Monday, December 17, 2018

Rise of the West

Soldats sénégalais au camp de Mailly (1917) by Félix Vallotton. During WWI, France recruited half a million Africans to fight in Europe.

When did "the West" begin? Usually historians look back to the 17th century, when the maritime nations of northwest Europe—Great Britain, France, and Holland—overtook Spain and Portugal in colonizing the Americas, Africa, and Asia. One can look farther back. Greer (2013a, 2013b) pinpoints the 14th century as the time when the North Sea economies began to diverge from the rest of the world:

[...] the two exceptions are Netherlands and Great Britain. These North Sea economies experienced sustained GDP per capita growth for six straight centuries. The North Sea begins to diverge from the rest of Europe long before the 'West' begins its more famous split from 'the rest.'

[...] we can pin point the beginning of this 'little divergence' with greater detail. In 1348 Holland's GDP per capita was $876. England's was $777. In less than 60 years time Holland's jumps to $1,245 and England's to 1090. The North Sea's revolutionary divergence started at this time. (Greer 2013b; see also Hbd *chick 2013)

This process began before the European conquest of the Americas, the invention of printing, the creation of modern finance institutions, the Atlantic slave trade, or the Protestant Reformation. None of these can be proper explanations for this "little divergence." (Greer 2013a)

One can look even farther back to the 7th century, when North Sea trade began an expansion that would later eclipse Mediterranean trade (Callmer 2002, also see Barrett et al. 2004).

Coevolution with the market economy

There is reason to believe that northwest Europeans were pre-adapted to the market economy. They were not the first to create markets, but they were the first to replace kinship with the market as the main way of organizing social and economic life. Already in the fourteenth century, their kinship ties were weaker than those of other human populations, as attested by marriage data going back to before the Black Death and in some cases to the seventh century (Frost 2017). The data reveal a characteristic pattern:

- men and women marry relatively late

- many people never marry

- children usually leave the nuclear family to form new households

- households often have non-kin members

This behavioral pattern was associated with a psychological one:

- weaker kinship and stronger individualism;

- framing of social rules in terms of moral universalism and moral absolutism, as opposed to kinship-based morality (nepotism, amoral familialism);

- greater tendency to use internal controls on behavior (guilt proneness, empathy) than external controls (public shaming, community surveillance, etc.)

This is the mindset that enabled northwest Europeans to exploit the possibilities of the market economy. Because they could more easily move toward individualism and social atomization, they could go farther in reorganizing social relationships along market-oriented lines. They could thus mobilize capital, labor, and raw resources more efficiently, thereby gaining more wealth and, ultimately, more military power.

This new cultural environment in turn led to further behavioral and psychological changes. Northwest Europeans have adapted to it just as humans elsewhere have adapted to their own cultural environments, through gene-culture coevolution:

1.      People adapt to the new environment by pushing their envelope of phenotypic plasticity.

2.      Natural selection then favors those individuals whose genotype more closely matches the new phenotype.

3.      Over time, the mean genotype of the population moves closer and closer to the new phenotype.

Northwest Europeans adapted to the market economy, especially those who formed the nascent middle class of merchants, yeomen, and petty traders. Over time, this class enjoyed higher fertility and became demographically more important, as shown by Clark (2007, 2009a, 2009b) in his study of medieval and post-medieval England: the lower classes had negative population growth and were steadily replaced, generation after generation, by downwardly mobile individuals from the middle class. By the early 19th century most English people were either middle-class or impoverished descendants of the middle class.

This demographic change was associated with behavioral and psychological changes to the average English person. Time orientation became shifted toward the future, as seen by increased willingness to save money and defer gratification. There was also a long-term decline in personal violence, with male homicide falling steadily from 1150 to 1800 and, parallel to this, a decline in blood sports and other violent though legal practices (cock fighting, bear and bull baiting, public executions). This change can largely be attributed to the State's monopoly on violence and the consequent removal of violence-prone individuals through court-ordered or extrajudicial executions. Between 1500 and 1750, court-ordered executions removed 0.5 to 1.0% of all men of each generation, with perhaps just as many dying at the scene of the crime or in prison while awaiting trial (Clark 2007; Frost and Harpending 2015).

Similarly, Rindermann (2018) has argued that mean IQ steadily rose in Western Europe during late medieval and post-medieval times. More people were able to reach higher stages of mental development. Previously, the average person could learn language and social norms well enough, but their ability to reason was hindered by cognitive egocentrism, anthropomorphism, finalism, and animism (Rindermann 2018, p. 49). From the sixteenth century onward, more and more people could better understand probability, cause and effect, and the perspective of another person, whether real or hypothetical. This improvement preceded universal education and improvements in nutrition and sanitation (Rindermann 2018, pp. 86-87).

