How women evolved blond hair to win cavemen’s hearts

Academic researchers have discovered that women in northern Europe evolved with light hair and blue eyes at the end of the Ice Age to stand out from the crowd and lure men away from the far more common brunette.

First, I’ll note that I’ve not read the paper this article is based on, nor is it my intent to critique it. It may be great, it may be terrible. They may have a point, they may not. [Edited to add: you can find a post here on the actual paper for those interested]. In this case, I’m concerned with the write-up, ’cause it’s one of my pet peeves.

“…women in N. Europe evolved with light hair…to lure men away from brunettes.” Couple this with the headline, and can’t you just see these primitive Europeans, standing around in their animal skin clothing and discussing the issue? Something like this, I’d imagine:

Ugah: Y’know, I heard the other day that our chances of finding a mate are dropping every day due to all those pesky mammoth hunts.

Bugah: *sigh* I know. Gee, if only there was something we could do to make ourselves more attractive to the menfolk…

Ugah: Bathing?

Bugah: Nah, they prefer the ripe smell.

Ugah: I’ve got it. Let’s change our hair and eye color!

Bugah: Hey, that might just work. I’ve always liked purple…

Ugah: What about a shade of yellow? Maybe blue for the eyes?

Bugah: Yeah, I could probably go for that. Sure would make us stand out from Mugah and Rugah.

Ugah: Yeah, they think they’re so great. So, what are we waiting for?

*Poof blondeness*

Aargh!

To be fair, the author does get it better way down in paragraph 6:

Flaxen-haired women arose out of a rare mutation but increased in numbers because their chances of breeding turned out to be better.

but every journalist knows that you put the catchy stuff at the beginning and then slowly work in the details, since most people won’t make it to the later paragraphs. So while those who are most interested in evolution–and won’t interpret the portion I quoted above as the “poof” scenario I depicted–will continue reading, it’s likely that many of those who don’t care much about the details will stop reading before they get to paragraph 6, perpetuating the idea Chris has also mentioned that organisms just evolve what they need, as if by sheer power of will.

[Edited to add: it's even worse now, since the article is a day old and anyone wishing to read the whole thing has to buy it. So all most people will see ends with paragraph 2--they won't even get to the part where it's explained more scientifically.]

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    March 2, 2006

    Here is a nice debunking: Blonde Equilibrium

  2. #2 Tara
    March 2, 2006

    Ah, but that’s a bit different, focusing just on the last paragraph of the linked article:

    However, the future of the blonde is uncertain.

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

    As noted, that’s fictional, but the *origin* of blonde-ness is a real area of study.

  3. #3 Steve Reuland
    March 2, 2006

    You’re just saying this because you’re not a blonde. They hare more fun you know.

    Seriously, I think the news item would be more enlightening if it would just say that blonde hair is the result of sexual selection, and then went on to explain what that was. Whether or not the researchers actually put together a good test for this, or simply put forward the hypothesis as if they had thought of something new, is another story.

  4. #4 coturnix
    March 2, 2006

    You are correct. But isn’t Scarlett Johanssen the evidence of an Intelligent Designer? LOL

  5. #5 Norman Doering
    March 2, 2006

    “…perpetuating the idea Chris has also mentioned that organisms just evolve what they need, as if by sheer power of will.”

    Or, perhaps people will think our brains can somehow do genetic engineering on our germlines?

    But then, why would people have a problem with genetically modified foods.

    I have heard a related theory — human males are supposed to have larger penises than apes because women selected them to fit their now larger vaginas required for walking upright and giving birth to bigger headed babies. Can’t link on that because I saw it on the Discovery Channel.

  6. #6 SkookumPlanet
    March 2, 2006

    An editor might be responsible for both the headline and the lead. I’m an ex-journalist and I can give you a technical analysis of the problem. Either the editor, or the writer, Arifa Akbar, is a moron.

    As the article makes clear, blond hair and blue eyes evolved as a very rare mutation, and THEN it was selected for by men. These traits did not evolve [in order] to attract men.

    Whoever is responsible for this should be banned to the society page and never allowed near a science story again. It’s a lazy, sloppy mistake — twice!

  7. #7 Mike Z
    March 2, 2006

    Unfortunately, it is rare for a newspaper / magazine article on science to not make me squirm in at least a few places.
    That’s also why I cannot watch the Discovery Channel much anymore. Catchy turns of phrase keep trumping accuracy. Or, if not strictly innacurate, they are at least very misleading to the lay person.

  8. #8 Great White Wonder
    March 2, 2006

    Redheads, folks, are where it’s at.

  9. #9 Dave S.
    March 2, 2006

    Redheads? Redheads are such Neanderthals. :)

  10. #10 razib
    March 2, 2006

    for what it’s worth, the author of the paper defended his theory in the comments of my other weblog. i read the paper, it’s decent, though i need to look at how plausible forms of sexual selection on in generated extreme MC1R polymorphism over the time frame he suggests.

  11. #11 Tara
    March 2, 2006

    Cool. I’ll link that discussion in the post.

  12. #12 razib
    March 2, 2006

    direct link. there are nearly 100 comments, so control-f “Peter Frost.”

  13. #13 Matt
    March 2, 2006

    News about redheads disappearing is out there too:

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/living/2002266852_redhair09.html

  14. #14 Norman Doering
    March 2, 2006

    “…i need to look at how plausible forms of sexual selection on in generated extreme MC1R polymorphism over the time frame he suggests.”

    It seems that if its going to happen over a very short term, it would have to be a lot of women attracted to a few blond men who were not in the least bit monogamous and very sexually active.

  15. #15 razib
    March 2, 2006


    News about redheads disappearing is out there too:

    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/living/2002266852_redhair09.html

    iteration of the same hoax.

