Saturday, November 19, 2022

Recent evolution in human brain size


Human brain size remained stable from 300,000 to 60,000 years ago. It then diversified, becoming larger in some populations and smaller in others. This was when modern humans were spreading out of Africa and into new environments in Eurasia.



With the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago, northern hunting peoples found themselves in a new environment. Men could no longer pursue herds of wandering reindeer over the vast steppe-tundra. They now had to hunt over shorter distances, and the game would be smaller and more varied. Meanwhile, women now had opportunities for gathering fruits, berries, roots, and other small food items. They thus turned toward food gathering, while men moved into the formerly female domain of crafts, kiln operation, and shelter construction. Cognitive demands were thus changing. Men no longer had to store huge amounts of spatiotemporal data when tracking prey, and women were losing their dominance of artisanal work (Frost 2019).


The post-glacial period also brought an apparent decrease in brain size. Henneberg (1988) found that male brains shrank by 9.9% and female brains by 17.4% between the ice age and modern times. He attributed the decrease to a reduction in body size. In a reanalysis of Henneberg's data, Hawks (2011) showed that the reduction in body size explains only one-fifth to one-seventh of the decrease in brain size. He also showed that the declining ratio of brain size to body size did not affect all populations equally. In fact, it can be securely demonstrated only for Europeans and Chinese. No decline is discernable for Nubians, the only non-Eurasian population for which we have a large cranial sample.


In a recent analysis of cranial data, DeSilva et al. (2021) argue that brain size began to decrease with farming and the rise of larger, more complex societies. They argue more specifically that the decrease was due to an increasing ability to store knowledge externally either in written form (on tablets, paper, or parchment) or in the brains of scribes, skilled tradesmen, and other knowledge workers. People no longer had to rely solely on their own brains to store the knowledge they needed:


 […] the recent decrease in brain size may instead result from the externalization of knowledge and advantages of group-level decision-making due in part to the advent of social systems of distributed cognition and the storage and sharing of information. (DeSilva et al. 2021, p. 1)


That hypothesis has been challenged by Villmoare and Grabowski (2022). Because farming was adopted at different times in different populations, they argue that DeSilva et al. (2021) should have analyzed the cranial data on a regional basis. But this was not done:


Since this transition [to farming] occurred at different times across the globe, rather than over a single 3–5 ka year period, under the hypothesis of DeSilva et al. (2021) we should detect the change in different modern human populations at different times. However, the dataset of DeSilva et al. (2021) is not organized to test the hypothesis in this fashion. Populations from around the globe are lumped together, with only 23 crania sampled over what we would argue to be a critical window with regards to their hypothesis, 5–1 ka, and coming from Algeria, England, Mali, China, and Kenya, among other locations. Later modern human samples are focused on Zimbabwe (at 1.06 ka), the Pecos Pueblo sample from the United States (1 ka), and finally, 165 crania (28% of the total sample) are from Australian pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer populations and dated in DeSilva et al. (2021) to 100 years ago. (Villmoare and Grabowski 2022, p. 2)


The cranial dataset suffers from other problems:


In that same dating category [100 years ago], 307 (53% of the total sample) are from unspecified Morton Collection crania, where we have no way of knowing how many may be from pre-Neolithic and post-Neolithic populations. We also observe that the sample of DeSilva et al. (2021) generates a modern human mean of 1,297 cc in the final 100-year category, which is well below other published estimates of contemporary world-wide modern mean human cranial capacity that range from ?1,340 cc up to ?1,460 cc. (Villmoare and Grabowski 2022, p. 2)


When Villmoare and Grabowski (2022) reanalyzed the cranial data for the last 300,000 years, they found a very different picture:


[…] our analyses showed no changes in brain size associated with the transition to agriculture during the Holocene. Overall, our conclusion is that, given a dataset more appropriate to the research question, human brain size has been remarkably stable over the last 300 ka. (Villmoare and Grabowski 2022, p. 4).


Actually, their reanalysis shows that brain size remained stable from 300,000 to 60,000 years ago. It then diversified, becoming larger in some populations and smaller in others. This was when modern humans were spreading out of Africa and into new environments in Eurasia (see chart at top of post).

When the authors looked more narrowly at the last 30,000 years, they found no discernable change in mean brain size or in variation around the mean. They did not attempt a regional analysis. That’s a pity because DeSilva et al. (2021) may have been right within a more limited context, specifically that of complex Eurasian societies. We still have John Hawks’ finding that brain size decreased in Eurasians after the last ice age. But when exactly? Immediately after the ice age? Or during the much later increase in social complexity?