Ideology of the market economy: the rise of liberalism

Finally, the emergence of the middle class was associated with ideological change: the rise of liberalism and its belief in the supremacy of the individual. John Locke (1632-1704) is considered to be the "father of liberalism," but belief in the individual as the ultimate moral arbiter was already evident in Protestant and pre-Protestant thinkers going back to John Wycliffe (1320s-1384) and earlier. These are all elaborations and refinements of the same mindset.

Liberalism has been dominant in Britain and its main overseas offshoot, the United States, since the 18th century. There is some difference between right-liberals and left-liberals, but both see the individual as the fundamental unit of society and both seek to maximize personal autonomy at the expense of kinship-based forms of social organization, i.e., the nuclear family, the extended family, the kin group, the community, and the ethnie. Right-liberals are willing to tolerate these older forms and let them gradually self-liquidate, whereas left-liberals want to use the power of the State to liquidate them. Some left-liberals say they simply want to redefine these older forms of sociality to make them voluntary and open to everyone. Redefine, however, means eliminate. If you make a community truly "open" it will eventually become little more than a motel: a place where people share space, where they may or may not know each other, and where very few if any are linked by longstanding ties—certainly not ties of kinship.

For a long time, liberalism was merely dominant in Britain and the U.S. The market economy coexisted with kinship as the proper way to organize social and economic life. The latter form of sociality was even dominant in some groups and regions, such as the Celtic fringe, Catholic communities, the American “Bible Belt,” and rural or semi-rural areas in general. Today, those subcultures are largely gone. Opposition to liberalism is for the most part limited, ironically, to individuals who act on their own. 

Success of the liberal model, in peace and in war

How did liberalism become so dominant, even hegemonic? In a word, it delivered the goods. Liberal regimes were better able to mobilize labor, capital, and raw resources over long distances and across different communities. Conservative regimes were less flexible and, by their very nature, tied to a single ethnocultural community. Liberals pushed and pushed for more individualism and social atomization, thereby reaping the benefits of access to an ever larger market economy.

The benefits included not only more wealth but also more military power. During the American Civil War, the North benefitted not only from a greater capacity to produce arms and ammunition but also from a more extensive railway system and a larger pool of recruits, including young migrants of diverse origins—one in four members of the Union army was an immigrant (Doyle 2015). 

During the First World War, Britain and France could likewise draw on not only their own manpower but also that of their colonies and elsewhere. France recruited half a million African soldiers to fight in Europe, and Britain over a million Indian troops to fight in Europe, the Middle East, and East Africa (Koller 2014; Wikipedia 2018b). An additional 300,000 laborers were brought to Europe and the Middle East for non-combat roles from China, Egypt, India, and South Africa (Wikipedia 2018a). In contrast, the Central Powers had to rely almost entirely on their own human resources. The Allied powers thus turned a European civil war into a truly global conflict.

The same imbalance developed during the Second World War. The Allies could produce arms and ammunition in greater quantities and far from enemy attack in North America, India, and South Africa, while recruiting large numbers of soldiers overseas. More than a million African soldiers fought for Britain and France, their contribution being particularly critical to the Burma campaign, the Italian campaign, and the invasion of southern France (Krinninger and Mwanamilongo 2015; Wikipedia 2018c). Meanwhile, India provided over 2.5 million soldiers, who fought in North Africa, Europe, and Asia (Wikipedia 2018d). India also produced armaments and resources for the war effort, notably coal, iron ore, and steel.

Liberalism thus succeeded not so much in the battle of ideas as on the actual battlefield. 

To be cont'd


Barrett, J.H., Locker, A.M. and Roberts, C.M. (2004). Dark Age Economics revisited: The English fish bone evidence AD 600-1600. Antiquity 78 (301): 618-636.

Callmer, J. (2002). North-European trading centres and the early medieval craftsman. Craftsmen at Åhus, North-Eastern Scania, Sweden ca. AD 750-850+, UppSkrastudier 6 (Acta Archaeologica Lundensia Ser. in 8, no. 39), 133-158.

Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.

Clark, G. (2009a). The indicted and the wealthy: surnames, reproductive success, genetic selection and social class in pre-industrial England.

Clark, G. (2009b). The domestication of man: The social implications of Darwin. ArtefaCTos 2: 64-80. 

Doyle, D.H. (2015). The Civil War Was Won by Immigrant Soldiers, June 29, Time

Frost, P. (2017). The Hajnal line and gene-culture coevolution in northwest Europe. Advances in Anthropology 7: 154-174.

Frost, P. and H. Harpending. (2015b). Western Europe, state formation, and genetic pacification. Evolutionary Psychology 13: 230-243.

Greer, T. (2013a). The Rise of the West: Asking the Right Questions. July 7, The Scholar's Stage

Greer, T. (2013b). Another look at the 'Rise of the West' - but with better numbers. November 20, The Scholar's Stage

Hbd *chick (2013). Going Dutch, November 29

Koller, C. (2014). Colonial military participation in Europe. International Encyclopedia of the First World War. 

