Posted on March 13, 2020

How Did Whites Get Their Appearance?

Grégoire Canlorbe, American Renaissance, March 13, 2020

Blue_Eyes

This is part one of a two-part interview.

Peter Frost is a Canadian anthropologist. His main research interest has been the role of sexual selection in highly visible human traits, notably diverse hair and eye colors. Other interests include vitamin D metabolism in northern hunting peoples and gene-culture coevolution, such as genetic pacification due to the state monopoly on violence (reduction of propensity for personal violence).

Grégoire Canlorbe: You are best known for your claim that the most plausible origin for the light coloration of skin in Europeans is sexual selection rather than natural selection. Could you remind us of your argument?

Peter Frost: It’s not just light skin. It’s also the extraordinary variety of hair and eye colors. I prefer to begin with them because they are much less explainable by anything other than sexual selection.

Take hair color. Most humans have black hair and one allele for hair color. Europeans have over two hundred for colors ranging from black to blond. The conventional explanation is straightforward: As humans entered higher latitudes, with less solar radiation, there was less selection for dark skin and, consequently, an accumulation of defective alleles for pigmentation. So the number of hair colors grew as a side effect.

That scenario has two problems. First, the genetic linkage between skin color and hair color is weak. If we took all humans with black hair, we would have a group with the full range of skin colors. Second, millions of years are needed to accumulate that many alleles through relaxation of selection. Yet modern humans have been in Europe for scarcely 45,000 years.

Did Europeans get their hair colors from the Neanderthals? According to a study of five alleles for red hair, one of them seems to be an archaic introgression, but the others are of modern human origin. Even if we assume that all of the alleles for hair color had slowly accumulated during the long existence of the Neanderthals, the timeline is still too short — at most three quarters of a million years. Furthermore, even if they all had a Neanderthal origin, we would still need to explain how they reached their current prevalence. Europeans today are only 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal.

That’s not all. Eye color, too, diversified during the same 45,000 years. So two polymorphisms — for hair and eye color — have developed in parallel with different genetic causes and within the same limits of time and space. There must have been a process of selection. Something helped preserve those new colors and pass them on to subsequent generations.

That something, in my opinion, was sexual selection. It begins when too many of one sex have to compete for too few of the other. The latter are in a buyer’s market and can pick and choose among prospective mates. Conversely, the “sellers” are in a worse position and must market themselves as best they can. They succeed by attracting attention and holding it as long as possible, typically by means of bright colors.

Sexual selection is consistent with the evolution of European hair and eye color in four ways:

First, the European color pattern has become more developed in one sex. Specifically, hair and eye colors are more varied among women than among men, with infrequent colors more common among women and frequent ones less common. A UK Biobank study found that red hair is especially prevalent among women, followed by blond hair and light brown hair. Conversely, the same study found that black hair is three to five times less common among women than among men. The different eye colors are likewise distributed more uniformly among women. These sex differences seem to be due to the action of estrogen during fetal development. A Czech study found that face shape was more feminine in blue-eyed men than in brown-eyed men, as if a single factor had feminized both face shape and eye color.

Second, dark colors have given way to brighter colors, even though new dark colors could have been created. Hair is carrot red, not beet red. Eyes are light blue, not navy blue. Brightness increases visual impact, causing the observer to watch the image longer and keep it in memory longer.

Third, broad-spectrum colors have given way to narrow-spectrum, “pure” ones. A pure color has relatively few wavelengths and is restricted to a narrow slice of the visible spectrum. Such colors don’t happen by accident. They are unusual in the natural world and almost always serve to attract attention, either as a warning coloration or as a means to attract a mate.

Fourth, a single color has given way to a variety. A color grabs attention not only by being bright within a narrow slice of the spectrum but also by being novel. If a particular color becomes too common, it will be less novel and less attractive, and the pressure of sexual selection will shift to more unusual ones. A variety of colors will thus coexist and grow in number as more appear through mutation.

