Evolution: Fish face to your face


Q. Lover, where'd you get that wonderful face? ­C. Tuna

 A. Some 600 million years ago, the human face-to-be was little more than the leading edge of a hungry tube swimming in the sea, says anthropologist David Givens in Love Signals.

"Picture the business end of a vacuum-cleaner hose and you'll understand the basic ancestral structure of the human face," he says. Eventually, primitive fish faces emerged, two eyes and a snout set over a mouth. We owe our basic eyes-nose- mouth architecture to fish, but the archaic fish face was expressionless and incapable of courtship.

Then little furry warm-blooded mammals took faces one step better, freeing them up and making them mobile. For the first time in evolutionary history, animals could wink, grin, and leer.

Real facial liberation came with the primates, as during courtship lips compress, brows lower, ears flatten, eyes widen, teeth bare, and tongues show. The zenith is the human face, seductive as a neon sign in Las Vegas.

"One has only to think of Rudolph Valentino's eyes, Marilyn Monroe's sugary pout, the otherworldly mouth of da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and the painful last look Bergman gives Bogart in Casablanca. We've come a long way from the fishes."

Q. On a job interview, would you fare better if it were conducted by a human or by a robot (computer)? ­P. Trunk

A. That depends. If you're highly qualified, the robot is a better bet to appropriately or at least systematically weigh all your qualifications– education, past experience, recommendations, aptitude tests, etc. says Carnegie Mellon University psychologist Robyn Dawes.

If you're unqualified or underqualified, go with the human interviewer, hoping to play on such human follies as overgeneralization–you remind the interviewer of someone he or she likes– or raw subjectivity– you have some common interest even if irrelevant to performance on the job or you play "dummy reversal" by getting your interrogator talking about himself or herself. Everyone loves self-talk, so here's a cinch to create that interpersonal "warm glow."

So seductive are these that University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett has coined the phrase "interview illusion" to describe the stunning overconfidence employers or other gatekeepers place in the validity of their own assessment based on a one-hour interview! Blithely they will override a varied lifetime track record in favor of their own quick hunches and intuitions.

More likely than a robot you may– if lucky– get a "structured" interview, where the human sticks to specific and predetermined questions and scoring, says George Mason University psychologist Jose Cortina. But most interviewers hate these, as they're not much fun (for the interviewer!).

So very likely any human interview will be idiosyncratic, unreliable, invalid, says Cortina. "Sure, if you're a dopey, lazy, straight White male with a fresh haircut and nice bridgework, this may be just what the job-doctor ordered. For everybody else, pray for a robot."

Q. Are "Siamese triplets" possible? ­Chang, Eng, and Ping

A. Conjoined twins are rare enough, identical twins developing with a single placenta from a single fertilized ovum, more often female than male, occurring once in every 200,000 live births, one in every 40,000 births overall, says zygote.swarthmore.edu.

Even more rare are conjoined twins born as triplets with a non-conjoined sibling, though there are a number of such citations in the Medline database, says Dr. Peter Klein of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Adds Dr. Daniel Kessler, also of the Medical School: "Research into the embryology of animals indicates that Siamese triplets could form, but the frequency of Siamese triplets in humans is predicted to be far lower than Siamese twins, and the live birth of Siamese triplets would be even less likely."

So it is not surprising that clear and documented cases are hard to come by, though "Gould and Pyle's Curiosities of Medicine" does cite an 1834 case in Sicily of three boys born with a single torso, two hearts, two stomachs, two lungs and three heads.

Whether this was tabloid or real is impossible to say.

Q. We've all met our share of boasters, name-droppers, flatterers. Are these "social strategies" effective? ­C. Clay

A. They usually backfire, leaving listeners rolling their eyes and muttering under their breath, says Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich in How We Know What Isn't So.

Except for flattery, which does work unless it seems too blatant or manipulative. "The warm glow of being flattered often overcomes the cold realization that it might be strategic." Surely he doesn't flatter everyone, the flattered will think. Flattery works even when coming from a programmed computer, studies show. "An argument could even be made that flattery is an underutilized strategy."

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.