The shrieks of infant boys will be louder than usual this week as rattles are torn from their tiny grasp and their fingers are measured by anxious parents.
Some mothers and fathers will sink back into their cut moquette sofas in relief. Less fortunate ones will immediately set about planning a vigorous exercise regime for the pre-toddler: four press-ups between nappy changes, that sort of thing, and a salt-free diet.
The sudden spread of concern among the parents of boys is the work of Dr John Manning, of Liverpool University, who is no stranger to this column. Earlier this year, I reported that he had measured the fingers of 304 footballers, and a control group of 532 non-footballers, and discovered that footballers have longer ring fingers than non-footballers.
A lesser man might have stopped there, content that he had contributed his grain to the mountain of human knowledge, but not Dr Manning. For him, footballers’ fingers were merely a rehearsal. Next he set about measuring the fingers of 151 male heart attack victims on Merseyside. There was, he found, a marked difference in the age at which the cardiac arrest had struck, depending on the ratio of index-finger length to ring-finger length. The longer the ring finger, the later in life the heart troubles began.
There is, he says, a scientific explanation for the phenomenon. Longer ring fingers are found on males with relatively high levels of testosterone – a hormone known to protect against heart disease in men. Younger heart attack victims with shorter ring fingers have been found to have depleted levels of testosterone. (His earlier work postulated that high levels of testosterone were associated with spatial judgment. Footballers need to judge distances. Therefore footballers have long ring fingers. Simple, really.)
Although Manning’s work comes cloaked in science, it is part of an ancient quest to discover more about ourselves by looking at our bodies.
Face reading, or physiognomy, for example, has a history stretching back at least 2,500 years. The Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Indians and Arabs believed it was possible to assess human ability, potential, character and future prospects by studying the general layout of ears, eyes, mouth, chin, and so on.
It is a belief we have not shaken off. Down in Wiltshire, Thomas Moser, a former German air-force engineer, makes a living from reading the human face. The set of the jaw, the pattern of the eyebrows, the width of the forehead, the fullness of the lips, the shape of the nose – all are grist to his physiognomical mill.
Show him a snub nose and he will show you playfulness and generosity blended with an “above-average level of gullibility and immaturity”. To him, a vertical forehead implies reliability and inflexibility, while upwards-slanting eyebrows indicate willpower and impatience. Sticking-out ears denote braininess but also “selective hearing”.
These beliefs are encouraging for the marketing industry because they confirm that there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy, and, by implication, no limit to the influences that might shape buying decisions.
For all the advances of science, ours is not a rational age. We have all but discarded formal religion, but only so we might replace it with new age beliefs that are in truth very old age and hark back to necromancy, geomancy, astrology, the study of crystals and all manner of mumbo-jumbo. These beliefs are impervious to science, which is why many people see nothing anomalous in using the technological marvel of the micro-computer to find the latest that their stars might foretell.
What is new about modern irrationalism is that it embodies political correctness. Although Moser’s critical vocabulary includes words such as “gullibility”, “immaturity” and “impatience”, that is mild stuff and perfectly consonant with the modern belief that no one should ever be offended.
Our forebears had no such reservations. Take the ancient art of pedomancy, or “divination from the examination of the feet”. The Shepherd’s Prognostication, published in 1729, shows that, no matter what kind of feet the subject had, they were bad. “The feet short and thick signifieth a person to be weak; slender and short, to be wicked; fleshy and hard, to be a blockhead. The feet small and fair-formed, to be a fornicator; much hairy, to be lecherous and bold; naked of hair, to be weak of strength and courage; the inner part of the sole not hollow but filled with flesh, that they make no hollowness in the step, to be beyond measure crafty and cunning.”
All that needs to bring it up to date is a lick of science. Say, for argument’s sake, that there are areas in the feet that correspond to the glands, organs and other parts of the body – a notion held by the alternative medicine reflexology – and parents will be peering into cots and prams looking for infantile signs of feet that are much hairy (not necessarily a bad sign in boys, less propitious in girls).
So there is something to be said for both science and new age beliefs. The former will tell us whether a baby boy will become a footballer (a long ring finger); the latter whether he is to be a lawyer (a fleshy inner sole).