But why would sexual selection be stronger in Europe than elsewhere? Keep in mind that most Europeans did not look European until late in time, almost at the dawn of history. As late as the Mesolithic, pale skin and diverse hair and eye colors were confined to Scandinavia, the Baltic countries, and areas farther east. The oldest dating of blond hair goes back 18,000 years in central Siberia. We know all this from DNA in human remains. Inferential methods place the emergence of pale skin within the same time frame: 19,000 to 11,000 years ago according to one research team, and 19,200 to 7,600 years ago according to another. That’s more or less the last ice age, and long after modern humans had come to Europe. As a Science correspondent wrote: “The implication is that our European ancestors were brown-skinned for tens of thousands of years.”

We still need more data, but it seems that the current European phenotype arose during the last ice age, some 10 to 20 thousand years ago, among hunting people who inhabited the plains stretching from the Baltic to Siberia. Their women were subjected to strong sexual selection for two reasons. First, men were fewer in number. In a hunting society, male mortality increases as hunters cover longer distances, and average hunting distance is longest in open northern environments. Second, polygyny was less frequent. Since men provided almost all the food, the effort of providing for a second wife and her children was impossible for all but the best hunters. With few polygynous men, and fewer men altogether, women were in a tough market — too many competing for too few. Even slight improvements in attractiveness could make a big difference.

Why didn’t the new phenotype survive in Siberia? First, the colder and drier climate kept human numbers smaller than in Europe, the Gulf Stream being too distant to exert its warming and moistening influence. So the effects of sexual selection could not survive and accumulate as much, especially when the population contracted at the height of the ice age. Other humans then moved in as the climate turned warmer. Nonetheless, as shown by ancient DNA, the new phenotype did persist in south-central Siberia as late as the fourth century. Its population base had probably become too small to ensure its long-term survival.

Final question: Why are Europeans diverse for hair and eye color but not for skin color? The reason may be a pre-existing sex difference that oriented sexual selection in one direction. In all human populations, girls become lighter-skinned during adolescence, with the result that young women are noticeably fairer than young men. A fair complexion was traditionally valued in women, who would make themselves even fairer by avoiding the sun, by wearing protective clothing, and by using face powders. This gender norm has existed across all cultures with one exception, albeit a big one: the tanning craze of Western women since the early 20th century. Thus, at least in premodern times, fairer women were preferred, and such a preference, under intense sexual selection, would eventually drain the gene pool of alleles for dark skin. This may explain the strange albino-like skin of Europeans.

This episode of intense sexual selection probably did much more than change hair, eye, and skin color. Those effects are the most obvious, and the hardest to explain otherwise.

Other effects might include changes in hair form. Hair form was originally thick and straight across northern Eurasia. It then diversified in Europe during the same narrow timeframe that saw hair and eye colors diversify. From being thick and straight it became thin with diverse textures. About 45 percent of Europeans now have straight hair, 40 percent wavy hair, and 15 percent curly hair. The cause was probably the same desire for novelty that created the palette of hair and eye colors. A novelty effect has in fact been shown in an Austrian study, which found that women tend to change their hair form to a less common one.

Hedy Lamarr

Interview continues below…

References

Ding, Q., Y. Hu, S. Xu, C.C. Wang, H. Li, R. Zhang, et al. (2014). Neanderthal origin of the haplotypes carrying the functional variant Val92Met in the MC1R in modern humans. Molecular Biology and Evolution 31(8): 1994-2003.

Frost, P. (2006). European hair and eye color – A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior 27(2): 85-103.

Frost, P. (2014). The puzzle of European hair, eye, and skin color. Advances in Anthropology 4(2): 78-88.

Frost, P., K. Kleisner, and J. Flegr. (2017). Health status by gender, hair color, and eye color: Red-haired women are the most divergent. PLoS One 12(12): e0190238.

Gibbons, A. (2007). American Association of Physical Anthropologists Meeting: European skin turned pale only recently, gene suggests. Science 316(5823): 364.

Günther, T., H. Malmström, E.M. Svensson, A. Omrak, F. Sánchez-Quinto, G.M. Kilinç, et al. (2018). Population genomics of Mesolithic Scandinavia: Investigating early postglacial migration routes and high-latitude adaptation. PLoS Biol 16(1): e2003703.

