Friday, April 13, 2012
The Evolution of the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The Winter Holiday Season is now several months past. This is a good moment to reflect in a rational way upon one of the Season's most beloved tales. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer elicits in many Americans deep spiritual feelings, and it is not my purpose to disparage those feelings. But the toughminded among us must step forward to separate fact from fiction, history from legend, and, above all, science from religion.
Rudolph teaches valuable lessons on perseverance, leadership, and the power of crossgender affirmations of physical attractiveness. But the story is not a scientific account of how the rednosed reindeer came to be as a species. Indeed, the authorial community responsible for the Rudolph narrative (it would be naive to attribute the narrative to a single author) never intended the story to be taken as science. This is a truth that the best scholars of the narrative have long recognized. Rudolph was written for a prescientific society of children who viewed nature mythopoeically. They understood nature as the creation of the variable will of a personal being rather than the inexorable product of unchanging impersonal laws. Hence the Rudolphian narrative tradition takes no interest in how Rudolph came to possess his illuminated red nose, especially given that neither his parents nor any other reindeer in his gene pool had the same trait. This indifference to science--to the questions science asks and authoritatively answers--characterizes the entire narrative.
Meanwhile, scientists are just now beginning to piece together a reliable account of the evolution of the rednosed reindeer. Like every species, this reindeer was the product of genetic mutation and natural selection, just as Charles Darwin's theory predicts. Beginning perhaps 100,000 years ago (the fossil record, though extensive, is admittedly not complete), a series of completely random genetic mutations resulted in a North Pole community of reindeer with bioluminescent noses. The exact mechanism of illumination is not known, as fossils provide no record of soft tissue. But in any case its bright and shiny nose gave the rednosed reindeer a competitive advantage against other reindeer, especially during the cold, winter months when days were shorter and food was harder to come by. Similarly, the male rednosed reindeer more easily attracted females, giving him an additional competitive advantage in sexual reproduction over the nonilluminated males. From both these causes the rednosed reindeer began to predominate in the North Pole. Sadly, its gradual decline and eventual extinction was probably due to global warming.
It is little more than quaint coincidence that the story of Rudolph happens to echo and telescope certain elements of the actual history of poor Rudolph's species. Initially, Rudolph's mutant nose is viewed as dysfunctional, but when its real value is discovered, Santa "naturally selects" it. That the nose is also "cute" readily suggests the sexual advantage rednosed reindeer undoubtedly possessed in the competition for mates.
Could it be that in some inscrutable, almost primordial way, the human species can intuit--even in its unscientific myths--elements of scientific truth? I wouldn't count on it. Let's not give so much credit to our lucky guesses. We should enjoy the story of Rudolph for what it is, no more and no less. Properly interpreted, Rudolph can inspire in us the pluck and adaptability by which all species survive in our constantly evolving world.