Matthew Parris

What would Darwin make of trainspotters?

It may not help with procreation (indeed, it may actively discourage it), but this very male hobby must have some evolutionary value

What would Darwin make of trainspotters?
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Why are men so much more likely to be interested in trains than women? I believe this to be a question of profound importance. It has implications for the debate about whether behavioural gender differences are inborn or learned. And implications for our understanding of male thinking.

When at a dinner party did you ever hear an intense conversation between two women about railway timetables? How many teenage girls have you ever noticed among groups of trainspotters? Do small girls ask for a train set as a birthday present? Doesn’t this stark disparity between genders on a matter which touches equally the lives of both, and in which both are equally competent to take an interest, deserve attention?

Women use trains just as men do, because they are a convenient means of transport. A woman will be as well-informed on railway matters as she needs to be for practical purposes. She can drive a train or run a train operating company as well as any man if her career takes her that way — but when she was a little girl she did not dream of the prospect. But so many male faces will light up when train information is offered or sought. For us it is what, say, football, cricket or politics is to many: more an intellectual passion than a necessary life skill.

This glaring gender difference, though on a minor matter, is particularly worthy of study because an interest in trains is not something likely to be bullied out of a little girl or drummed into a little boy. One can argue that boys are conditioned into not showing emotions, liking a fight, or wanting to be in charge; and girls encouraged to want pink frilly dresses, empathy and dolls, etc. But nobody would tell a boy he was less than a man because he was not interested in trains, and if anyone raised an eyebrow at a daughter who studied railway timetables, it would not be because this was thought inappropriate, but because it was so very unusual.

In the argument about nature versus nurture, therefore, a tendency to be interested in railways strikes me as a small but rather perfect argument for ‘nature’. Yet no obvious Darwinian explanation suggests itself. Natural selection may make warriors of men and carers of women, but there were no trains when we first came down from the trees. So one has to conclude that the impulse for mastery in railway matters is one of those traits that (in a phrase coined by the science writer Steven Pinker) ‘have come along for the ride’ on the coat-tails of another adaptation that does enhance survival chances.

The evolutionary biologists Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould used the term ‘spandrel’ for this by-product of evolution: in architecture, spandrels are the triangular gaps created in the top left- and right-hand corners of an arch when it supports a horizontal. Often richly decorated, they exist only because cross-members are flat and arches curved. Ping-pong is a spandrel in evolutionary terms. It doesn’t help us with procreation, but the instinct for contest does have a useful part to play in the struggle for survival. Trainspotters, then, may not be superior lovers, but what drives them must have some Darwinian value.

I identify two core instincts, one or both of which may make a man a train buff. The first is the instinct to collect. The second, a subliminal craving for order, certainty, control, and a predetermined course: ‘Keeping things on track’ sums up the impulse. Enthusiastic collectors of things do tend to be male. Stamp collections, butterfly collections, plant collections — more boys and men than girls and women pursue these hobbies. How about the instinct for order, control and a pre-determined track? I would by no means suggest that women through history led disproportionately disordered, uncontrolled or random lives: on the contrary, the life that most cultures traditionally prescribed for women did need organisation and control, but they were not usually in control, and were often at the mercy of men and events. The little boy overseeing the operation of his extensive model railway: a set of points installed here and a level-crossing there, shunting goods wagons up a siding, operating the signals, changing the points and sending his locomotive and carriages off down the tracks with a touch on the lever on his control box — that is what I mean by giving shape and system to events.

Now take those two instincts — the instinct to collect and the instinct for a systematic predetermination of events — and ask what would be the perfect conjunction of those two in a single impulse? Surely the impulse to be a train buff: useless from an evolutionary point of view. Indeed worse than useless because the hobby damages a chap’s romantic prospects. So I offer Professor Pinker this example of an evolutionary adaptation that has come along for the ride and now actually inhibits its carrier’s life chances. Interestingly, the love of collecting things, and an obsessive interest in trains, are both often cited as examples of autistic behaviour. Autism is a disproportionately (Hans Asperger believed exclusively) male condition.

I love trains. I love the clickety-click on the last bit of the Matlock line where the rails have not yet been continuously welded. I love studying timetables even when I’m not going anywhere. I love adding to my collection of railway stations I’ve alighted at. I want to board a London train at Belper, just because you now can. There seems to me something deeply right about people being carried along tracks, predestined; and something inexplicably wrong about them weaving all over the motorway, free to divert at whim. But I accept that does not make me a transport expert: it makes me a man — a man with a mild case of a relatively harmless mental condition.