    It seems that if its going to happen over a very short term, it would have to be a lot of women attracted to a few blond men who were not in the least bit monogamous and very sexually active.

    males are doing the selecting in this scenario, and the social ecology constrains the society to monogamy. if you have academic access, i suggest you get the paper, it addresses these issues. i’m not convinced though.

  16. #16 Pharma Bawd
    March 2, 2006

    Yeah, since we’re hand-waving, I think I’m going to go with blonde men are better predators of wooly mammoths.

    From the paper:

    Is this diversity due, then, to some selective force, either natural or sexual selection? The first kind of selection is unlikely. As a rule, highly visible color traits are not adaptations to the natural environment, which typically favors an unobtrusive, cryptic coloration as a means to evade predators.

    I disagree, fair skin and light hair are unobtrusive cryptic colorations in the snow. Blonde guys kill more mammoths because of better camoflauge in snow drifts, or alternatively, are killed by mammoths less often than brunette men.

    A bunch of greatful females back at the cave would certainly reward their “great white hunter” when he returned with a haunch of mammoth for dinner. So we have both natural and sexual selection in favor of blonde haired fair skinned fellows. I’ll call it my: “Beefcake with a Side of Beef” theory for the origins of blonde men in the Eurasian tundra belt.

    Brad Pitt delivering mammoth steaks, mmmmm!

  17. #17 Norman Doering
    March 2, 2006

    razib wrote: “males are doing the selecting in this scenario, and the social ecology constrains the society to monogamy. if you have academic access, i suggest you get the paper, it addresses these issues. i’m not convinced though.”
    END

    I do not have academic access.

    How do they know social ecology constrains the society to monogamy? Do we actually know what kind of social organization they had during the last ice age when this happened? Is archeology that detailed for such a distant time?

    All sorts of weird quirks could give blonds, both male and female, some higher social status and breeding rights. The “blonde guys kill more mammoths because of better camoflauge in snow drifts, or alternatively, are killed by mammoths less often than brunette men” sounds reasonable — but in the end it’s all just guess work.

  18. #18 razib
    March 2, 2006

    i’ve placed the paper in a yahoo forum for my weblog as frost.pdf. you have to sign up to download, but it is there for anyone interested.

    1) don’t read the paper on this one.
    2) the paper is speculative, and i’m skeptical of the conclusion/process offered, but there is some neat data in there.

  19. #19 Polly Anna
    March 2, 2006

    Oh, my. It all seems so simple without the need for more multi-million dollars for another anthropological or epidemiology study to generate results for career building publications that I cannot understand.

    The offspring of those of the estrogen-dominated species that chose to remain in the security and warmth of shelters devoid of light with primary interest in survival of their offspring (successfully bearing and nursing them) for 2 years or more survived and those who did not became extinct. No selection for sunscreen. Males were expendable.

    Go spelunking sometime, deep underwater cave diving as a personal epidemiological adventure to see some real evolutionary “whiteys.”

    Oh, my, so many questions.

    Why is bleaching and even blue-tinted contact lenses in highest demand by the estrogen-dominated species in the 21st century worldwide?

    Polly

    [Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart--Anne Frank]

  20. #20 Tree
    March 3, 2006

    I’m with Polly on this one. Blondness has more to due with maternal survival than sexual selection by men. As if. We’re talking about the gender for which sheep jokes were written, right? The gender who doesn’t notice what the wife is wearing or what color her hair may be after a trip to the salon? And so far as ‘shortage of men’? How many women can one man impregnate? The women could keep him locked up, ala ‘A Man and His Dog’. That the ‘paper’ quotes the old hoax (this one has a beard it’s so old) about ‘blondes dying out’ is a clincher for me – it’s a joke paper. Though I don’t mind thinking about buff blonde mammoths hunter for a bit. Mmmm. Blond and Buff. What’s that again, about human males selecting? Ba-ba.

  21. #21 P funk
    March 3, 2006

    This whole idea of the “rare blonde” being more attractive strikes me as seriously culturally biased. Wouldn’t they just as likely have been rejected as freaks? It’s about as scientific to say they proliferated because their blonde hair gave them a snow-camouflage advantage during wolf attacks. Bah!

    fnxtr

  22. #22 Pharma Bawd
    March 4, 2006

    fnxtr,

    They discount the possibility that it was protective against wolf predation saying that wolves were just as often prey as predators. I didn’t look up the reference, but I’m guessing they find a lot of wolf bones that have been gnawed on by humans.

    That’s why I went with an advantage in wooly mammoth hunting. Either in making the kill or in not being spotted and killed by the mammoth.

  23. #23 Anton Mates
    March 10, 2006

    I disagree, fair skin and light hair are unobtrusive cryptic colorations in the snow. Blonde guys kill more mammoths because of better camoflauge in snow drifts, or alternatively, are killed by mammoths less often than brunette men.

    Wouldn’t that require that the hunters go into action half-naked in the snow? If they’re all bundled up in furs and things, it wouldn’t much matter what color their skin and hair were…you couldn’t see ‘em!

    Not that bare-chested mammoth hunters are a bad thing for the dedicated Beefcake Theorist…

  24. #24 Polly Anna
    March 11, 2006

    Oh, my! Hopefully nobody will read this since it’s an egoistic followup to my own post, for my own selfish satisfaction.

    Strange Fruit makes me sign my life away, sort of like an MTA for a reagent to post, so I’ll post it privately here.

    See, I was on the right track. That lobster is blind and blonde. Those long hairy claws sweep food way out from the cave ledge and I bet they are very attractive to a hunter male.

    Polly

  25. Play “find the glaring omission in this story.” :S thanks.

Current ye@r *