Today, more than a decade later, John Hawks has still not published that paper in a journal. When I asked him why, he replied: "I did not feel it was necessary to pursue formal journal publication for this, because I did not think it fit well into the journals at the time." Yet, at that time, the paper was exciting a lot of interest. This is what he wrote on his blog:


I've had a dozen requests from colleagues to cite the paper (which anyone is welcome to do by using the arXiv number). I also had two great interactions with colleagues who had comments and suggestions on the preprint, which I am now incorporating into a revision. (Hawks 2012)


He might have had trouble publishing the paper in a top-tier journal. But the main problem lay elsewhere. Once it got published, some academics might have viewed him the wrong way. Perhaps not, but why take the risk? Why risk opportunities for getting funding and invitations to work on big projects with big names?


Those are questions that many anthropologists end up asking themselves. I have no easy answer, other than to say that you can never control what other people think of you. You only get to own your own thoughts, not those of others.




DeSilva, J. M., Traniello, J. F. A., Claxton, A. G., and Fannin, L. D. (2021). When and why did human brains decrease in size? A new change-point analysis and insights from brain evolution in ants. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 9: 742639.


Frost, P. (2019). The Original Industrial Revolution. Did Cold Winters Select for Cognitive Ability? Psych 1(1): 166-181.


Hawks, J. (2011). Selection for smaller brains in Holocene human evolution. arXiv:1102.5604 [q-bio.PE]  


Hawks, J. (2012). Spreading preprints in population biology. John Hawks Weblog, August 1.


Henneberg, M. (1988). Decrease of human skull size in the Holocene. Human Biology 60: 395-405.


Villmoare, B. and M. Grabowski. (2022). Did the transition to complex societies in the Holocene drive a reduction in brain size? A reassessment of the DeSilva et al. (2021) hypothesis. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 10: 963568.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Giorgia Meloni: The hard work is just starting


Giorgia Meloni, October 21, 2022


In the space of four years, Giorgia Meloni has gone from being the leader of a minor party to being the leader of Italy, with an absolute majority in both houses of parliament. But she will not find it easy to put her electoral platform into practice.



Four years ago, when I last wrote about Italy’s political situation, Giorgia Meloni was leading a party that had won only 2% of the popular vote. Her party was, in fact, the smallest member of a coalition dominated by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord. All of that changed with this year’s election. Her party took 26% of the vote, and the coalition 43%. She is now Prime Minister.


Meloni rose to power because she lacked the weaknesses of her two coalition rivals. She wasn’t an establishment conservative like Berlusconi, and she wasn’t a northern regionalist like Salvini. She was thus seen as the one who could best represent the entire country and deal with its problems, especially the existential crisis of rising immigration and falling fertility. Will Italians continue to have a homeland for themselves and their descendants? Or will they go the way of other nations that are now footnotes in history?


That may sound like hyperbole. With a population of sixty million, Italians will surely enjoy a supermajority in their country for years to come. Keep in mind, however, that their mean age is 47; therefore, more than half are past the age of reproduction. With a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman, the smaller "procreative fraction" of the population will fall by almost 50% with each generation. Meanwhile, the foreign citizen population has risen from 1.3 million in 2002 to 5.2 million in 2021. The total number of immigrants is actually larger:


In 2021, Istat estimated that 5,171,894 foreign citizens lived in Italy, representing about 8.7% of the total population. These figures do not include naturalized foreign-born residents (about 1,620,000 foreigners acquired Italian citizenship from 1999 to 2020, of whom 130,000 did so in 2020) as well as illegal immigrants, the so-called clandestini, whose numbers, difficult to determine, are thought to be at least 670,000. (Wikipedia 2022)


The demographic crisis is key to understanding Meloni’s electoral platform:


·         taxation that takes the size of the nuclear family into account

·         a lower sales tax of 4% on goods for young children

·         public funding of housing for Italian families who do not own a home. Eligible families must have at least one gainfully employed member

·         no birthright citizenship and no decriminalization of illegal immigration

·         a naval blockade to halt illegal immigration across the Mediterranean


Although her coalition enjoys an absolute majority in both houses of parliament, she will not find it easy to put her platform into practice:


She will very soon have to deal with the European Court of Human Rights, the Court of Justice of the European Union and the United States, if she does not respect the treaties on the management of immigration, Islam, free and undistorted competition and the European Union's defence policy.


