My predictions from last year:
It won’t be such a bad year. Stock markets will reach record highs and pundits will say we’ve entered a sustained boom. For many people, life will never again be so good as it will be this year.
The main worry will be price rises for many commodities. With a return to even modest rates of economic growth, demand will outstrip supply in several areas. Talk of “peak oil” will be joined by concerns over “peak food” and “peak water.” Serious water shortages will hit the American southwest and southeast.
Well, the stock markets have not reached record highs. And there have been no serious water shortages, largely because of an unusually wet winter.
But food prices have been rising ominously. It was this factor that triggered the “Arab Spring” and is now fueling discontent in Russia. Also, for a lot of people—especially our elites—life has never been so good. We are into an economic recovery, of sorts.
How long will the recovery last? Perhaps another twenty years if it were a normal one. But it isn’t. The last recession was not allowed to finish its job of purging the economy. A lot of corporate flab was spared the axe, and dysfunctional attitudes toward debt are still common, particularly among consumers. In addition, the recovery is heavily dependent on government spending and consumer debt, and there is no indication that the economy is ready to go “cold turkey.” We may need more and more of the same stimulus just to maintain sluggish growth.
This debt crisis comes on top of a looming commodity crisis. Prices for fuel, food, housing, and other basics are being pushed up by the new buying power of Asian consumers and by immigration to North America and Western Europe. Can supply be increased to meet the rising demand? Yes, of course. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine—say the business interests that profit from this spike in demand.
Finally, we are facing a globalization crisis. On the one hand, jobs are being outsourced to lower-wage countries. On the other, lower-wage labor is being insourced. The result? A steady downward leveling of incomes throughout the Western World, except for the very rich. The latter now have access to labor under conditions not seen since the days of Charles Dickens.
The current recovery might nonetheless go on indefinitely. The Japanese, for instance, have kept their economy afloat for the past two decades by piling up massive debt. But they are just one society, and it’s one with a strong sense of social cohesion. In contrast, the Western World is very fractious, as seen by the bickering within the European Union. These social and political divisions will probably abort the recovery long before the possibilities for debt financing and money printing have been completely exhausted. And so much the better.
If I have to make a prediction for 2012, it will be that the recovery will continue—on life support, so to speak—but will run into increasing social turbulence. The ‘Arab spring’ will start to play out in the Western World as the elites begin to lose their legitimacy. This process is already under way in Europe, and we may see a domino effect where change in one country facilitates change in other countries.
My research interests
There have been some developments in my areas of research interest.
Skin color and face recognition
Natural selection tends to hardwire recognition of objects that regularly appear in our visual environment. One such object is the human face. As shown by Zhu et al. (2009) through a twin study, the ability to recognize faces is innate and not learned. This heritability is further shown by the two extremes of prosopagnosics and “super-recognizers.” The former cannot recognize faces better than any other object, whereas the latter have exceptional face recognition ability (Russell, Chatterjee, & Nakayama, in press; Russell, Duchaine, & Nakayama, 2009).
The American psychologist Richard Russell has recently shown that face recognition equally uses face shape and facial skin color:
Shape and pigmentation cues were used in roughly equal measure by people with very good and very bad face recognition ability. […] People who are good at recognizing faces are good at using both shape and pigmentation cues to do so; people who are bad at recognizing faces are bad at using both shape and pigmentation cues to do so (Russell, Chatterjee, & Nakayama, in press).
Neural circuits related to face recognition ability must use both shape and pigmentation information about equally. This supports the idea that these circuits represent facial appearance by pooling lower-level patterns of shape and reflectance into combinations that include both types of information (Jiang, et al., 2006). Further, this is consistent with the notion that the location of the Fusiform Face Area is midway along the shape–reflectance gradient in ventral cortex (Cant & Goodale, 2011) because the region integrates these two kinds of cues to visually process faces. (Russell, Chatterjee, & Nakayama, in press)
Dumouchel et al. (2010) have likewise concluded that face shape and “skin properties” are the main clues for face recognition, even more so than the relative distances of facial features from each other.
Why does skin color matter so much for face recognition? Didn’t our ancestors evolve in a context where people interacted only with their own kind or with neighboring groups of similar appearance? Yes, but there was another source of variation in skin color—gender and age. Women and young infants are paler, having less melanin and hemoglobin in their skin. Men, in contrast, are ruddier and browner.
We are thus innately sensitive to differences in skin color, but this sensitivity didn’t evolve in response to ethnic differences. It evolved in response to much smaller gender and age differences (Frost, 2010; Frost, 2011; van den Berghe & Frost, 1986).
At present, two research teams have the means and motivation to pursue this line of research: Richard Russell’s team at Gettysburg College and Frédéric Gosselin’s team at the Université de Montréal. We’ll probably see more findings by both teams over the next year.
The puzzle of European hair and eye colors
European populations have an unusually broad palette of hair and eye colors. This diversity doesn’t have a common genetic cause. It is due to a proliferation of alleles at two separate genes: MC1R for hair color and OCA2 for eye color. This proliferation did not come about through relaxation of selection for dark skin as ancestral Europeans moved into higher latitudes. Most of the new alleles have little or no affect on skin color, and in any case the timeframe is too narrow for this evolutionary scenario.
A likelier cause is sexual selection, which favors bright or novel colors that catch the attention of potential mates. If sexual selection is strong enough, a polymorphism of color variants may develop. A new color appears through mutation and, depending on its brightness or novelty, steadily rises in frequency until it is as common as the established color. Over time, these variants will increase in number. Humans have the potential for this kind of frequency-dependent sexual selection, e.g., darker-haired women are sexually preferred to the extent that they are less common. Such selection is consistent with the high number of alleles for hair color and eye color in European populations, the high ratio of nonsynonymous to synonymous variants among these alleles, and the relatively short time over which this hair and eye color diversity developed.
Sexual selection occurs when too many of one sex must compete for too few of the other. Among early modern humans, such imbalances resulted from (1) polygyny (to the degree that women could provide for themselves and their children without male assistance) and/or (2) higher mortality among men than among women (to the degree that men covered longer distances while hunting or changing camp). Wherever the polygyny rate was low and male mortality high, the result was strong sexual selection of women. Such selection was particularly strong on continental steppe-tundra, where men had to provide almost all of the food by hunting migratory game animals over long distances. Although this type of environment is now fragmentary, it covered until 10,000 years ago a much larger territory that matches the current range of European hair and eye color diversity (Frost, 2006).
This hypothesis would predict some degree of sex linkage among European alleles for hair and eye color, since the sexual selection was acting on women. Over time, there would have arisen alleles that produce non-black hair and non-brown eyes more so in women than in men, and these alleles would have gradually replaced their non-sex-linked counterparts. This process should not have gone very far, though, because of the narrow timeframe.
This prediction is borne out by a twin study on the genetics of hair color. Shekar et al. (2008) found that the women had lighter hair on average than the men and a higher proportion of red hair. Hair color was also more diverse in the women than in the men:
Females had, on average, lighter hair, on the A650t scale, than males.
[…] The correlation within brother–sister twin pairs was significantly lower than the correlation within brother–brother and sister–sister dizygotic twin pairs (P ≈ 0.01). This suggests that there may be qualitative differences in the genetic influences on the A650t index between sexes.
[…] Additive genetic influences explain 55% and 58% of variation in the A650t index within females and males, respectively. The additive genetic influence on the A650t index in males was, predominantly, qualitatively different from those that influence the index in females.
[…] Females had, on average, redder hair (P < 0.00001) and greater variation in R index scores (P _ 0.001) than males.
At present, no one is trying to date the diversification of European hair and eye colors.
The closest research effort would be the work by Norton and Hammer (2007) showing that Europeans became white-skinned long after their entry into Europe. Heather Norton is now trying to get a firm date on this phenotypic change.
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 (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. (2010). Femmes claires, hommes foncés. Les racines oubliées du colorisme, Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval.
Frost, P. (2006). European hair and eye color - A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 85-103 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/10905138
Norton, H.L. & M.F. Hammer (2007) Sequence variation in the pigmentation candidate gene SLC24A5 and evidence for independent evolution of light skin in European and East Asian populations, Program of the 77th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, p. 179.
Russell, R., G. Chatterjee, and K. Nakayama. (In press) Developmental prosopagnosia and super-recognition: no special role for surface reflectance processing. Neuropsychologia
Russell, R., B. Duchaine, and K. Nakayama. (2009). Super-recognizers: People with extraordinary face recognition ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16(2), 252-257.
Shekar, S.N., D.L. Duffy, T. Frudakis, G.W. Montgomery, M.R. James, R.A. Sturm, & N.G. Martin (2008). Spectrophotometric methods for quantifying pigmentation in human hair—Influence of MC1R genotype and environment, Photochemistry and Photobiology, 84, 719–726.
Taschereau-Dumouchel, V., B. Rossion, P.G. Schyns, and F. Gosselin. (2010). Interattribute Distances do not Represent the Identity of Real World Faces, Front Psychol, 1, 159.
van den Berghe, P. L. & P. Frost. (1986). Skin color preference, sexual dimorphism, and sexual selection: A case of gene-culture co-evolution? Ethnic and Racial Studies, 9, 87-113.
Zhu, Q., Y. Song, S. Hu, X. Li, M. Tian, Z. Zhen, Q. Dong, N. Kanwisher, and J. Liu. (2009). Heritability of the specific cognitive ability of face perception, Current Biology, 20, 137-142.