The Holiday Season is upon us, the glorious Winter Solstice is only days away. This seems a good time to address in a rational manner one of the Season’s most beloved tales. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer elicits in many Americans deep spiritual feelings. 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–I want to be delicate but firm here– 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 that had no knowledge of the inexorable physical laws that have shaped all life. Hence the narrative takes no interest in the biological origins of Rudolph’s illuminated red nose, despite the fact that neither his parents nor any other reindeer in his gene pool had the same trait.
But science can now fill the embarrassing gaps left by the storytellers. After prolonged and unbiased effort, scientists have pieced together a reliable account of the evolution of the red-nosed 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 stages of the transition are not known, as the fossil record cannot trace soft-tissue evolution of this sort. But its bright and shiny nose must have given the red-nosed 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 red-nosed reindeer more easily attracted females, giving him an additional competitive advantage in sexual reproduction over nonilluminated males. From both these causes the red-nosed reindeer began to predominate in the North Pole. Sadly, its gradual decline and eventual extinction were probably due to global warming.
It is little more than quaint coincidence that the story of Rudolph happens to echo certain elements of the actual history of poor Rudolph’s species. Santa “naturally selects” Rudolph once his mutant nose is recognized as an effective adaptation to the harsh weather conditions. And the doe’s description of Rudolph as “cute” readily suggests the sexual advantage red-nosed reindeer undoubtedly possessed in the competition for mates.
But could it be that in some inscrutable, 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.