If she is really very brave, she will carry on regardless and continue her policy. That is when the European Central Bank will deal with her. Indeed, Italy has become, thanks to Berlusconi, a beggar. It owes its survival only to the accommodative policy of the ECB, which massively buys its abysmal debt, and protects it from hedge funds. Remember that the ECB holds 780 billion [euros] of Italian public debt (30% of total debt), and that this is only growing. Italy's 10-year borrowing rates have already exceeded 4%, which is completely unbearable for the country's budget. Then it would be enough for the ECB to stop its purchases, or even to sell part of its stock on the market at a low price, to immediately raise this rate to stratospheric levels, and make Italy look like Zimbabwe. And the same people who were yesterday in the street with signs of support will throw stones at her while insulting her. (Falento 2022)


Looking to the future


To date, nationalist victories have been on the periphery of Western Europe, and not in its core. The periphery is home to people who have not fully assimilated into the Western world-system, largely because they are less proficient in English—the main conduit of neo-Western culture. So it is difficult to make them understand ideas and social norms that emanate from the core, let alone comply with them. As a general rule, the periphery is where a world-system has the most trouble imposing its will, not only politically and economically but also culturally and ideologically.


The next decade will see rising tensions between the core and the periphery, and it’s difficult to say which will prevail. The periphery is being taken over by nationalists, like Giorgia Meloni, while the core remains dominated by elites who are pushing the globalist project: on the one hand, they want to export high-wage jobs to countries where labor is cheaper; on the other, they want to import low-wage labor for jobs that cannot be exported, i.e., jobs in construction, agriculture, and services.


That is why median wages in the West have scarcely risen over the past half-century. High-wage “breadwinner” jobs in manufacturing are largely gone, and the jobs that remain are increasingly low-paying ones in services. During the 2020s, wage stagnation will give way to a leveling downward of wages throughout the West. Elsewhere, the leveling upward will be modest and uneven. The inner periphery will get the worst of both worlds: they’re not poor enough to attract low-wage industries, but not rich enough to attract the financial industry jobs that are concentrated in London, New York, and other world centres.


It is doubtful whether globalization will be a net benefit for the average person in the world.  Wealth is created most efficiently in high-trust societies, and those societies are the ones most affected by “replacement migration.” We may simply end up with a world where most workers are equally poor and equally mistrustful of each other.





Falento, A. (2022). Giorgia Meloni ne pourra rien faire si elle ne sort pas de l’Union européene. Riposte laïque. September 26.  


Frost, P. (2017). Terra Nostra, for how long? Evo and Proud, November 23.  


Wikipedia (2022). Immigration to Italy.

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Looking beyond the data


General intelligence (g factor) as a function of alleles associated with educational attainment (Education polygenic score). (Fuerst et al. 2021, p. 165)

Among non-Hispanic European Americans, cognitive ability shows a positive correlation with Amerindian admixture. The reason is to be found in the history of European settlement.



We know that cognitive ability differs among human populations, but are those differences innate? Or are they purely cultural? The question is difficult to answer because a purely cultural difference can, over time, become innate. If you are better able to meet the demands of your culture, you will probably live longer, have more offspring, and pass on many of your characteristics. Thus, over succeeding generations, those heritable characteristics will become more and more widespread in the gene pool, and they will increasingly determine certain abilities that were initially created by culture.


This is a recurring problem when we try to distinguish between cultural and genetic determination. The two often run parallel to each other, and we can seemingly rule out the existence of genetic determination by showing that cultural determination runs in the same direction.


But there is another recurring problem in our efforts to distinguish between culture and genetics. We lack the proper tools. For a long time, we could only infer genetic influences by using twin studies or adoption studies. 


Things have changed with the advent of a new tool: genomic data. Specifically, we can now:


·         Measure ethnic ancestry in mixed populations, as opposed to using self-report or inferring from skin color.

·         Measure the genetic component of cognitive ability, by using genetic variants associated with educational attainment. Although these variants explain only 11-13% of the variance in educational attainment among individuals, they explain a much higher percentage of the variance among populations (Piffer 2019). This is because genetic variants within the same population are exposed to the same pressure of selection and will thus vary in the same direction. They act, so to speak, as “weathervanes” that tell us the strength and direction of selection in that population.

