02 Mar 2006

Much Like Global Warming

The London Times reports another key breakthrough of contemporary science. Canadian anthropologist Peter Frost has produced a study on the origin of blond hair. And the World Health Organization warns of its impending disappearance.

According to the study, north European women evolved blonde hair and blue eyes at the end of the Ice Age to make them stand out from their rivals at a time of fierce competition for scarce males.

The study argues that blond hair originated in the region because of food shortages 10,000-11,000 years ago. Until then, humans had the dark brown hair and dark eyes that still dominate in the rest of the world. Almost the only sustenance in northern Europe came from roaming herds of mammoths, reindeer, bison and horses. Finding them required long, arduous hunting trips in which numerous males died, leading to a high ratio of surviving women to men.

Lighter hair colours, which started as rare mutations, became popular for breeding and numbers increased dramatically, according to the research, published under the aegis of the University of St Andrews.

“Human hair and eye colour are unusually diverse in northern and eastern Europe (and their) origin over a short span of evolutionary time indicates some kind of selection,” says the study by Peter Frost, a Canadian anthropologist. Frost adds that the high death rate among male hunters “increased the pressures of sexual selection on early European women, one possible outcome being an unusual complex of colour traits.”..

..A study by the World Health Organisation found that natural blonds are likely to be extinct within 200 years because there are too few people carrying the blond gene. According to the WHO study, the last natural blond is likely to be born in Finland during 2202.

My wife retorted:

Females choose the males in a great many (perhaps the majority) of vertebrate species – does this not match your own (blond) experience?

I’m afraid that it does.

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Peter Frost

Your wife is right. In most vertebrate species, the female chooses the male. This is because more males than females are competing for mates at any one time. And this is because males generally invest less in reproduction than females do. Once the male does his thing, he can start looking for another female.

It doesn’t follow, however, that this is always the case. Even among non-human species, there are cases where the male does more than just copulate.

In humans, males generally help provide food for their offspring. Among hunter-gatherers, the degree of food provisioning varies: from about half of the family food supply in tropical societies to virtually all of it in Arctic societies. So male polygamy in the latter societies is severely constrained.

I could go on, but I’m simply repeating what is written in my article. If you don’t have the time to read it, fine. But please don’t reproach me for ignoring points that I actually discussed at some length in the article.



Karen Myers

I’m the wife, replying to Peter Frost. I was responding to the newspaper article about your paper, not the paper itself which is (much) harder to locate, an inadequacy I am attempting (so far without success) to remedy.

I certainly don’t mean to imply that sexual selection is always female initiated (that was in the nature of a family joke), but I am curious: how do you make the leap in your comment from female sexual selection to male polygamy? Male polygamy (or, better, polyandry) is indeed very, very rare, but female selection of mates does not somehow automatically imply multiple mates at a time (thank god).

And, of course, my primary question remains: why consider “blondeness” a female trait rather than a male trait or a genderless trait? We’re not cats, with sex-linked hair colors.



Peter Frost

Male polygamy is very, very rare? In most mammalian species, male polygamy (or polygyny, to use the correct term) is the dominant kind of mating system. Even among humans, polygyny can be quite common. In many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, almost a third of the men and most of the women are in polygynous marriages.

Polygyny is even more common if we include serial polygyny (a man has more than one wife over the course of his lifetime, but never more than one at a time).

Both kinds of male polygamy dry up the pool of single women, thus increasing competition among males for mates. The marriage market becomes a “sellers market” where women are in a much better position to pick and choose a mate.

Yes Virigina, female selection does imply that some men out there are getting more than their fair share of women.

There is some evidence of sex-linkage for blonde hair (I discuss this in the article). But sexual selection doesn’t automatically lead to sex linkage. If women are being selected for “novel” hair and eye colors, these characteristics will show up in their offspring, be they male or female.

I will e-mail you a PDF of my article.



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