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Sexual Selection

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Swan princess, John Bauer (1882-1918). Human head hair is of relatively recent origin, reaching incredible lengths in some groups but not in others. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
I've published an article on the evolution of long head hair in humans. The following is the abstract: In many humans, head hair can grow to a much greater length than hair elsewhere on the body. This is a "derived" form that evolved outside Africa and probably in northern Eurasia. The ancestral form, which is... Read More
Mary Magdalene, Frederick Sandys (1829-1904). Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Is the physical appearance of Europeans solely or even mainly an adaptation to climate?
Most humans have black hair, brown eyes, and brown skin. Europeans are different: their hair is also brown, flaxen, golden, or red, their eyes also blue, gray, hazel, or green, and their skin pale, almost like an albino's. This is particularly the case in northern and eastern Europeans. How did this color scheme come about?... Read More
Taiwanese aboriginal children, Bunun village (source: Jeremy Kemp). 60-70% of Taiwanese aborigines have a loss-of-function allele at the main hair color gene, MC1R, yet their hair is as black as humans with the original “African” allele. This seems to be a general pattern in Asians. They have fewer MC1R alleles than do Europeans, and the... Read More
Geographic prevalence of the new allele for blond hair (Guenther et al., 2014). Just one of many alleles that create the European palette of hair and eye colors. There is a widespread belief that whatever made Europeans fair-skinned also gave them their unique palette of hair and eye colors. In reality, fair skin has only... Read More
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The physical appearance of Europeans seems to result from a selection pressure that acted primarily on women and only secondarily on men. This is especially true for highly visible traits on or near the face—the focus of visual attention. I have just published a paper on "The puzzle of European hair, eye, and skin color."... Read More
Series of facial images from clean-shaven to full beard (Janif et al., 2014) For the past thirty years, the tendency has been to study sexual attractiveness from the observer's standpoint, i.e., we choose mates on the basis of what's good for us. We therefore unconsciously look for cues that tell us how healthy or fertile... Read More
Ethiopian manuscript paintings (source: A. Davey). Ethiopians have a self-image that is lighter-skinned than their actual selves. If the prevalence of SLC24A5 is higher in Ethiopia than the degree of admixture from lighter-skinned peoples across the Red Sea, this discrepancy may be explained by social selection for lighter skin. Greg Cochran has been asking why... Read More
Venus of Willendorf (30,000 – 27,000 BP). Is that a special headdress … or peppercorn hair? (source: Matthias Kabel) Europeans already had blue eyes while still hunter-gatherers. This is what we’ve learned after retrieving ancient DNA from two Mesolithic individuals, one from Luxembourg, dated to 8,000 years ago, and another from Spain, dated to 7,000... Read More
When did early Europeans acquire their palette of eye colors? And their palette of hair colors? That question may soon be answered with retrieval of ancient DNA. (source: Dipoar) As the new year begins, I’m particularly interested in the following topics. When did Europeans begin to look European? It seems that this evolution took place... Read More
Crystal Gayle, American country music singer (source). In humans of Eurasian origin, head hair can grow down to the mid-back and even farther. Long silky hair must have evolved relatively late, certainly no earlier than the last 50,000 years. All of us are born pale, and this infant pallor is striking in otherwise dark-skinned families.... Read More
Beyoncé Knowles, 2012. Is skin bleaching consistent with indigenous African values? (source) A Zambian-born sociologist visited his home village with his white American wife and two of their children. Having lost his way, he asked an elderly lady for directions. She gladly told him: But then she said, addressing his boys in the car, in... Read More
Of all humans, male and female, European women have the whitest skin and the most diverse range of hair and eye colors. Are European physical characteristics really female characteristics? (source) People of European origin have an unusually diverse palette of hair and eye colors. This diversity is commonly ascribed to their unusually white skin. Ancestral... Read More
Averaged face of blue-eyed male subjects (left). Averaged face of brown-eyed male subjects (right). Czech population. (Kleisner et al., 2010) Karel Kleisner’s team is continuing its work on eye color, face shape, and perceived personality traits: We tested whether eye color influences perception of trustworthiness. Facial photographs of 40 female and 40 male students were... Read More
No, that’s not a climatic adaptation (actress Lily Cole - source) “European skin turned pale only recently”—such was the headline in Science five years ago. The report had been presented by a postdoc, Heather Norton, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (Norton & Hammer, 2007). Over the following years, I... Read More