·         Measure skin color, by looking at the relevant genes. We can thus control for the effects of “colorism” in mixed populations, i.e., discrimination in favor of lighter-skinned individuals.


In my last post, I described how Bryan Pesta used these tools to understand differences in mean cognitive ability between African Americans and European Americans (Lasker et al. 2019). To that end, his research team looked at cognitive ability among African Americans in relation to European admixture and in relation to genetic variants associated with educational attainment.


They made several findings: 1) among African Americans, cognitive ability correlates with European admixture; 2) the correlation is modestly reduced, but not eliminated, when controlled for parental education; 3) controlling for skin color has no effect; and 4) the correlation seems to be largely explained by genetic variants associated with educational attainment.


The same data source was then used by Fuerst et al. (2021) to investigate cognitive ability not only in European Americans and African Americans but also in Hispanic Americans. The research team thus looked at cognitive ability in relation to Amerindian admixture, and not just in relation to European and African admixture.


Most of their findings are similar to those of the first study:


·         Among Hispanic Americans, cognitive ability shows a positive correlation with European admixture and a negative correlation with African admixture and Amerindian admixture.

·         Among Hispanic Americans, the correlations are reduced but not eliminated by controlling for parental education. Controlling for skin color has no effect.

·         The above correlations are partially explained by variants associated with educational attainment, but not by skin color.

·         Among non-Hispanic European Americans, cognitive ability shows a positive correlation with Amerindian admixture.


The last correlation may seem curious. Keep in mind that the data came from residents of Pittsburgh and that the native peoples of the Eastern U.S. intermixed mostly with early settlers of British, Dutch, or French origin. There is much less Amerindian admixture among the descendants of later immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The correlation may thus be due not to Amerindian admixture per se but rather to variation in cognitive ability among Europeans.


Until the eleventh century, mean IQ was relatively low throughout Europe, perhaps hovering in the low 90s. It then rose during late medieval and post-medieval times through the expansion of the middle class. There was in fact a broad mental and behavioral change: "Thrift, prudence, negotiation, and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent, and leisure loving" (Clark 2007, p. 166; see also Clark 2007, 2009a, 2009b). More people could better understand probability, cause and effect, and another person’s perspective, whether real or hypothetical (Rinderman 2018, pp. 49, 86-87; Oesterdiekhoff 2012). As the "smart fraction" grew in size, a point was reached when intellectuals were no longer voices crying in the wilderness. They were now numerous enough to form learned societies and collaborate in projects of various sorts (Frost 2019b, pp. 175-176).


Western Europe was where the middle class began to expand, and that was where the expansion would have its greatest impact, not only demographically but also behaviorally and cognitively. Gregory Clark (2009a) has shown that the English, even in the lower classes, are largely descended from people who were middle-class several generations earlier. The same is likely true elsewhere in Western Europe. We should therefore see a cognitive gradient between the Western European core and its periphery, as can indeed be seen between northern and southern Italy. When Piffer and Lynn (2022) looked at genomic data from that country, they found a north-south gradient in alleles associated with educational attainment. That difference corresponds to historical differences in economic development. By the 18th century, the South had already fallen behind the North; its middle class had remained small and economic relations were still structured by paternalism and familialism (De Rosa 1979).


All of that leads to an interesting corollary: the IQ gap used to be smaller between Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans. On the one hand, European mean IQ had probably remained in the low 90s until late medieval times. On the other hand, mean IQ may have been in the upper 80s among those Black African groups that Europeans had first encountered, particularly the Nubians. By the time of Classical Antiquity they had reached a high level of material culture, social complexity and State formation.


A smaller IQ gap would be in line with an observation by Jason Malloy. He noted that blacks were often described in the ancient world as having large penises but not as being less intelligent. Indeed, I have found only two Greco-Roman texts in which the writer disparaged Black Africans as being unintelligent. One of them is of doubtful authenticity, and both come from Late Antiquity (Frost 2019b). By then, blacks in the Roman world were increasingly slaves who came from farther within the African interior. Thereafter, a stereotype of low intelligence is regularly attested in Middle Eastern and European sources.





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.


De Rosa, L. (1979). Property Rights, Institutional Change, and Economic Growth in Southern Italy in the XVIIIth and XIXth Centuries. Journal of European Economic History 8(3): 531-551.


