Gene Expression

It’s a white thing

i-dfe7f3e0d5130ee126e361367031c6b4-colorgraph.gifSandy at Discovering Biology in a Digital World responded to my post about skin color with White People are Mutants. This is an interesting juxtposition with a observation that some might claim that this implies that one is saying white people are more evolved. But it’s more complex than that, as I point out, it seems that before our species evolved dark skin, we were white skinned, underneath our fur, so white people are “back to the future.” Does that mean they are primitive? Or evolved back to primitivity? Obviously not, these sort of categories, “more evolved,” or “advanced,” are really not appropriate in a grand evolutionary scheme. Evolution just is, the only thing it ascends is an abstract, idealized and unreal fitness landscape. A reification which I tend to feel is worthwhile in modelling, but needs to be treated cautiously in the real world where one moment you are on solid ground, and the next moment the mountain of selection moves on you Bugs Bunny style and you are hurtling down from the sky. A fundamental truth which I think is important to comprehend is that almost any scientific finding of relevance to humans can be twisted through rhetorical tricks to support almost any position. Though the process of science is very different from other human systems of thought, it is often very amenable to being leveraged by those systems of thought.

Addendum: In regards to Europeans there is current debate about whether polymorphism on MC1R is due to relaxation of constraint (neutral transient polymorphisms) or positive sexual selection.


  1. #1 SMC
    September 26, 2006

    I’ve noticed that a lot of people seem to think that evolution is a process of “progress” towards some “higher form”.

    It’s wrong, of course – evolution is a process of progress towards equilibrium, just like pretty much everything else in the natural world. It’s the statistical moving of a population’s characteristics towards the “best fit” (given what characteristics are available in the gene pool) for the population’s local environment. Which I think most people here already realize, but I wish understanding would reach deeper into the alleged “mainstream”…

  2. #2 Agnostic
    September 27, 2006

    I think one reason for the lack of better public understanding is that lots of people who have influence on popular understanding don’t want to mention the word “adaptation” once, let alone drive it home. It would’ve obviated the need to qualify “more evolved” since “better adapted” doesn’t make any sense unless you immediately fill it in with “to environment X.” So, doesn’t imply a Chain of Being / Progress converging on a single goal, with whites ahead of other groups in the race.

    However, stressing adaptation smacks of Darwinian Fundamentalism, in the words of Gouldians. They weren’t stupid — they realized that if this concept were emphasized, it’d only be a matter of time until people understood that populations in markedly different environments over long enough time would turn out differently in these respects. And that they’d remain the same in other respects if environments were the same, obviously.

    So, under the popular view, we haven’t evolved much since agriculture, and what evolution may have taken place is just that — evolution, or change. What we need to stress to the public more is that these changes adapt individuals to enduring, fitness-relevant aspects of their environment. A side benefit is clearing up the “group X is more/less evolved than group Y” nonsense.

  3. #3 razib
    September 27, 2006

    assman, you’re talking about the elites. the masses are pretty teleological in their orientation. also, they tend to impute value to derived vs. ancestral traits. i don’t think orthogenesis or chain of being think is particularly surprising, i think it is an emergent tendency of folk biology.

  4. #4 razib
    September 27, 2006

    to give you an example, how many generations have scientists been saying that humans aren’t descended from chimps? doesn’t matter, the perception remains, and will remain. chimps = “primitive.” man = “advanced.” primitive -> advanced entails chimp -> man.

  5. #5 somnilista, FCD
    September 27, 2006

    I think polar bears are the most evolved, since they have black skin underneath white fur.