Krinninger, T., and Mwanamilongo, S. (2015). Africa in World War II: the forgotten veterans. July 5, DW

Rindermann, H. (2018). Cognitive Capitalism. Human Capital and the Wellbeing of Nations. Cambridge University Press.

Wikipedia (2018a). Chinese Labour Corps.

Wikipedia (2018b). Indian Army during World War I

Wikipedia (2018c). Débarquement de Provence

Wikipedia (2018d). Indian army during World War II

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Inuit and vitamin D

Inuit mothers (Wikicommons - Ansgar Walk) - Inuit have low levels of vitamin D. Does this mean they're not getting enough? Or have their bodies adapted to an environment where it cannot easily be made in the skin or obtained from the diet?

Inuit people have "insufficient" vitamin D, even among those who eat a traditional diet and live a traditional lifestyle. There are consequently moves afoot to remedy this insufficiency by providing vitamin D supplements. In my opinion, this is a response to a largely nonexistent problem and will probably have adverse consequences.

My arguments are explained in an article I have just published in Inuit Studies. Here is the abstract:

Inuit have vitamin D blood levels that generally fall within the range of insufficiency, even when they live on a traditional diet of fish and game meat. Without this vitamin, bones soften and become deformed, a condition called rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. Until recent times, however, this condition was much rarer among Inuit than among non-Inuit, even when the latter included people living near Inuit communities under similar conditions of climate and housing. This rarity was attributed to extended breastfeeding and a high-meat/low-cereal diet. The situation subsequently reversed, with Inuit becoming more at risk of developing rickets, first in Labrador during the 1920s and later elsewhere. To reduce this excess risk, researchers have recommended vitamin D supplementation, arguing that breast milk has too little vitamin D and that even a traditional diet cannot provide the recommended daily intake. We should ask, however, whether the problem is definitional. Inuit may have lower levels of vitamin D because they need less, having adapted culturally and physiologically to an environment where this vitamin is less easily synthesized in the skin. These adaptations include a diet that enhances calcium bioavailability (by means of ß-casein in breast milk, certain unknown substances in meat, and absence of phytic acid), as well as genetic changes that enable vitamin D to be used more efficiently. Although Inuit are today more at risk of developing rickets than are non-Inuit, this excess risk is nonetheless small and seems to have a dietary cause-namely, early weaning and abandonment of a high-meat/low-cereal diet.

Please feel free to offer comments or criticisms.


Frost, P. (2018). To supplement or not to supplement: are Inuit getting enough vitamin D? Études Inuit Studies 40(2): 271-291.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

More unintended consequences

Fond memories, by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta (1841-1920). The hormonal state of pregnancy causes women to have a lower capacity for multitasking and remembering future activities. What happens when oral contraceptives maintain this hormonal state for years and years?

In my last post I reviewed the literature on oral contraceptives and behavior. Women invest more in sexual attractiveness near the time of ovulation, putting on more makeup and sending out other visual, behavioral, and olfactory cues. Oral contraceptives seem to suppress this desire to be attractive.

Parallel to these attitudinal and behavioral changes over the menstrual cycle, we also find cyclical changes to certain brain regions:

[...] a large sample of 55 women was scanned three times along their menstrual cycle in concisely defined time windows of hormonal changes. Accordingly this is the first study using a large enough sample size to assess menstrual cycle dependent changes in human brain structure with sufficient power. Results confirm a significant estradiol-dependent pre-ovulatory increase in gray matter volumes of the bilateral hippocampus, but also show a significant, progesterone-dependent increase in gray matter volumes of the right basal ganglia after ovulation. No other areas were affect by hormonal changes along the menstrual cycle. These hormone driven menstrual cycle changes in human brain structure are small, but may be the underlying cause of menstrual cycle dependent changes in cognition and emotion. (Pletzer et al. 2018).

The same research team earlier reported differences in brain structure between oral contraceptive (OC) users and non-users. OC users were closer to men in their brain structure:

Men had larger hippocampi, parahippocampal and fusiform gyri, amygdalae and basal ganglia than women. Women showed larger gray matter volumes in the prefrontal cortex, pre- and postcentral gyri. These sex-dependent effects were modulated by menstrual cycle phases and hormonal contraceptives. We found larger volumes in the right fusiform/parahippocampal gyrus during early follicular compared to mid-luteal cycle phase. Women using hormonal contraceptives showed significantly larger prefrontal cortices, pre- and postcentral gyri, parahippocampal and fusiform gyri and temporal regions, compared to women not using contraceptives. (Pletzer et al. 2010).