Frost, P. (2019a). The Original Industrial Revolution. Did Cold Winters Select for Cognitive Ability? Psych 1(1): 166-181.   


Frost, P. (2019b). Why that stereotype and not the other? Evo and Proud, July 28.


Frost, P. (2021). Commentary on Fuerst et al: Do Human Populations Differ in Their Mental Characteristics? Mankind Quarterly 62(2).   


Fuerst, J., E.O.W. Kirkegaard and D. Piffer. (2021). More research needed: There is a robust causal vs. confounding problem for intelligence-associated polygenic scores in context to admixed American populations. Mankind Quarterly 62(1): 151-185.


Lasker, J., B.J. Pesta, J.G.R. Fuerst, and E.O.W. Kirkegaard. (2019). Global Ancestry and Cognitive Ability. Psych 1(1):431-459.  


Oesterdiekhoff, G.W. (2012). Was pre-modern man a child? The quintessence of the psychometric and developmental approaches. Intelligence 40, 470–478.


Piffer, D. (2019). Evidence for Recent Polygenic Selection on Educational Attainment and Intelligence Inferred from Gwas Hits: A Replication of Previous Findings Using Recent Data. Psych 1(1):55-75.


Piffer, D., and R. Lynn. (2022). In Italy, North-South Differences in Student Performance Are Mirrored by Differences in Polygenic Scores for Educational Attainment. Mankind Quarterly 62(4), Article 2.   


Rindermann, H. (2018). Cognitive Capitalism. Human Capital and the Wellbeing of Nations, 1st ed.; Cambridge University Press.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Eppur si muove


General intelligence (g) varies with ethnicity, as do genetic variants associated with educational attainment (Lasker et al. 2019, p. 445)



Bryan Pesta was fired from a tenured university position for a study he coauthored in a peer-reviewed journal. No one actually disputed his findings. It was simply taken for granted that they could not be true.



Three years ago I contributed a paper to a special issue of Psych. One of the other contributors, Bryan J. Pesta, coauthored a paper on “Global Ancestry and Cognitive Ability.” It was one of several recent studies that had used genetic data to understand how populations differ on average in their capacity for intelligence.


Pesta and his coauthors looked at data from an existing neurodevelopment study of 9,421 participants from Philadelphia. A little over half of them were European American, and a third were African American. They had all been genotyped and had all taken a battery of cognitive tests.


The study produced several findings:


·         Almost 15 IQ points separated the African American participants from the European American participants. About three quarters of the difference was due to general intelligence (g).

·         Among the African Americans, general intelligence correlated with the degree of European admixture.

·         The correlation was modestly reduced, but not eliminated, when controlled for parental education. Controlling for skin color had no effect. Although skin color does correlate with European admixture, it evidently has a less direct relationship to general intelligence. This finding therefore eliminates “colorism” (discrimination in favor of lighter-skinned African Americans) as a possible cause.

·         As much as 20-25% of the difference in general intelligence between the African Americans and the European Americans was explained by genetic variants associated with educational attainment. By comparison, the same variants explain only 11-13% of the variance in educational attainment among individuals.

·         Although these genetic variants predicted general intelligence in both groups, the predictive power for the African Americans was only 20% of the predictive power for the European Americans. This finding is consistent with a growing consensus that the genetic architecture of intelligence is different in the two groups. Because the genetic variants have been identified in Europeans or European Americans, they may contribute less to the capacity for intelligence in people of African descent. In addition, other variants may be found only in African populations and thus remain to be identified.


For the above findings, Bryan Pesta would be fired from his tenured position at Cleveland State University. The whole affair is described in The Chronicle of Higher Education. At no point did anyone actually dispute his findings. It was simply taken for granted that they could not be true. And that’s that.


Please don’t argue that Bryan Pesta unconsciously looked for data that would provide the findings he wanted. The data had already been collected by another research team for a completely different purpose. So put aside The Mismeasure of Man and tell Stephen Jay Gould to go back to sleep.


This story isn’t over. People are curious, and curiosity ends up finding a way—despite the barriers we erect. Below is a screen shot of the paper’s access statistics (Hint: The Chronicle’s article came out on October 13).





Lasker, J., B.J. Pesta, J.G.R. Fuerst, and E.O.W. Kirkegaard. (2019). Global Ancestry and Cognitive Ability. Psych 1(1):431-459.  


