Why Zebras Have Stripes (and 21 other things you’re probably wrong about)

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I like to think of myself as a reasonably knowledgeable guy. Actually, scratch that – I like to think of myself as an extremely knowledgeable guy. I’m aware that I’ve not specialised in any particular area, so my knowledge is not necessarily particularly deep, but it’s definitely broader than most.

At university and on my own I’ve studied anatomy, ancient languages, anthropology, archaeology, architecture, art history, astronomy and autism, and that’s just the first letter of the alphabet. I’ve done history and science and history of science; forensics and psychology and forensic psychology; politics and philosophy and political philosophy. Warfare and weaponry; crime and punishment; history, geography, geology, etymology; and a partridge in a pear tree. 

But I’m not a one-trick pony. Since I live in the real world of Ed Sheeran, Ellen DeGeneres and Elon Musk, I back up this academic knowledge with a sound insight into popular culture. I can tell my Spielbergs from my Scorceses, and my Khloes from my Kourtneys; my Family Guy and Firefly from my Stranger Things and Breaking Bad. Other than my Achilles Heel (sport), I’m the one you want on your pub quiz team.

But there are a number of difficulties that come from being so knowledgeable. Firstly, you’re surrounded by people who know less than you, which makes you feel great until you realise that when you want to talk about something that interests you, nobody is able to offer anything resembling an informed opinion until you’ve schooled them on your subject. Secondly, it makes you think that knowledge is a static monolith, when it’s actually a fluid multitude of changing viewpoints, so staying current on such a breadth of ideas is impossible and makes much of what you know obsolete. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly, it makes you act like an arrogant turd.

Like the other day when my wife told me that zebras have stripes to stop flies landing on them.

‘Of course they don’t,’ I said, practically laughing in her face. ‘Who told you that rubbish?’

‘My friend.’

‘Well, your friend is wrong,’ I said in a very superior way. ‘Zebras evolved stripes as a way of breaking up their outline to make it more difficult for predators to cut an individual out from the herd.’

‘But it stops flies from landing on them because the stripes confuse them.’

‘Well, that might be a secondary benefit, but come on – evolution is all about survival. You really think they evolved stripes to stop flies landing on them and not to counter the 400lbs of teeth and claws trying to rip them to pieces on a daily basis? Use just a basic modicum of thought and you can see how stupid that sounds.’

And then, to hammer home how much of an asshole I am, I googled it to show her how I was right and she was…

Ah, hell.

I was right that evolution is all about survival. I was totally wrong about everything else. The current scientific consensus is that zebras evolved stripes to stop disease-carrying flies from landing on them. Thinking about it, it makes sense: there are probably a million flies for every lion, and once you’re weakened by a disease, you’re going to be easier to pick off.

So I was wrong. Completely. And more importantly, my wife was right. I’m never going to live this one down.

So I thought I’d make a list of some things that people think they know but are actually quite wrong about, whether through old information, fictionalisation in movies and TV, or simply because the conventional wisdom isn’t always as wise as it thinks it is. Arm yourself with these facts so you don’t fall into the same trap I did.

1. Hyenas are mostly predators, not scavengers. Estimates vary, but the widest known species, the spotted hyena, kills between 50% and 80% of the food it eats, and when lions and hyenas are seen around kills, in more than half of the cases, the hyenas made the kill. So why do we see them as skulking scavengers? Centuries of negative portrayals in literature, mythology and folklore because of how they look and sound. Yep, the maligning of Africa’s most successful predator is the closest we get to racism with regard to the Animal Kingdom.

2. Humans have far more than the five senses you were taught as kids. We also have equilibrioception (sense of balance and ability to detect acceleration); proprioception (sense of self-movement and body/limb positions); nociception (sense of pain); thermoception (sense of temperature); and a whole bunch of others like hunger, thirst, fullness, need to pee and need to poop. The best estimate is that we have between 14 and 20. Take that, M. Night Shyamalan.

3. You already use 100% of your brain. The myth that we only use 10%, and could do so much more if only we could unlock the rest of our potential, needs to be put to bed, not only because it’s wrong but because it keeps spawning naff action movies (Limitless, Lucy). You use different parts of your brain for different things, so you’re not going to use the whole 100% at the same time, but that doesn’t mean those other parts aren’t used. If they weren’t, they’d get colonised by other parts of the brain. The idea that a massive amount of the body’s blood supply goes to nourish an organ of which 90% lies dormant is just ‘laughable’.

