underestimates the impact of germs (or as the best evolutionary thinkers like W.D. Hamilton call them, parasites). This is especially true for diseases. As Matt Ridley says, no matter what you read in magazine Health sections, your genes didn't evolve to kill you, they evolved to help you reproduce your genes by staying alive and healthy. Over the last 150 years, we've discovered that more and more diseases are caused by germs/parasites. This trend is likely to continue. Paul Ewald's book "Plague Time" documents this theory, which he developed with the little-known genius Gregory Cochran.

Posted by:
Steve Sailer on October 18, 2002 8:40 PM

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