This study was criticized because it made no distinction between progestin-only OCs and combined progestin/estradiol OCs. The results were quite different when another research team repeated this study with participants who used only the second type of pill. OC users now had less, not more, brain volume, particularly in certain regions of the cerebral cortex: 

In 90 women, (44 OC users, 46 naturally-cycling women), we compared the cortical thickness of brain regions that participate in the salience network and the default mode network, as well as the volume of subcortical regions in these networks. We found that OC use was associated with significantly lower cortical thickness measurements in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. These regions are believed to be important for responding to rewards and evaluating internal states/incoming stimuli, respectively. (Petersen et al. 2015 - h/t to Wanda!)

These differing results may reflect the different types of OCs in use. Because progestin, like progesterone, has anti-estrogenic effects, long-term use would tend to masculinize a woman's brain; there is consequently more gray matter in the parahippocampal and fusiform gyri, which are likewise bigger in men than in women. In contrast, when women prevent conception by taking a mix of progestin and estradiol, which more closely mimics the hormonal state of pregnancy, certain regions of their cerebral cortex will tend to atrophy.


This atrophy may have an evolutionary cause. Keep in mind that a pregnant woman has to cope with a different pattern of cognitive demands: 

Pregnant women often have difficulty with multi-tasking and remembering future activities; however, they show improvement in memory for faces and recognition of emotional changes, particularly in men. They tend to have an increased sensitivity to odors, many of which are perceived as unpleasant. Perceptions of taste alter throughout pregnancy, with cravings for sweet foods in the second trimester and for salt in the third; sour tends to be preferred throughout the pregnancy. (Stadtlander 2013)

In general, the overall cognitive load is lower during pregnancy, so it makes sense that a pregnant woman’s body would allocate more resources to her developing child and fewer to her brain. The brain is, after all, the costliest organ of the human body, and it can probably cope with being a lower priority over the short term. Problems develop only if the hormonal state of pregnancy is artificially maintained for years and years.


Petersen, N., A. Touroutoglou, J.M. Andreano, and L. Cahill. (2015).Oral contraceptive pill use is associated with localized decreases in cortical thickness. Human Brain Mapping 36(7): 2644-2654. 

Pletzer, B., T. Harris, and E. Hidalgo-Lopez. (2018). Subcortical structural changes along the menstrual cycle: beyond the hippocampus. Scientific Reports 8: 16042

Pletzer, B., M. Kronbichler, M. Aichhorn, J. Bergmann, G. Ladurner, and H.H. Kerschbaum. (2010). Menstrual cycle and hormonal contraceptive use modulate human brain structure. Brain Research 1348: 55-62.

Stadtlander, L. (2013).  Memory and perceptual changes during pregnancy. International Journal of Childbirth Education 28(2): 49-53.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Unintended consequences

Oral contraceptives suppress not only ovulation but also concurrent behavioral and attitudinal changes, including the desire to look more attractive. Has "the pill" changed our culture?

The oral contraceptive pill prevents pregnancy by suppressing ovulation—in short, by fooling a woman's body into thinking it is already pregnant. In addition to medical side effects, "the pill" also seems to modify behavior and attitude, often subtly. Whereas women are more likely to initiate sexual behavior at ovulation, this effect is suppressed in women on the pill (Adams et al. 1978). The latter also prefer men whose faces are less masculine (Little et al. 2002) and lighter-skinned (Frost 1994).

Among non-pill-users, ovulation coincides with greater use of cosmetics and increased time spent putting on cosmetics (Guéguen 2012). This behavioral effect seems to be likewise suppressed by pill use:

We photographed a sample of women (N = 36) who self-reported whether or not they use the contraceptive pill, as well as their cosmetic habits. A separate sample of participants (N = 143) rated how much makeup these target women appeared to be wearing. We found that women not using the contraceptive pill (i.e., naturally cycling women) reported spending more time applying cosmetics for an outing than did women who use the contraceptive pill. We also found that the faces of these naturally cycling women were rated as wearing more cosmetics than the faces of the women using the contraceptive pill. (Batres et al. 2018)

These findings are consistent with the results of a study on professional lap dancers. The participants made $335 in tips per 5 hour shift during ovulation, but only $260 per shift during the luteal phase and $185 per shift during menstruation. Lap dancers on contraceptive pills showed no change in earnings over the menstrual cycle (Miller et al. 2007). It's unclear what sort of visual or behavioral cues were suppressed by pill use:

[...] our study did not identify the precise proximal mechanisms that influence tip earnings. These might include the previously documented shifts in body scent, facial attractiveness, soft-tissue body symmetry, waist-to-hip ratio, and verbal creativity and fluency—or they might include shifts in other phenotypic cues that have not yet been studied. We can, however, exclude some possible mediators based on previous exotic dancer research. Tip earnings are unlikely to be influenced by cycle shifts in stage-dance moves, clothing, or initial conversational content because these cues just do not vary much for professional dancers (Miller et al. 2007)

Do women naturally have a more attractive physical appearance at ovulation?