4. The fat, laughing, half-naked golden Chinaman is not the Buddha. He is Budai, a 10th century CE Chinese Buddhist monk. Technically, he’s a Bodhisattva, like Patrick Swayze in Point Break – a spiritually-enlightened being. The actual Buddha was Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, who lived in the 5th century BCE. Most depictions of him are of a slim man sitting cross-legged, with short, tight curls and a top-knot on his head, a ‘third eye’ on his forehead, and a beatific expression on his face. This holy figure is most often seen as a neighbour’s lawn ornament. Speaking of holy figures…

5. The man we know as Jesus of Nazareth was actually called YeshuaThe Aramaic name Yeshua from the Hebrew Bible entered the Greek Bible as Iesous, which was translated into the Latin Bible as Iesus, and into the English Bible as Jesus. Likewise, God was not Jehovah, but Yahweh. Don’t anybody tell the guys at the Watchtower.

6. The Coriolis effect doesn’t make toilets flush clockwise/anti-clockwise in the northern/southern hemisphere. The Coriolis effect – essentially the deflection of an object that travels a long distance over the surface of the Earth without actually touching it – is caused by the planet rotating faster at the equator than at the poles, and affects weather patterns, ocean currents and the occasional sniper’s bullet, but not toilets, despite what you might have seen on The Simpsons. Toilets and even swimming pools are simply too small for the Coriolis effect to have any influence.

7. Dinosaurs aren’t extinct. Yep, this is a hard one to get your head around because it’s been drummed into you all your life that dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago, but they didn’t. Most did, but the bird branch of the family tree survived and evolved into the avian species we know today. Birds are Maniraptors, which are coelurosaurs, which are theropods, which are saurischians, which are dinosaurs. Weird. Even stranger, the flying reptiles (pterosaurs), the swimming reptiles (ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs) and the squat ones with the sails on their backs (dimetrodons) that you see in all the posters, aren’t even dinosaurs at all. A simple rule of thumb is that a dinosaur’s legs are under the body, so anything with legs that stick out to the sides (like a crocodile or a tortoise) isn’t a dinosaur.

8. Cutting an earthworm in half doesn’t create two worms. Quite simply, worms have a head and a tail. The head has a mouth, the tail doesn’t. Both ends might wriggle around for a bit afterwards, but only the head can survive – the tail won’t.

9. Things burn up on entry into Earth’s atmosphere primarily because of air compression, not friction. When something hits the atmosphere, it’s normally travelling several kilometres a second. In the upper atmosphere where the descent is hottest and fastest, the air is too thin to create very much friction. Instead, the object’s travelling so fast the air in front of it can’t move out of the way so becomes squashed. As anybody who’s used a bike pump should know, when you compress air it heats up, and in the case of an object entering the atmosphere, massively so. There’s a lot of science involved, so if you want to properly understand it, follow this link to a guy from NASA explaining it better than I ever could.

10. The ‘alphas’ in wolf packs didn’t get there through aggression. For aeons we’ve been justifying competitive, hierarchical, and oftentimes quite shitty behaviour in business and society using the model of the wolf pack, in which a dominant ‘alpha’ male fights his way to the top like a particularly furry Al Capone. It’s a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world, after all, especially if you want to become ‘top dog’. However, while this might be true of captive wolves in which unrelated individuals are confined together, studies in the wild show something very different. The ‘alphas’ at the top of the social hierarchy in wild wolf packs are actually ‘mum and dad‘; the subordinates are ‘their children’. When they reach maturity, young wolves go off to become alphas of their own packs i.e. find a partner, settle down and have some kids. Even among primates, where the alpha can physically dominate the rest of the tribe, their behaviour is far more supportive and nurturing than the ‘alpha male’ stereotype that business magnates and your asshole boss would have you believe.

11. Carrots don’t help you see in the dark. If you have a vitamin A deficiency that causes a loss of night vision, eating carrots rich in vitamin A will restore your night vision to the same level as a normal, healthy person. If you don’t have vitamin A deficiency, eating carrots won’t make you see any better in the dark than someone who never touches carrots. This is a myth that goes back to the Second World War. To conceal the fact that the RAF were intercepting German bombers at night using radar, the Air Ministry issued press releases claiming their pilots could see in the dark by eating carrots. Not only did the Germans believe it but the British public did too, and here we are almost eighty years later still fooled.