Standifer, C. (2022). Racial Pseudoscience on the Faculty. A professor’s research flew under the radar for years. What finally got him fired? The Chronicle of Higher Education. October 13.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Sex differences in the whites of the eyes


Women have sclera (whites of the eyes) that are less yellow and less red. Although this sex difference is unknown to almost everyone, people nonetheless perceive a female face with redder and yellower sclera as less feminine.




A recent study has shown that men and women differ in the color of their sclera—the whites of their eyes (Kramer and Russell 2022). Sclera are less yellow and less red in women. In both sexes, they become yellower, redder, and slightly darker with age.


Although this sex difference is unknown to almost everyone, it does influence perceptions of masculinity and femininity. When subjects were shown pairs of androgynous young or middle-aged faces that differed only in sclera color, they perceived the one with redder and yellower sclera as being more masculine. When shown pairs of male or female faces, they perceived the female faces with redder and yellower sclera as being less feminine. Sclera color did not affect perceptions of male or elderly faces.


The authors concluded that “people have learned the natural image statistics associated with male and female sclera, thereby representing males as having redder and yellower sclera than females.” Such learning would presumably be unconscious. What about other factors? Could perception of sclera color be hardwired?


We see a similar situation with the sex difference in skin color. Today, it’s largely unknown to people in the Western world, partly because many women have reduced it through deliberate tanning and partly because ethnic differences in skin color have become more visible in daily life. Yet several studies have shown that people associate women with light colors and men with dark colors. This was the case in three experiments with Dutch, Portuguese, and Turkish subjects:


·         The subjects identified personal names by gender faster when male names were presented in black and female names in white than when the gender/color combinations were reversed.

·         When asked to classify briefly appearing black and white blobs by gender, they usually classified the black blobs as male and the white ones as female.

·         In an eye-tracking experiment, their eyes showed longer observation and more frequent fixation when a dark object was associated with a male character and a light object with a female character (Semin et al. 2018).


Parallels with eye morphology and eye colors


Another recent study has shown that women have rounder eyes. This sex difference exists because the exposed sclera is more horizontally exposed in men. In addition, eye fissures are narrower and less rectangular in women than in men (Danel et al. 2020, see also Danel et al. 2018).


The same study also showed that this sex difference is confined to Europeans: women don’t have rounder eyes in other human populations. A similar situation exists with eye colors, which have diversified only in Europeans and more so in women than in men. Specifically, the range of eye colors is more evenly distributed among women: they have the less frequent colors more often and the more frequent ones less often (Frost 2022, pp. 9, 10, 13).


Is the sex difference in sclera color likewise confined to Europeans? For now, we don’t know. The sclera images were taken only from German faces (Kramer and Russell 2022).


Parallels with facial skin color


The natural colors of a woman’s face seem to interact with each other. The white of the eye serves to accentuate the color of the iris, and the lighter color of the facial skin serves to accentuate the darker colors of the eye and lip areas. If we consider the natural colors of the face in both sexes, a female face has a greater contrast in luminosity between the lighter-colored facial skin and the darker-colored lip and eye area (Russell 2003; Russell 2009; Russell 2010). A rating study has shown that faces with greater facial contrast are perceived as being more feminine:


Facial contrast was positively correlated with rated femininity of female faces but negatively correlated with rated masculinity of male faces. After controlling for skin luminance (which is also sexually dimorphic) and ethnicity (there were both Caucasian and East Asian faces), facial contrast was still positively correlated with rated femininity of female faces and negatively correlated with rated masculinity of male faces, though the relationship was very weak for male faces. In summary, greater facial contrast was considered more feminine in female faces and less masculine in male faces. (Russell 2010, p. 10).


In different cultures and geographic areas, women have developed cosmetics to accentuate the sex difference in facial contrast:


The received style of cosmetics involves darkening the eyes and lips while leaving the rest of the face largely unchanged. This is one of two patterns of cosmetic application that could increase facial contrast (the other being to significantly lighten the entire face, except for the eyes and lips). To confirm that cosmetic application increases facial contrast, we measured the facial contrast of the set of 12 Caucasian faces that were photographed with and without cosmetics (Russell 2009). On average, facial contrast was much larger with cosmetics than without cosmetics, and greater facial contrast was found in each of the 12 faces when they were wearing cosmetics than when they were not. Both eye contrast and mouth contrast were increased by cosmetics. The large and consistent increase in facial contrast achieved with cosmetics more clearly differentiates male and female faces. (Russell 2010, p. 13)




Europeans, and European women in particular, have followed an unusual evolutionary trajectory. Some kind of selection made their outward features more colorful, more accentuated, and more visually striking, particularly the features on or near the face.