The past half-century has seen a trend toward androgyny among women. This trend is usually attributed to feminism and pop culture, but perhaps the latter have in turn been influenced by something else.

Today, "the pill" is used by approximately 100 million women worldwide, particularly in developed countries. Has this widespread use played a role in changing our cultural and ideological environment? 

I'm not suggesting that women look less feminine today simply because more of them are on the pill and thus are hormonally altered. Rather, if a larger proportion of women are in that kind of hormonal state, it will be easier for anti-feminine fashions and ideologies to achieve a critical mass and take off among all women, including those not on the pill.


Adams, D.B., A.R. Gold, and A.D. Burt. (1978). Rise in female-initiated sexual activity at ovulation and its suppression by oral contraceptives. New England Journal of Medicine 299: 1145-1150.

Batres, C., A. Porcheron, G. Kaminski, S. Courrèges, F. Morizot, and R. Russell. (2018). Evidence that the hormonal contraceptive pill is associated with cosmetic habits? Frontiers in Psychology 9: 1459

Frost, P. (1994b). 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.

Guéguen, N. (2012). Makeup and menstrual cycle: near ovulation, women use more cosmetics. The Psychological Record 62: 541-548. 

Little, A.C., B.C. Jones, I.S. Penton-Voak, D.M. Burt, and D.I. Perrett. (2002). Partnership status and the temporal context of relationships influence human female preferences for sexual dimorphism in male face shape. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 269: 1095-1100. 

Miller, G., J.M. Tybur, and B.D. Jordan. (2007). Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus? Evolution and Human Behavior 28: 375-381.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Looking through a lens

The Babylonian goddess Ishtar (Louvre). The cult of feminine whiteness reached its height in a zone stretching from the Mediterranean through the Middle East and into South and East Asia

Skin color differentiates between the sexes at puberty, with complexions becoming paler in girls and ruddier and browner in boys. The cause seems to be hormonal. This is most convincingly shown by recent studies on digit ratio in men and women before and after puberty and by earlier studies on normal, castrated, and ovariectomized subjects (Edwards and Duntley 1939; Edwards and Duntley 1949; Edwards et al. 1941; Manning et al. 2004; Sitek et al. 2018).

How noticeable is this sex difference? If we take the best controlled studies, where this sexual differentiation is measured at the upper inner arm, we find that boys and girls differ after puberty by about one and a half percentage points of skin reflectance (Kalla 1983; Mesa 1983). By comparison, northern Europeans and West Africans differ by 25 to 30 percentage points (Robins 1991, Tables 7.1, 7.2).

Keep in mind that these measurements are from the upper inner arm and that measurements from other body sites show a much larger sex difference. On the buttocks and the breasts, skin reflectance differs by 6 to 15 percentage points between men and women (Edwards et al. 1939; Garn et al. 1956). The literature has always ascribed this finding to differences in dress and, hence, to differences in sun exposure, yet female skin is lighter at these sites not only because it has less melanin but also because it has less blood in its outer layers, a fact hard to reconcile with a simple tanning effect. 

There is reason to believe that women are lighter-skinned where their subcutaneous fat layer is thicker, possibly because body fat contains an enzyme (aromatase) that converts an androgen (androstenedione) into an estrogen (estrone), thus feminizing the skin (Siiteri and MacDonald 1973). Indeed, lightness of skin color correlates with thickness of subcutaneous fat in adult women (Mazess 1967).

Visual processing of this sex difference in the human mind

Whatever its actual magnitude, we seem innately predisposed to notice this small difference in skin color, particularly for face recognition. Research is ongoing, but there is a growing consensus that "color is not merely an accessory of faces, but is rather a complex and crucial feature in facial processing. [...] Further, recent work has revealed consistent patterns of connected face and color selective cortical areas, possibly reflecting a shared overlap of visual processing between faces and color" (Thorstenson 2018).

Faces are recognized by means of many neurons, some of which specialize in recognizing male faces, others in recognizing female faces, and others in recognizing both indifferently (Baudouin and Brochard 2011; Bestelmeyer et al. 2008; Jacquet and Rhodes 2008; Little et al. 2005). To recognize gender, one of the key visual criteria is skin color (Bruce and Langton 1994; Hill, Bruce, and Akamatsu 1995; Russell and Sinha 2007; Russell et al. 2006; Tarr et al. 2001; Tarr, Rossion, and Doerschner 2002). In particular, these neurons use two aspects of facial color: hue (degree of brownness and ruddiness) and luminosity (degree of contrast between lightness of facial skin versus darkness of lip/eye area). Hue is the fast channel for gender identification. If the face is too far away or the lighting too dim, this mental mechanism will switch to the slower but more accurate channel of luminosity (Dupuis-Roy et al. 2009; Nestor and Tarr 2008a; Nestor and Tarr 2008b; Tarr et al. 2001; Tarr, Rossion, and Doerschner 2002). 

It has been shown that an observer can identify the gender of a face even if the image is blurred and differs only in color (Tarr et al. 2001). Indeed, facial color seems especially crucial if face shape is not clearly visible (Yip and Sinha 2002).

Even when not observing a human face we unconsciously associate darkness with men and lightness with women. This was shown in a series of experiments with Dutch, Portuguese, and Turkish participants. In the first one, personal names were gender-recognized faster when male names were presented in black and female names in white than when the combinations were reversed. In the second experiment, very briefly appearing black and white blobs had to be classified by gender; the former were classified predominantly as male and the latter as female. Finally, in an eye-tracking experiment, observation was longer and fixation more frequent when a black or dark object was associated with a male character and a white or light object with a female character (Semin et al. 2018). Similar results come from a word-association test with Navajo participants: the color black was perceived as more potent and masculine and the color white as more active and feminine (Osgood 1960, p. 165).

We therefore perceive skin color, and especially facial color, through the lens of a mental mechanism that initially arose for gender recognition. This may explain not only why lighter skin is subconsciously perceived as feminine but also why women have sought to accentuate this relative pallor in a wide range of cultures and time periods, most often by avoiding the sun and wearing protective clothing (Frost 2010, pp. 120-123). To the same end, and often independently in different geographic regions, powders have been created from white clay, lime, chalk, or gypsum for the purpose of lightening women’s facial color or increasing its contrast with lip/eye color (Russell 2003; Russell 2009; Russell 2010).

This cult of feminine whiteness reached its height in a zone stretching from the Mediterranean through the Middle East and into South and East Asia. Here, the sex difference in skin color could develop to its fullest, without being constrained by the ceiling of very light pigmentation or the floor of very dark pigmentation. Here too were invented the first cosmetics for women, including powders to lighten skin artificially, and accessories to keep skin untanned (parasols, long gloves, conical or wide-brimmed hats). Finally, here too were created the first works of prose, poetry, and visual art, often on the theme of female beauty, including feminine whiteness. The collective imagination thus became populated with women much fairer than their real-life counterparts.

The advent of the tanned look and the end of feminine whiteness

This cult of feminine whiteness came to an end in the Western world when women embraced the tanned look in the early 20th century. This look began as a side effect of heliotherapy, i.e., the use of sun baths and sun lamps to treat rickets, tuberculosis of the skin, and other cutaneous diseases. By 1929 it had become a fashion, to the surprise of observers like this New York Times journalist: "Idealists would like to believe that the people, investigating the medical doctrine and accepting it as sober fact, went deliberately forth to get what was good for them, and took to sun baths with an avidity they had never shown for spinach, sleep, or orthopedic shoes" (Segrave 2005, p. 35). The new fad had become especially popular with women and, as such, entered into the boyish look of the 1920s: bobbed hair, large shoulders, small bust, narrow hips, and long legs. The intent was to evoke the image of a boy on the brink of puberty, as shown by the French name of this fashion trend: la garçonne.

While the first nudist movements were organizing, la garçonne freely exhibited her athletic body and enjoyed the benefits of heliotherapy. The 1920s made tanning fashionable. Translucent skin and pale complexions were relegated to the theatre prop room of fin de siècle romanticism. Thus disappeared an element of gender differentiation. The contrast of flesh colors, brown and copper for the man, white, pink, and ivory for the woman, had been a constant since Ancient Egypt in literary and pictorial representations. (Bard 1998, p. 41)

The tanned look tapped into an erotic response that had previously been marginalized and stigmatized. In Victorian era novels, the "dark lady" appears as an "impetuous," "ardent," and "passionate" object of short-lived romances (Carpenter 1936, p. 254). Similarly, in French novels of the same era "[t]he love incarnated by brown women appears as the conceptual equivalent of a devouring femininity, thus making them similar to the mythical figure of Lilith" (Atzenhoffer 2011, p. 6). This motif goes back at least to the Middle Ages in various European cultures and points to an alternate mode of eroticism:

[...] dark girls [...] are inevitably imagined as sexually more available than their fairer sisters, with whom they are implicitly or explicitly contrasted. In addition, the change of a girl's complexion, such as being burned by the sun, is to be understood as symbolic of her having crossed a sexual threshold without the benefit of marriage. (Vasvari 1999)

European folklore has sayings along the lines of "the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice," such as the following from a Venetian folk-poem:

"My lady mother always told me that I should never be enamoured of white roses," says a sententious young man; "she told me that I should love the little mulberries, which are sweeter than honey." "Cara mora," mora, or mulberry, meaning brunette, is an ordinary caressing term. (Martinengo-Cesaresco 1886, p. 95)

This is consistent with the idea that women evolved lighter skin not as a means to stimulate male sexual arousal but rather as a means to modify such arousal by reducing aggressiveness in the male observer and inducing feelings of care. Women are thus lighter-skinned for the same reason that they have less body hair, a higher pitch of voice, and a more babyish face. These are all key aspects of Konrad Lorenz's Kindchenschema (Lorenz 1971, pp. 154-164). Another ethologist, Richard Russell, was the first to use this concept to explain women's lighter skin:

I believe the sexual differences in skin color resulted from female whiteness being selected for because it is opposite the threat coloration, although the selection pressures may have been rather mild. Light skin seems to be more paedomorphic, since individuals of all races tend to darken with age. Even in the gorilla, the most heavily pigmented of the hominoids, the young are born with very little pigment. [...] Thus, a lighter colored individual may present a less threatening, more juvenile image. (Guthrie 1970)

This explanation is supported by a two-part study where each male participant was first shown pictures of women and asked to rate their attractiveness. Women with lighter skin were not rated more attractive than those with darker skin. In the second part, eye movements were tracked, and it was found that women with lighter skin were viewed for a longer time. The longer duration could indicate a slower rise and fall in sexual arousal (Garza et al. 2016). Women's lighter skin may thus lengthen and pacify male sexual arousal via a Kindchenschema effect.


Today, skin color is seen as a mark of ethnic identity, yet this is not the sole meaning it has had for humans. For most of history and prehistory it was seen as a mark of male or female identity.

This older meaning has received much less interest, even in academia. It is perhaps no coincidence that scholarly interest has come disproportionately from non-Westerners. In contrast, Western academics, and Americans in particular, generally view the psychological meaning of skin color as a legacy of slavery.


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Bard, C. (1998). Les garçonnes. Modes et fantasmes des Années folles. Paris: Flammarion.

Baudouin, J.-Y., and R. Brochard. (2011). Gender-based prototype formation in face recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 37(4): 888-898. 

Bestelmeyer, P.E.G., B.C. Jones, L.M. DeBruine, A.C. Little, D.I. Perrett, A. Schneider, L.L.M. Welling, C.A. Conway. (2008). Sex-contingent face aftereffects depend on perceptual category rather than structural encoding. Cognition 107(1): 353-365.

Bruce, V., and S. Langton. (1994). The use of pigmentation and shading information in recognising the sex and identities of faces. Perception 23(7): 803-822.

Carpenter, F. I. (1936). Puritans preferred blondes. The heroines of Melville and Hawthorne. New England Quarterly 9(2): 253-272.

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.

Edwards, E.A., and S.Q. Duntley. (1939). The pigments and color of living human skin. American Journal of Anatomy 65(1): 1-33.

Edwards, E.A., and S.Q. Duntley. (1949). Cutaneous vascular changes in women in reference to the menstrual cycle and ovariectomy. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology 57(3): 501-509.

Edwards, E.A., J.B. Hamilton, S.Q. Duntley, and G. Hubert. (1941). Cutaneous vascular and pigmentary changes in castrate and eunuchoid men. Endocrinology 28(1): 119-128.  

Frost, P. (2010). Femmes claires, hommes foncés. Les racines oubliées du colorisme. Quebec City: Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 202 p.

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Kalla, A.K. (1973). Ageing and sex differences in human skin pigmentation. Zeitschrift für Morphologie und Anthropologie 65(1): 29-33.

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Manning, J.T., P.E. Bundred, and F.M. Mather. (2004). Second to fourth digit ratio, sexual selection, and skin colour. Evolution and Human Behavior 25: 38-50.

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Puberty and skin color

Skin color differentiates between boys and girls after puberty. Before puberty, girls are actually darker-skinned than boys (Kalla 1973; Mesa 1983)

Complexions differ between the sexes: women are paler and men ruddier and browner. Today, this sex difference seems hardly noticeable in Western societies, having been overwhelmed by much larger differences of race and ethnicity and further obscured since the 1920s by the tanning fad (Segrave 2005). Nonetheless, it was noticed in earlier times. A lighter hue was traditionally given to female figures and a darker hue to male figures in the visual arts of all early civilizations, including those of Italy, Greece, Egypt, China, Japan, and Mesoamerica (Capart 1905, pp. 26-27; Eaverly 1999; Pallottino 1952, pp. 34, 45, 73, 76-77, 87, 93, 95, 105, 107, 115; Siepe 2004; Soustelle 1970, p. 130; Tegner 1992; Wagatsuma 1967). This sex difference also appears in ancient Greek poetry, where women are described as “white” and men as “black” (Irwin 1974, pp. 121, 129-155). “White” skin is still key to female identity in many non-Western societies, as shown by interviews with Japanese men: "Whiteness is a symbol of women, distinguishing them from men." "One's mother-image is white" (Wagatsuma 1967, pp. 417-418).

Spectrophotometric studies

With the advent of the spectrophotometer, researchers could study skin color by measuring the percentage of light reflected by the skin, most often at the upper inner arm—where tanning is minimal. An American team thus attributed the differing complexions of men and women to differing concentrations of the three main skin pigments: melanin, hemoglobin, and carotene (Edwards and Duntley 1939). The same team showed that this sex difference was reduced by ovariectomy and even more so by castration (Edwards and Duntley 1949; Edwards et al. 1941). Later research identified puberty as the time when boys and girls diverge in skin color (van den Berghe and Frost 1986). The best controlled studies are those by Kalla (1973) and Kalla and Tiwari (1970) on South Asians and Tibetans and by Mesa (1983) on Spanish participants. The samples are large enough to measure this sexual differentiation by year and by sex. In addition to showing that girls become progressively lighter-skinned than boys during adolescence, these studies also show that girls are actually darker-skinned than boys just before puberty.

These sex and age differences thus seem to be innately programmed, specifically via the sex hormones. This hypothesis is further supported by a study of skin color in monozygotic and dizygotic twins from three age groups: 12 year olds; 13 to 15 year olds; and 16 to 18 year olds. Variance within the twin pairs differed significantly on average between monozygotic and dizygotic twins, thus “indicating a strong genetic component in the variability of skin lightness.” As in other studies, puberty had a stronger effect on female skin color than on male skin color, with girls becoming progressively lighter-skinned. For both sexes, mean within-pair variance did not differ significantly from one age group to the next, further indicating that these age changes are under genetic control (Omoto 1965).

Nonetheless, most people, including academics, have continued to ascribe the differing complexions of men and women to differences in lifestyle (see for example Eaverly 1999 and Irwin 1974). Perhaps girls become lighter-skinned after puberty because they are less free to go outside unaccompanied, as used to be the case in many cultures. The sex difference in skin color should therefore disappear as women come to resemble men in terms of lifestyle. This alternative hypothesis is supported by a recent study of young adults from Ireland, Poland, Italy, and Portugal, which found women to be darker-skinned than men on the upper inner arm, the body site most often used to measure the color of untanned skin (Candille et al. 2012). This finding contradicts findings from earlier studies on Europeans or European-descended participants (van den Berghe and Frost 1986).

Digit ratio studies (2D:4D)

Recently, the innate causation hypothesis has received support from two "digit ratio" studies. This ratio is index finger length divided by ring finger length, and it corresponds to the ratio of androgens to estrogens in the fluids of the developing fetus. A higher ratio indicates more feminization, and a lower ratio more masculinization.

A British team led by John Manning (2004) examined adults of both sexes. Lightness of skin color was found to correlate in women but not in men with digit ratio, i.e., women are lighter-skinned if their body tissues have been exposed to higher estrogen levels. This finding was true for both the left hand and the right hand, although the correlation was stronger for the left hand.

A Polish team led by Aneta Sitek (2018) looked at children just before puberty, when girls are actually darker-skinned than boys. Darkness of skin color was found to correlate in girls but not in boys with digit ratio, i.e., pre-pubertal girls are darker-skinned if their body tissues have been exposed to higher estrogen levels. This finding was true only for the right hand.

For reasons still unclear, the digit ratio of the right hand is more responsive to the sex hormones than the digit ratio of the left hand, as shown by a greater sex difference in digit ratio for the right hand than for the left (Honekopp and Watson 2010). In reviewing the literature, Honekopp and Watson (2010) argue that right-hand digit ratio is a better indicator of prenatal exposure to the sex hormones. Left-hand digit ratio seems to be more affected by hormonal exposure later in life. This is suggested by the findings of a longitudinal study: digit ratio increases in children with age, and this effect is greater for the left hand than for the right hand (Trivers et al. 2006).


Digit ratio studies point to a hormonal cause, and not to differences in lifestyle, as the reason why skin color differentiates between boys and girls at puberty. This is consistent with earlier spectrophotometric studies on normal, castrated, and ovariectomized individuals (Edwards and Duntley 1939; Edwards and Duntley 1949; Edwards et al. 1941). Furthermore, most spectrophotometric studies have shown that women are lighter-skinned than men even at the upper inner arm—a body site normally unaffected by tanning (van den Berghe and Frost 1986).

But why were women darker-skinned than men at this body site in a recent study of young adults from Ireland, Poland, Italy, and Portugal? (Candille et al. 2012). One can only conclude that the upper inner arm is no longer a reliable site for measuring the color of untanned skin. Perhaps young Western women now make a point of tanning their underarms because they increasingly shave this part of their body and expose it to view.


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Edwards, E.A., J.B. Hamilton, S.Q. Duntley, and G. Hubert. (1941). Cutaneous vascular and pigmentary changes in castrate and eunuchoid men. Endocrinology 28(1): 119-128.

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