12. Glass is a solid at room temperature and doesn’t continue to flow. I’ve been told many times that glass is a supercooled liquid – once by a guide showing me around the Colleges of Cambridge University. The error seems to stem from the fact that the glass in the windows of old buildings is thicker at the bottom – which my erstwhile guide pointed out many times during the tour – suggesting that the glass has continued to flow over hundreds of years. This is actually completely wrong. Glass is an amorphous solid. This means its atomic structure isn’t neat, the way it is in crystals, say, but it’s still solid. The reason medieval glass is thicker at the bottom is simple: glass-making back then wasn’t exactly refined, so the sheets they created were often uneven; builders would put the thicker end at the bottom, because they weren’t stupid. That said, I have seen the occasional examples where they’ve put the glass in with the thicker end at the top, proving (if it even needed proof) that glass is a solid. And speaking of people in the past being stupid…

13. People didn’t used to think the world was flat. At least, not for the past 2500 years. Okay, some people still think the world is flat, but the experts, like scientists, mathematicians and navigators, knew it was roughly spherical. Ancient Greek astronomers (3rd century BCE), Roman astronomers (1st century CE) and Arab astronomers (830 CE) all calculated the circumference of the Earth, and there are anecdotal, pseudoscientific claims that the Ancient Egyptians also knew. The reason Europeans mocked Christopher Columbus was not because they thought he’d fall off the edge of the world but because they knew he was wrong. Columbus massively miscalculated the size of the Earth (he also thought it was pear-shaped), and if he hadn’t stumbled into America, his crews would all have starved. In fact, he died still thinking he’d sailed all the way to India, when he was actually closer to India in Europe without ever leaving home!

14. Columbus wasn’t even the first European to visit North America. There were Viking colonies in Greenland and Canada hundreds of years before the Spanish conquistadors. The best guess is that the first European in North America was Leif Eriksson around 1000 CE, five-hundred years before Columbus.

15. You can’t restart a stopped heart with electricity. The defibrillator stops a heart that’s in atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat i.e. a heart attack) in the hope it starts itself in a normal rhythm. It does nothing to an already-stopped heart, so there would be no situation where the heart monitor flatlines, someone shouts, ‘Clear!’ and with a loud PA-JOOM, the patient is jolted back to life. So why do we see it all the time on TV, even in shows that are otherwise medically accurate? Because audiences expect it. Presumably it was first used, wrongly, to make for a dramatic scene; then others started doing it; and now, if you don’t do it, people are taken out of the movie or show because they’re thinking, ‘Why’s he not shocking her?’ This particular nonsense shows no sign of disappearing any time soon.

16. Shaving doesn’t make your hair grow back thicker and faster. It just feels like it does. Your hair follicle is under the skin, so when you shave, you’re not removing the hair entirely, just the end of it. What you actually do by chopping off the end is to make it blunt, and therefore rougher to the touch. It doesn’t stimulate growth or anything else. And while we’re on the topic of hair…

17. Your hair and fingernails don’t keep growing after you die. Folklorists and internet experts will tell you that the vampire myth comes from people digging up dead bodies only to discover their hair, teeth and nails had grown longer. This is only a partial truth. In reality, the longer hair, teeth and nails is the result of the corpse’s skin shrinking as it decomposes. In addition, dark ‘purge fluids’ leaking from mouth and nostrils, and the bloating of the corpse through trapped decomposition gases, all contributed to the idea that the dead could climb out of their coffins and drink blood from the living. (As a side note, the belief in vampires is still scarily common in certain parts of the world, with a bunch of villagers digging up and defiling the corpse of a neighbour in Romania in 2003 after he turned into a ‘strigoi‘).

18. Stretching before exercise doesn’t prevent soreness. Sure, we’ve all been indoctrinated into the belief that you need to stretch before a workout to avoid aching the next day, but it isn’t actually true. Stretching regularly helps to keep you supple and flexible, but it doesn’t prevent strains, injuries or aches. So whether it’s before, during, or after exercise, stretching is about increasing your range of movement, not a magical preventative to protect you from overdoing it.

19. Cracking your knuckles doesn’t cause arthritis. It’s not a pleasant thing to do by any means, but popping bubbles in the synovial fluid around your joints isn’t going to wreck your hands in later life. There is some evidence it might reduce grip strength, and you might break your knuckle if you do it too hard, but you’re not going to give yourself arthritis.