Red-winged blackbird (source). Is dark coloration directly linked to male aggressiveness? For the past thirty years, psychologist Philippe Rushton has been using life history theory to explain human differences in many areas: IQ, sexual development, parental investment, mating system, time orientation, etc. Initially, he saw skin color as being incidental. In recent years, however, he... Read More
Gilbert Blythe tormenting Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) Male preference for female hair color seems to be frequency-dependent. The less common a hair color becomes, the more it is preferred. When male subjects are presented with a series of photos showing blondes and brunettes, preference for any one brunette is inversely proportional to the... Read More
Hair and eye color diversity is unusual in two ways. It’s confined to Europeans. And it seems to be linked to prenatal feminization. Europeans are distinguished from other humans by a diverse palette of eye and hair colors. I’ve argued that these color traits arose from intense sexual selection of women in ancestral European environments... Read More
Gender asymmetry in preferences for male and female faces (Lewis, 2012) “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This proverb is true in the sense that beauty is a mental judgment—an output of different algorithms within the human brain. Some of these algorithms have been formed by personal experience, but others are hardwired to... Read More
Although blue eyes are more recessive than brown eyes, eye color does not follow a simple recessive/dominant mode of inheritance. There is a wide range of intermediate hues. As discussed in my last post, one puzzle of human evolution is the diverse palette of European hair and eye colors. Although these two polymorphisms have largely... Read More
Averaged face of blue-eyed male subjects (left). Averaged face of brown-eyed male subjects (right). Czech population. (Kleisner et al., 2010) If sexual selection of women diversified the eye color of early Europeans, the new colors should tend to be sex-linked, since the selection targeted women more than men. There is now evidence that blue eyes... Read More
Female and male bush spirits, Côte d’Ivoire The polygyny rate varies considerably among human populations, being highest (20 to 40% of all sexual unions) in the agricultural societies of sub-Saharan Africa and Papua-New Guinea. Such high rates have consequences. The average man will have to wait for a wife until well into adulthood. The average... Read More
Above - Artist's reconstruction of pre-Viking Age boat Below – Prehistoric rock paintings of boats (Scandinavia) Some writers argue that European skin became white to offset a decline in dietary vitamin D. Pre-agricultural diets, however, were rich in vitamin D only among coastal Europeans who consumed fatty fish. The ‘vitamin D hypothesis’ is often invoked... Read More
I have argued that sexual selection has varied within our species in both intensity and direction (men selecting women or women selecting men) (Frost, 2006; Frost, 2008). In particular, it seems to have varied along a north-south gradient with men being more strongly selected in the tropical zone and women in the temperate and arctic... Read More
The human mind seems to use facial color to determine whether a person is male or female. A man has a relatively dark facial color that contrasts poorly with his lip and eye color. Conversely, a woman has a relatively light facial color that contrasts sharply with her lip and eye color (Russell, 2003; Russell,... Read More
Denise Liberton, an anthropologist at Pennsylvania State University, has been studying variation in human facial features. At an upcoming meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics, she’ll be presenting a comparative study of European and West African facial morphology. The main thrust of her presentation is that the shape of the face has differentiated... Read More
What did the first modern humans in Europe look like? The question comes up in a BBC2 series The Incredible Human Journey, which shows the reconstructed head of a man who lived in the Carpathian Mountains some 35,000 years ago. With its brown skin and broad nose, this ‘First European’ looks, well, very un-European. The... Read More
One of the mysteries of anthropology is the reported presence of ‘blond’ Inuit in the western Canadian Arctic, specifically on and around Victoria Island. They were first noticed by the explorer Sir John Franklin and by Alaskan whalers. These impressions were confirmed by the anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson for Victoria Island and by the anthropologist Knud... Read More
Differences in human skin color are commonly explained as an adaptive response to solar UV radiation and latitude. The further away from the equator you are, the weaker will be solar UV and the less your skin will need melanin to prevent sunburn and skin cancer. A variant of this explanation involves vitamin D, which... Read More
It is often assumed that black Africans, out of all human populations, most closely resemble our common ancestral state. After all, is not Africa the cradle of humanity? And did not modern humans spread ‘out of Africa’ some 50,000 or so years ago? Indeed, we are all offspring of Africa. What is less true is... Read More
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