Was it sexual selection? The authors of the eye morphology study considered that possibility but rejected it because female eye morphology does not correlate with two other aspects of female attractiveness: face shape and facial averageness (Danel et al. 2020). The lack of correlation, however, may simply mean that these three aspects impose different constraints on sexual selection. Making a face more average-looking is not at all the same process as increasing its visual contrast or adding bright colors.





Danel, D.P., S. Wacewicz, Z. Lewandowski, P. Zywiczynski, and J.O. Perea-Garcia. (2018). Humans do not perceive conspecifics with a greater exposed sclera as more trustworthy: a preliminary cross-ethnic study of the function of the overexposed human sclera. Acta Ethologica 21: 203-208.  


Danel, D.P., S. Wacewicz, K. Kleisner, Z. Lewandowski, M.E. Kret, P. Zywiczynski, and J.O. Perea-Garcia. (2020). Sex differences in ocular morphology in Caucasian people: a dubious role of sexual selection in the evolution of sexual dimorphism of the human eye. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 74(115)


Frost, P. (2022). European Hair, Eye, and Skin Color: Solving the Puzzle. Washington: Academica Press. ISBN 9781680538724


Kramer, S.S., and R. Russell. (2022). A Novel Human Sex Difference: Male Sclera Are Redder and Yellower than Female Sclera. Archives of Sexual Behavior 51, 2733–2740.


Russell, R. (2003). Sex, beauty, and the relative luminance of facial features. Perception 32(9): 1093-1107.


Russell, R. (2009). A sex difference in facial pigmentation and its exaggeration by cosmetics. Perception 38(8): 1211-1219.


Russell, R. (2010). Why cosmetics work. In R.B. Adams Jr., N. Ambady, K. Nakayama, and S. Shimojo (Eds.) The Science of Social Vision, (pp. 186-203). New York: Oxford.


Semin, G.R., T. Palma, C. Acartürk, and A. Dziuba. (2018). Gender is not simply a matter of black and white, or is it? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences 373(1752):20170126.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

How some populations adapt to vitamin D scarcity


Vitamin D metabolism varies from one human population to another, as do most heritable traits. This is the subject of a review article I’ve recently published in the journal Nutrients. Here is the abstract:



Vitamin D metabolism differs among human populations because our species has adapted to different natural and cultural environments. Two environments are particularly difficult for the production of vitamin D by the skin: the Arctic, where the skin receives little solar UVB over the year; and the Tropics, where the skin is highly melanized and blocks UVB. In both cases, natural selection has favored the survival of those individuals who use vitamin D more efficiently or have some kind of workaround that ensures sufficient uptake of calcium and other essential minerals from food passing through the intestines. Vitamin D scarcity has either cultural or genetic solutions. Cultural solutions include consumption of meat in a raw or boiled state and extended breastfeeding of children. Genetic solutions include higher uptake of calcium from the intestines, higher rate of conversion of vitamin D to its most active form, stronger binding of vitamin D to carrier proteins in the bloodstream, and greater use of alternative metabolic pathways for calcium uptake. Because their bodies use vitamin D more sparingly, indigenous Arctic and Tropical peoples can be misdiagnosed with vitamin D deficiency and wrongly prescribed dietary supplements that may push their vitamin D level over the threshold of toxicity.





Frost P. (2022) The Problem of Vitamin D Scarcity: Cultural and Genetic Solutions by Indigenous Arctic and Tropical Peoples. Nutrients 14(19):4071.


Monday, October 3, 2022

European Hair, Eye, and Skin Color: Solving the Puzzle


The distinguishing physical features of Europeans began as female features.


I’ve published a book through Academica Press. It’s titled: European Hair, Eye, and Skin Color: Solving the Puzzle. It can be ordered at:  


Here is a summary:



Europeans are strangely colored, particularly in the north and east. Hair is not only black but also brown, flaxen, golden, or red. Eyes are not only brown but also blue, gray, hazel, or green. Finally, skin is white, almost like that of an albino.


That color scheme is strange for several reasons:


·        It arose through new alleles at unrelated genes: hair color diversified through a proliferation of new alleles at MC1R, and eye color through a proliferation of new alleles in the HERC2-OCA2 region. Skin color became fair through new alleles at SLC45A2, SLC24A5, and TYRP1. All three changes occurred in parallel at different loci on the genome.