20. Stomach ulcers aren’t caused by stress. Since time immemorial it was thought that peptic ulcers – a thinning of the lining of the stomach to create a sore – was caused by lifestyle factors, such as stress, coffee, alcohol and spicy foods. While these things certainly exacerbate peptic ulcers, they don’t actually cause them. Instead, up to 90% are caused by helicobacter pylori bacteria, and the rest by long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Aspirin and Ibuprofen, although smoking apparently increases your risk (as it seems to do with everything). Unfortunately, knowing it’s not caused by stress makes a certain Malcolm in the Middle episode far less enjoyable.

21. There is no such thing as biological race. Or, to quote National Geographic, ‘There’s no scientific basis for race – it’s a made-up label’. Yeah, this is a controversial one and perhaps the most difficult to accept. If you look at genetics, there is incredibly little difference between people. We’re more closely related to one another than chimpanzees to other chimpanzees. In fact, since all non-Africans are descended from the same few thousand individuals that left the continent 60,000 years ago, Europeans and Asians and Native Americans and Oceanians are more closely related to one another than Africans to other Africans. The category ‘black’ to refer to all Africans as a single ‘race’ is therefore incredibly reductive, since they encompass far more genetic variation than non-blacks.

‘But we look different,’ I hear you cry. Yes, we do, but that’s mostly because we’ve adapted to where we happen to live on the planet, and haven’t moved around very much, so each population has ended up looking a little different, the way that my kids look like me and my brother’s kids look like him. Genetically, however, beneath the superficialities of skin colour, eye-shape and whether or not you can grow facial hair, we’ve remained remarkably similar. Indeed, of a person’s 20,000 genes and three-billion base pairs, a difference in a single gene, SLC24A5, where there is a G in sub-Saharan Africans, and an in Europeans, accounts for most of the difference in skin pigmentation.

If we were different races – if there were more than just superficial differences – you’d expect there to be distinctive alleles (the particular ‘flavour’ of a gene) belonging to each different race. There are indeed different alleles that appear to relate to different regions – around 7.4% of the total studied. However, these ‘race-specific’ alleles only occur in 1% of the population, meaning 1% of Africans have an African allele, 1% of Europeans have a European allele, and so on. Indeed, given the variation within populations, a European might be more genetically similar to an Asian than another European. This is hard scientific proof that while you might be able to infer a person’s ancestry from their appearance, we are all the same.

So if race doesn’t exist, why are we still so obsessed with it? Probably because we invented the notion of race to explain why we look different long before we had a scientific understanding of DNA and genetics. I mean, the Human Genome Project wasn’t completed until 2003. We’ve spent the past few hundred years dividing people into different races based on their ancestry, and then assigning those races different characteristics and relative values, so while race might not exist as a biological reality, it certainly exists as a social, political, cultural and psychological construct, interwoven into the fabric of how we see ourselves and others. If everyone came to accept the new, scientific view that the differences between people are cultural, not biological, perhaps the world would be a better place; but in doing so, you’d undermine the means by which billions of people self-identify. Instead of proclaiming that black lives matter, we really ought to be chanting that race doesn’t really exist, but I honestly don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime.

And these are my facts. If you’ve made it this far, well done: you’re better armed against the untruths that litter society. But don’t take my word for it. Do your own research. Read both sides of an argument. See which you agree with or if there’s a consensus.

And if you can, do it before you put your foot in your mouth.

The pain of longing for home

Turning forty the other day, my only wish was to revisit the town in which I grew up, and left, and hadn’t been to except in passing for almost twenty years. I suppose that as you get older, you start to look backward with rose-coloured glasses, to a time when things were different, and fuller, and better than they are today. But is it ever true?

There’s a simple comfort from living in the past. Home as a concept, a symbol, is an anchor we carry with us all our lives, an idealised, imagined place where everything is safe, if only we could go back there. So ingrained into our psyche is this longing for home that the theme of homecoming is one of the oldest in literature – The Odyssey, the Godfather of the genre, was composed a whopping 2700 years ago. I’m not alone in thinking we’ve lost something. The world sometimes feels like it’s all gone to hell.

But in the early-nineties, my hometown was heaven. It’s not just subjective: objectively, everything was great. The Cold War was over; the economy boomed; Levi 501s were finally affordable; grunge and Britpop ruled the airwaves; and moviemaking reached a pinnacle in Point Break, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and Pulp Fiction. Gone were the luminous shellsuits and ubiquitous synthpop of the eighties, along with the perms and the mullets and the socks-with-sandals monstrosities. England reached the semi-finals in Italia 90, to the timeless strains of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. We had Twin Peaks and The X-Files, Friends and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. It was the best time to be alive.