Kleisner, K., L. Priplatova, P. Frost, and J. Flegr. (2013). Trustworthy-looking face meets brown eyes. PLoS One 8(1): e53285.

Mittnik, A., C-C. Wang, S. Pfrengle, M. Daubaras, G. Zarina, F. Hallgren, et al. (2018). The genetic prehistory of the Baltic Sea region. Nature Communications 9(442).

Morgan, M.D., E. Pairo-Castineira, K. Rawlik, O. Canela-Xandri, J. Rees, D. Sims, A. Tenesa, and I.J. Jackson. (2018). Genome-wide study of hair colour in UK Biobank explains most of the SNP heritability. Nature Communications 9: 5271

Grégoire Canlorbe: Speaking of sexual selection and skin color, mixed relationships are becoming more common in France and other Western countries, with European women attracted to African men, and European men to East Asian women. How do you sum up the biocultural trends underlying these preferences?

Peter Frost: Let’s begin with the marriage market in Western countries. Until the 1980s, single women outnumbered single men throughout adulthood. Today, it’s almost the reverse: Single men outnumber single women until the fifth decade of life in the U.S. and the sixth decade in the U.K. The imbalance is even worse among childless single people. If a young man wants to have children of his own, he has to marry a woman within a narrow age range, essentially between 26 and 29. Below that age range, single women generally don’t marry; above it, most are single mothers, and others will ride the carousel as long as they can and with as many men as they can.

So a lot of men look abroad for brides. This isn’t just a Western thing. In East Asia, more and more men are going to the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia to get married.

Why the shortage of brides? Three reasons:

  • A decrease in male mortality. Fewer men are dying in wars, car crashes, and other accidents. Infant mortality has also fallen, especially among boys. So the high sex ratio at birth is lasting all the way through middle age and even into early old age.
  • An increase in polygyny. The deregulation of sexual behavior has ratcheted up competition for young women. On the one hand, we have more serial polygyny, i.e., an older man divorces and remarries with a younger wife. On the other hand, we have more “polyamory,” i.e., a man monopolizes sexual access to more than one woman at a time.
  • An increase in immigration, together with changes to its makeup. Immigrants are increasingly young single men, like the ones in Angela Merkel’s million man march.

This is a dramatic change, yet few are discussing it. One reason is that older women dominate discourse on marriage, particularly in the chattering classes. Another is that baby boomers remember a different time and refuse to believe that things have changed. Finally, young men lose face if they admit they are failing with women. So they lie, not only to others but also to themselves. The reality is that a typical young bachelor has no girlfriend at all, particularly after college, but he won’t talk about it and neither will most other people.

But why are white women looking elsewhere when they have never had such good odds with white men? Is it just “the circumstances of life”? That’s what people say if a question is too personal … or if they aren’t sure themselves. When I was studying how children perceive differently colored dolls, I found they had distinct responses to differing shades of skin color, but they couldn’t explain why. One of them simply said: “Because I love her!”

I think adults are similar to those children in some ways but not in others. Skin color arouses strange feelings in us that we don’t understand, just as children don’t understand many things. Unlike children, however, we deny those feelings or feel ashamed about them, just as people once felt ashamed about sex. And like certain adults of another day and age, we may even believe that evil forces have implanted those feelings in us.

That’s the logic we’re being drawn into. If that’s where you are, please put aside your prejudices — yes, prejudices — and hear me out.

Men are naturally darker than women, their skin being browner and ruddier. Many studies have shown that we use this visual cue unconsciously to tell men and women apart. In fact, human subjects can use hue and luminosity to identify the sex of a face even if the image is blurred and provides no other useful information. There is also an aesthetic dimension. In one study, women were asked to optimize the attractiveness of computer-generated facial pictures, so they made the male faces darker and ruddier than the female ones.

I’ve done two studies on this subject, the first one with preschool children. My assistant showed each of them a pair of dolls, one slightly darker than the other, and the child had to choose one of them. The choice was then written down, plus the child’s age, sex, height, weight, adiposity, and skin color (skin reflectance under the child’s upper arm). Next came the analysis. Sex did not affect doll choice. Nor did height, weight, or skin color. However, body mass had a definite effect among children younger than three, as did triceps fat adjusted for body size. Body fat seemed to increase preference for the darker doll. At those ages, fatty tissue is the main source of estrogen in the human body.

In my second study, I showed women several pairs of facial pictures that differed slightly in skin tone, and I asked them to choose the most pleasing one. When two male faces were shown, the darker face was more strongly preferred by women in the first two-thirds of their menstrual cycle (high estrogen/progesterone ratio) than by women in the last third (low estrogen/progesterone ratio). The cyclical effect was absent if the women were judging female faces or taking oral contraceptives. It looks as if a higher ratio of estrogen to anti-estrogens (such as progesterone) causes a more favorable assessment of darker male faces.

Those findings are supported by a brain imaging study of female subjects: Women had a stronger neural response to pictures of “masculinized” male faces, and this response correlated with their estrogen level across the menstrual cycle. The study’s authors had masculinized the faces by making them darker and more robust in shape.

In sum, the hue and luminosity of human skin is unconsciously processed by the human mind as a visual cue for sex recognition and, apparently, for associated purposes ranging from sexual attraction to emotional distancing and preparedness for a possibly aggressive encounter.

But there’s more to this than skin color. In relationships between white women and black men, as in all sexual relationships, the key is not only how the woman initially feels but also how persistent the man is. Black men tend to be more willing to try, try, and try again. That personality type is no accident — it comes out of a polygynous society in which men have to compete more keenly for mates. Because women in sub-Saharan Africa traditionally produced most of the food, this being through year-round farming, a man could more easily support a second wife and her children, with the result that 20 to 50 percent of marriages were polygynous. With many men taking more than their fair share, competition for women was more intense. This was not the case with hunter-gatherers, among whom the man and the woman contributed equally to the family food supply. They had lower rates of polygyny and less mate competition.

Personality has been studied in polygynous and monogamous Senegalese men. The polygynous men were more extraverted than the monogamous ones, being more sociable, more assertive, and more emotionally dominant. Likewise, testosterone levels were higher in the polygynous men than in the monogamous ones up to the age of 30. After 45, the pattern reversed, with monogamous men having higher levels. Interestingly, the same age trends are seen in African and Euro Americans. Testosterone levels are higher in African American boys than in Euro American boys as early as 5 to 9 years of age. The difference is largest during adolescence and early adulthood and then shrinks to zero after 24 years of age.

Polygyny favors not only outgoingness but also aggressiveness and physical robustness. That was the finding of a comparative study of two East African peoples: the polygynous Datoga and the monogamous Hadza. Datoga men were more aggressive than Hadza men on all measures: physical aggression, verbal aggression, anger, and hostility. They were also larger and more robust. Finally, the two groups differed at the androgen receptor gene, with the polygynous Datoga more often having an allele that correlated in men with aggressiveness and number of children fathered. Thus, through a process of gene-culture coevolution, a highly polygynous culture has produced a different sort of man, both mentally and physically. It’s worth quoting the study to understand the different cultural environments:

There is a negative attitude toward aggression among the Hadza but not among the Datoga. In situations of potential aggression, the Hadza prefer to leave. In contrast, aggression is an instrument of social control — both within the family and in outgroup relations — in Datoga society. Datoga men are trained to compete with each other and to act aggressively in particular circumstances.

This male phenotype can succeed on a personal level but on a societal level it does less well. It creates problems that can be resolved only at the cost of creating more problems.

That is what happened in sub-Saharan Africa. Marriageable women were scarce, so the community gave older men priority. Young men could not marry, so they raided other communities for women. Raiding parties took unwanted male captives, so they got rid of them at slave markets. Local markets became oversupplied, so the surplus went to buyers farther away. Buyers farther away became dependent on slave labor, so they lobbied for more slaves and got directly involved in the trafficking.

From the outset, Africans were complicit in the slave trade because of the contradictions of a polygynous society. In time, the web of complicity spread beyond Africa and entangled societies farther and farther away, eventually altering their historical development.

There were also long-term impacts where it all began. The same polygyny that created slaves for export also held back progress beyond a certain level. Progress requires peace. The State imposes a monopoly on violence, and people can concentrate on other things. That never happened in most of sub-Saharan Africa.

All in all, the big picture hardly resembles the little picture. On a societal level, monogamy is a winning strategy. It outperforms polygyny in creating peaceful, productive societies. On a personal level, it’s a losing strategy. Monogamous men get driven out of the sexual marketplace. They can’t compete. There have been attempts to level the playing field by teaching nice guys how to do “game,” i.e., how to seduce and pick up women. If it works, fine. For most, however, game is a poor fit for their personality type. Game pushes their envelope of phenotypic plasticity too far and for too long a time. Even if they could learn it, they would have trouble keeping up the act for years and years.

Interview continues below…

References

Alvergne, A., M. Jokela, C. Faurie, and V. Lummaa. (2010). Personality and testosterone in men from a high-fertility population. Personality and Individual Differences 49: 840-844.

Alvergne, A., M. Jokela, and V. Lummaa. (2010). Personality and reproductive success in a high-fertility human population. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107: 11745-11750.

Alvergne, A., C. Faurie, and M. Raymond. (2009). Variation in testosterone levels and male reproductive effort: Insight from a polygynous human population. Hormones and Behavior 56: 491-497.

Butovskaya M.L., O.E. Lazebny, V.A. Vasilyev, D.A. Dronova, D.V. Karelin, A.Z.P. Mabulla, et al. (2015). Androgen receptor gene polymorphism, aggression, and reproduction in Tanzanian foragers and pastoralists. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0136208.

Carrito, M.L., I.M.B. dos Santos, C.E. Lefevre, R.D. Whitehead, C.F. da Silva, and D.I. Perrett. (2016). The role of sexually dimorphic skin colour and shape in attractiveness of male faces. Evolution and Human Behavior 37(2): 125-33.

Dupuis-Roy, N., I. Fortin, D. Fiset, and F. Gosselin. (2009). Uncovering gender discrimination cues in a realistic setting. Journal of Vision 9(2): 10, 1-8.

Frost, P. (1989). Human skin color: the sexual differentiation of its social perception. Mankind Quarterly 30: 3-16.

Frost, P. (1994). Preference for darker faces in photographs at different phases of the menstrual cycle: Preliminary assessment of evidence for a hormonal relationship. Perceptual and Motor Skills 79(1): 507-14.

Frost, P. (2011). Hue and luminosity of human skin: a visual cue for gender recognition and other mental tasks. Human Ethology Bulletin 26(2): 25-34.

Frost, P. (2015a). Young, male, and single. The Unz Review, June 27.

Frost, P. (2015b). The contradictions of polygyny. The Unz Review, October 31.

Glowsky, D. (2007). Why do German men marry women from less developed countries? SOEP papers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research #61.

http://www.dix.de/soeppapers

Ni Bhrolchain, M. and W. Sigle-Rushton. (2005). Partner supply in Britain and the U.S. Estimates and gender contrasts. Population 60: 37-64.

Pedersen, F.A. (1991). Secular trends in human sex ratios: Their influence on individual and family behavior. Human Nature 2: 271-291.

Rupp, H.A., T.W. James, E.D. Ketterson, D.R. Sengelaub, E. Janssen, and J.R. Heiman. (2009). Neural activation in women in response to masculinized male faces: mediation by hormones and psychosexual factors. Evolution and Human Behavior 30(1): 1-10.

Russell, R., P. Sinha, I. Biederman, and M. Nederhouser. (2006). Is pigmentation important for face recognition? Evidence from contrast negation. Perception 35: 749-759.

Grégoire Canlorbe: You challenge the idea that the biological nature of Homo sapiens was essentially designed during the roughly two and a half million-year hunter-gatherer phase that ended before the climax of the last ice age (and that is commonly called the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness”).

Peter Frost: That idea was first challenged by people better than me, namely John Hawks, Henry Harpending, and Greg Cochran. Through a genomic survey, they showed that human genetic evolution accelerated over a hundredfold some 10,000 years ago, when hunting and gathering gave way to farming. At that time, we had already spread over the world from the equator to the arctic. We were no longer adapting to a single natural environment or even multiple natural environments. We were adapting to more and more cultural environments.

Humans have coevolved with culture. The concept of gene-culture coevolution was first put into words by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss: “Each culture selects for genetic aptitudes that, via a feedback loop, influence the culture that had initially helped to strengthen them.” Unlike other life forms, we create our environment, not only our built environment of houses and roads but also languages, religions, social classes, means of subsistence, oral and written texts, ways of organizing space, and so on. In short, humans create their environment and then have to adapt to it, thereby being remade by things of their making. We have directed our evolution.

Orthodox Christians celebrate Saint Nicholas Day. (Credit Image: © Maxim Churusov/TASS via ZUMA Press)

The fast pace of our genetic evolution continued into the time of recorded history. Just think: more genetic change has happened over the past 10,000 years than over the previous million. Human evolution is not a straight line but an exponential curve with most of the interesting stuff squeezed into the last few segments. If you could meet an archaic human, you’d think it was a big ape. The Tungus peoples of Siberia tell stories about the “monkey people” who once lived in the mountains. Except perhaps for the Japanese macaque, Siberia has never had monkeys, only a form of archaic human that some taxonomists place in our genus and others in our species.

All of this is at odds with earlier thinking. It used to be thought that genetic evolution lagged farther and farther behind as culture became more and more complex. That’s the reasoning behind the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” — a place and time in the Pleistocene when human nature took its present form. Since then, there has supposedly been insufficient time to create new mental mechanisms from scratch. But who says new ones have to be created? Just change the existing ones. A single mutation at a single regulator gene can alter the way thousands of other genes work. In fact, human evolution mostly involves changes to existing mechanisms, particularly those that control the speed, timing, and duration of development.

Those points are known to the founders of evolutionary psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, yet they still talk about the Pleistocene as the end point of human evolution. It’s not that they dislike giving up a long-cherished idea. In fact, they never were sure about it, nor did they ever consider it foundational to evolutionary psychology. The “foundation” is simply the idea that our present way of life doesn’t match our genetic makeup, which is an adaptation to past environments. But those past environments don’t have to go all the way back to the Pleistocene. That last detail began as a guess and became an article of faith out of necessity.

It’s like Trump in the White House. John Tooby and Leda Cosmides wandered in the wilderness and took a lot of abuse before finally getting secure university positions … at a price: “You want to dabble in biological determinism? OK, do so if you must, but don’t ever touch the third rail! Is that clear?” So human evolution had to end when the Pleistocene ended.

Some academics have touched the third rail, one of them being Henry Harpending. He was repeatedly told to stop, subtly at first and then not so subtly. In 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center added his name to its published list of “extremists.” A year later, he died of an MRSA infection while in hospital. An accident, I suppose.

Interview continues below…

References

Cochran, G. and H. Harpending. (2010). The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution, New York: Basic Books.

Frost, P. (2012). The ‘monkey people’ we once knew. Evo and Proud, March 24.

Harpending, H., and G. Cochran. (2002). In our genes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 99: 10-12.

Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending, and R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 104: 20753-20758.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1971). Race et culture, conférence de Lévi-Strauss à L’UNESCO le 22 mars 1971.

http://politproductions.com/sites/default/files/art-%C2%ABrace_et_culture%C2%BB_levi-strauss_unesco_22_3_1971.pdf

Grégoire Canlorbe: A case of gene-culture coevolution that you like to point out is that of the high incidence of the neurological disorder Tay-Sachs among French Canadians from eastern Quebec or among Ashkenazi Jews. Could you tell us more about it?

Peter Frost: Ashkenazi Jews have high frequencies of four lysosomal storage disorders: Tay-Sachs, Gaucher, Niemann-Pick, and mucolipidosis type IV. All four affect the brain by increasing the capacity of lysosomes to store sphingolipid compounds for the growth and branching of axons. Each disorder can have multiple unrelated causes. Ashkenazi Jews have two unrelated mutations for Tay-Sachs and five unrelated mutations for Gaucher disease. As Jared Diamond wrote: “In effect, lightning has struck Jewish lysosomes not once, not three times, but at least eight times.”

Those mutations have apparently spread through heterozygote advantage. They are harmful in the homozygous state, with two copies from both parents, but are helpful in the much more common heterozygous state, with only one copy from one parent. In the second state, the brain is better supplied with sphingolipids and suffers no adverse effects. The result is better retention and processing of information, i.e., higher intelligence.

Again, I’m late to the party. Jared Diamond was the first not only to point out the impossibility of such disorders being due to chance but also to propose selection for intelligence as a possible cause. His idea was then developed in a paper by Greg Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending. Recently, other researchers have shown that Ashkenazim have higher frequencies of alleles associated with educational attainment.

This is no longer conjecture. Ashkenazi Jews really are smarter on average, as are probably other populations that have specialized in trade, such as the Parsis in India and the Igbo in Nigeria. The Parsis likewise show high frequencies of certain neurological disorders: peripheral neuropathy, essential tremor, Parkinson’s, and epilepsy. Such disorders may be an unfortunate side-effect of strong selection over a short time in a small population.

These facts are coming to light at a time when Ashkenazi Jews are disappearing through low fertility and high out-marriage. The same trends explain their disappearance from the top winners at the U.S. Math Olympiad, the Putnam Exam, the Computing Olympiad, and other academic competitions. The decline became noticeable in the 1980s and has since accelerated. The Parsis, too, are dying out, with a fertility rate of less than one child per woman. It seems that the current environment is toxic to the survival of highly intelligent populations.

To return to the subject, lysosomal storage disorders are like weathervanes. They tell us the strength and direction of selection for intelligence, but the selection itself has acted on many more genes.

Such weathervanes are found in another population. In French Canadians, two alleles for Tay-Sachs reach high frequencies, but only in eastern Quebec, with one allele being prevalent on the north shore of the St. Lawrence and the other on the south shore. In Rimouski, the heterozygote frequency is 7.6 percent, versus 4.2 percent among Ashkenazi Jews and 0.3 percent among French Canadians in Montreal. Eastern Quebec also has high frequencies of another lysosomal storage disorder: mucolipidosis type II, which has a heterozygote frequency of 2.6 percent in the regions of Saguenay and Lac Saint-Jean, the highest reported rate for this mutation.

So lightning has struck French Canadians at least three times in the same metabolic pathway, and also in the same geographic area. That, too, is odd. Look at the regions where lysosomal storage disorders are most common: Charlevoix, Saguenay, and Lac Saint-Jean on the north shore and Bas Saint-Laurent on the south shore. Those regions historically had the fewest English Canadians.

Elsewhere in Quebec, the ethnic divide was an economic one, with business being mostly in the hands of British and American families. Because such people were absent in the above regions, the business niche had to be filled by local talent. Those individuals were not a random sample. They possessed skills in numeracy, literacy, negotiation, and planning, while having a certain outlook on life and supportive family members. In an early market economy, before mass production and specialization of labor, business people and business talents were necessarily more common. A shoemaker, for instance, had to do everything — from purchasing the raw materials to selling the finished product. The workforce was his family, so he, his wife, and their children were the ones who performed the different stages of production: cutting the hides, dyeing, sewing, fitting pieces together, and so on. Evidently, the workforce was likewise homemade, as seen in the higher fertility of self-employed French Canadians at that time.

So a niche was vacant, and capable French Canadians filled it while having more children than average. Could that higher fertility explain the higher frequency of lysosomal storage disorders? To make the selection model work, heterozygotes would need a fitness advantage of 25 to 30 percent over non-carriers. That seems too high. On the other hand, the same regions saw many people leave for New England factories during the 19th century, and those emigrants were disproportionately landless farmers. So a lower fitness advantage might have been enough.

If I could pursue research on the subject, I would examine the genealogies of French Canadians with lysosomal storage disorders. Did heterozygotes have more surviving children than non-carriers? Were they more business-oriented? The second question is the harder one. If a businessman owned a farm, he would describe himself as a farmer to the census-taker, even if his business made more money than his farm. The ideal was to own land. If anything went wrong, he could live on the farm, grow his own food, and still enjoy a normal life. If all he had was a business, and it went bankrupt, he could end up in the street.

References

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