·        The new hair and eye color alleles are too numerous and too recent to be due to anything but strong selection. Among Europeans, the various hair colors are produced by new alleles at over 200 loci (SNPs), and the various eye colors by new alleles at over 124. Those alleles arose over a relatively short span of time, certainly less than the 50,000 years that modern humans have been in Europe. Only some kind of selection, and very strong selection at that, could have caused such a proliferation of new alleles over such a short time.


·        The selection was aimed primarily at women. Even today, women naturally have a higher incidence of red hair, blonde hair, and green eyes. Hair and eye colors are more evenly distributed among women: the less frequent colors are more common, and the more frequent ones less common. Skin is also fairer in women.


·        The new colors are mostly on or near the face, the focus of visual attention. When compared with the original black and brown, they are brighter and “purer” (they occupy thinner slices of the visible spectrum). Brightness and purity are characteristic of colors favored by sexual selection. A third characteristic is novelty: the relative rarity of a color. Novelty improves mating success by attracting attention and interest, but that success is eventually its undoing. As each generation passes, it becomes more common and less novel. Other colors attract more interest, particularly new ones that arise through mutation, with the result that a growing number of color variants accumulate in the gene pool. Such color polymorphisms are a frequent outcome of sexual selection.


·        Unlike the hair and the eyes, the skin did not develop a color polymorphism among Europeans, instead becoming unusually pale. The reason may be that sexual selection was guided by a pre-existing dimorphism. In all populations, men are browner and ruddier than women, who by comparison are fairer. Fairer-skinned women were seen as more feminine in traditional cultures and preferred as mates. Sexual selection, if sufficiently strong, would have drained the European gene pool of alleles for dark skin.


Sexual selection is not the preferred explanation among writers on this subject. Most lean toward one of two scenarios that involve natural selection:


·        Relaxation of selection for dark skin: when modern humans entered Europe, natural selection stopped favoring dark skin because UV protection was less necessary at northern latitudes. Defective alleles for skin pigmentation began to accumulate in the gene pool, and some of them had effects on hair and eye color.


That scenario has two weak points:


o   Relaxation of selection would take more than a million years to produce the current diversity of hair and eye colors. Yet modern humans have been in Europe for only 50,000 years. In fact, it was only around 20,000 years ago that some Europeans began to acquire pale skin and diverse hair and eye colors, and that phenotype would not become fully established throughout Europe until 10,000 to 5,000 years ago.

o   Skin color is weakly linked to hair color and eye color. Light skin often coexists with dark hair and dark eyes.


·        Selection for light skin: natural selection reduced skin pigmentation in order to maintain sufficient production of vitamin D. The hair and the eyes underwent a similar reduction in pigmentation because a change to one pigmentary trait presumably affects the others.


That scenario has two weak points:


o   Again, skin color is weakly linked to hair color and eye color. Yet the changes to the latter have been as profound as those to skin color. Moreover, the changes to hair and eye color have not been so much a reduction in pigmentation as a non-random creation of new hues that emit more light within narrower slices of the spectrum.

o   Analysis of ancient DNA and present-day DNA indicates that modern humans were dark-skinned for tens of thousands of years after their entry into Europe. Why wasn’t vitamin D a problem then? If we consider the indigenous inhabitants of North and South America, we see that natural selection has created very little latitudinal variation in their skin color, even though they have lived in the Americas for some 12,000 years. Natural selection, by itself, appears to change skin color rather slowly.


The current physical features of Europeans seem to have arisen on the steppe-tundra of eastern Europe and western Siberia during the last ice age, between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, when nomadic humans subsisted almost entirely on meat from reindeer and other migratory game. Long-distance hunting increased the death rate among men and decreased the polygyny rate—only the ablest hunters could provide for more than one woman and her children because women had almost no food autonomy. 

The result: a surplus of women on the mate market; intense rivalry among them for male attention; and strong selection for eye-catching female features. Such features became more frequent with succeeding generations, eventually forming what is now seen as the “European” phenotype.



Frost, P. (2022). European Hair, Eye, and Skin Color: Solving the Puzzle. Washington: Academica Press, 169 pp., hardcover, ISBN 9781680538724


If you wish to buy a less expensive paperback edition, please make your preference known to Academica Press by emailing to: