Ryan portrays himself as someone committed to staying in shape. When he was 16, his father died from a heart attack. Ryan has said this tragedy taught him the need for self-reliance and physical self-discipline.
But apparently, he has not always been able to control his speech. A few weeks back, he had to correct a slip in wich he fibbed about his marathon running time. And recently his claims about mountain climbing have come under scrutiny.
Often media coverage of Ryan seems as concerned about his physique as he is. A story in The Daily Beast, for example, offered interpretations as to why he wears suits that are too big for him.
Some pundits took this as evidence that he was trying to exaggerate his manliness. Others wondered if his goofy look was strategic. From the article:
'"Put the man in a GQ-approved slim-cut, and he intimidates," writes The New Republic's Noreen Malone. "...He is no longer the Midwestern boy next door suddenly thrust into this crazy political world. He is a fierce, lean man out to slice your Medicare benefits to skinny-tie proportions."'
Of course, whatever a candidate mutters during election season goes under the microscope. Nevertheless, the fact that there's almost as much out there about Ryan's physical as there is about his intellectual fitness made me wonder whether if perhaps something more primal is at stake.
Recently I've been reading the late Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct -- a fascinating look at the connection between creativity, performance, aesthetics and evolutionary theory. Dutton argues that one of the reasons we're fascinated by athletic feats is that, for our ancestors, displaying physical prowess was a way to signal reproductive fitness.
Such prehistoric swagger not only helped one in the mating department; it also gained you acceptance into groups (as a strong individual would presumably make a tribe more formidable).
Dutton sees our obsession with knowing the "truth" about someone's body as a facet of our genetic memory, re-ignited by the fact that today it's hard to tell what is and is not authentic. "That is what the cosmetic, body-building...industries are largely about: accentuating, highlighting, or faking desirable signals."
Add to this the fact that people look at themselves more and more as primarily physical beings. As David Hawkes put it in another context:
"For Aristotle, the natural purpose of a human being was the the cultivation of the soul...Today, most educated Westerners find an intuitive truth in science's proposition that they are objects, identical with their bodies."
So, when you take all this into account, it's easy to see why a public figure caught stretching the truth about his body will be seen as a pretty shifty character.
Lance Armstrong: Culture Trumps Genes
But as the latest chapter in the Lance Armstrong saga suggests, you can't take this evolutionary logic too far. Sometimes, it seems, cultural longings can make people ignore evidence of "faking it" altogether.
As as been reported incessantly, Armstrong recently decided not to defend himself against accusations of steroid use by the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency).
For this he will pay something like seven million dollars in fines and be required to give back his trophies. He is also finding himself blocked not only from professional bike racing, but even marathon running (he was just banned from a Chicago race).
Dutton sees our addiction to steroid controversies as a "completely predictable result of the evolved basis for sport as a public skill display..."
But this doesn't explain why, when Armstrong turned his back on the regulators, he lost very little public support. As Business Week pointed out, nearly all his sponsors stayed with him -- and contributions to his charity actually increased. And, for what it's worth, the Internet polls I've checked on whether Armstrong did or didn't use mostly side with him.
Blogger Christian Piatt suggests why people may find it easier to give Armstrong the benefit of the doubt when it comes to this case:
"...Armstrong has represented the United States on the world stage for many years, and has carried the flag of national excellence and pride in a way that few others have ever achieved...In watching him fall, we, too, lose a bit of our own pride in our superiority in the sphere of competitive sports, which is a bitter pill to swallow."
In short, it's almost unpatriotic to question, like the (NGO) "bureaucrats" at the USADA do, the physical prowess of Armstrong.
So I guess the moral of this story is that sometimes the magnetism of a cultural symbol can be a lot stronger than any nagging instinct for the truth about him. Thoughts?