Then what happened? The grunge heroes died; we saw the awful realities of Islamic terror; Keanu Reeves got old; Mel Gibson went crazy; we were embroiled in endless wars; and climate change became a watchword for everything that is wrong with the world. For the past twenty years, I haven’t just wanted to go home – I’ve been desperate to.

As I’ve bounced from place to place, never putting down roots, my life has felt temporary, transitory – because my real life, and my real home, lies far away, somewhere between memory and fantasy, in the hallowed halls of my youth. If only I could get back there.

So on my fortieth birthday last week, I did.

Why did it take me so long? Because I knew things would be different. I’ve been a fan of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley almost as long as I’ve been away from my home, and was always struck by his uncomfortable impressions of returning to Salinas after having moved away years before: ‘Tom Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.’

I went to all my old haunts – my house, my school, the pond where I had my first kiss, the record store where I fell in love with music. Some of the places I recognised; some of them were smaller, and narrower, and uglier than I remembered; and many of them are gone, replaced by things that might be significant in other people’s lives, but with which I have no connection.

I saw faces, people, thronging the streets. I spoke to some, people who might not even have been born when I left. And one thing was inescapably clear with every word they spoke:

This was their hometown. This was their life. Not mine.

Because my hometown wasn’t just bricks and mortar, but a place in time, and that time was the 1990s. My hometown isn’t a place I can visit: it no longer exists.

I think that’s the experience of any person who leaves a place and comes back to it.

But more than the place being different, there’s a further dislocation because you’re different. When I was sixteen and broke up with my first girlfriend, I pined after her for months, and when I finally met up with her again, I discovered the horrible truth about life and relationships: that we are all in a perpetual state of change. If we’d changed together, we might have had a chance, but we changed apart, and no longer fit together. There was a time when my hometown fit me perfectly, but it’s changed, and I’ve changed, and we’re no longer right for one another. We had our time, but that time has gone.

An idea contained in another book – the fantasy novel Assassin’s Creed by Robin Hobb – helped me get over that girlfriend, and is illustrative of why we spend so much time clinging to the past – people and places and things that we think are so much better than today. The main character spends most of the book longing for his former lover, until someone gives him some hard reality, and it’s such a life-changing truth-bomb, it’s worth quoting in full:

‘You have been gone too long from her, and too much has befallen you both. And what you loved, what both of you truly loved, was not each other. It was the time of your life. It was the spring of your years, and life running strong in you, and war on your doorstep and your strong, perfect bodies. Look back, in truth. You will find you recall fully as many quarrels and tears as you do lovemaking and kisses. Fitz. Be wise. Let her go, and keep those memories intact. Save what you can of her, and let her keep what she can of the wild and daring boy she loved. Because both he and that merry little miss are no more than memories anymore.’

Yes. We don’t love the people and the places that we used to know – we love who we were when we were with those people and in those places. And if I think of my hometown, I did not spend all those years grieving for a place, but for the person I used to be, and that I lost. I mourn for the boy who was afraid of the dark, that innocent soul who thought the world would be kind, and that he would find in it somewhere to belong. I miss that sweet little fella who had to grow up and suffer all that I’ve suffered. For he is nothing more than a memory now.

There’s a danger in glamorising the past. You stop moving forward, stop engaging with the world, stop living. You become bitter and frustrated, because things are different from the ideal in your mind. Steinbeck again: ‘What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. What’s out there is new and perhaps good, but it’s nothing we know.’ We long for familiarity, for the immutable and the unchanging, but those things are an illusion. Life is change. Or as Heraclitus said 2500 years ago: ‘You cannot step twice into the same river.’ For the river is different, and so are you.

I’ve spent twenty years longing to return to a home that never really existed, and waiting to start a life that was nothing more than a dream. I’ve spent twenty years feeling like I don’t belong, that I should be somewhere else, doing something else, as someone else. No more. I’m closing the book on this chapter. It’s time to accept that this is my life. That this is where I live and this is who I am. And home, the concept of a place you can return to and feel safe, doesn’t exist. It never did. It was simply a time when I was younger, and happier, and more hopeful than I am today.

The theme of homecoming in Ancient Greek literature? It’s called ‘nostos’, from which we get the word nostalgia – sentimentality for a better, happier past. But that’s not entirely true, for the second part of the word stems from ‘algos’, meaning pain. Nostalgia is better translated as ‘the pain of homecoming’, or more pertinently, ‘the pain of longing for home’.

Don’t let that pain keep you from living.