By JR on Thursday, March 05, 2015
Iris pigmentation sounds like an obscure area of scientific investigation, does it not? Among evolutionary biologists it is an obscure area of scientific investigation but there is more to it than that. In everyday English it is the study of blue eyes. Caution, caution! I think I am already in an area of political incorrectness. But I discuss all areas of scientific interest without fear or favor so political correctness can go hang.
It's not long go that having blue eyes was commented on favorably. There is a stellar example of that in Im weissen Roessl, the hit operetta known in English as "The White Horse Inn", though more accurately translated as "The little white horse". There is a recent big-budget performance of it at Moerbisch (In the original German). At the 36 minute mark of the video you will see the ultra-feminine Anja-Katharina Wigger and big Marco Jentzch singing "die ganze Welt ist himmelblau" to one another (The whole world is sky blue). The point of the song is how inspired they are by one-another's blue eyes. It's a piece of romanticism that's well worth watching whatever color your eyes are but those of us who have blue eyes probably get a little more out of it.
So what is the significance of blue eyes? Just that question must be ringing loud alarms to anyone impressed by political correctness but, as ever, I will plow on. Yes. I have "checked my privilege" and am quite pleased with it.
Blue eyes seem to have arisen as a genetic mutation somewhere in the Black sea area but natural selection moved them steadily Northwards. At some early stage, the whole Northern European population probably had blue eyes. Northern Europe and its descendant populations are of course the main loci of them to this day.
Why did that gene move North? Because blue eyes function better than dark eyes in low light levels and function less well in high light levels. Blue eyed people could see better in the low light levels that often prevail in chilly Northern Europe, particularly in the Baltic sea area and Russia. We Anglo-Saxons trace our ancestry to German tribes that moved from the South Baltic to Britannia, later known as England.
But it's not only iris pigmentation that cold climates select for. Cold climates are not very good at growing crops -- so the blue-eyed Volk largely fed themselves by hunting. So they kept their hunter-gatherer mores (customs) much longer than did the Southern European and Mesopotamian populations. And hunter-gatherer mores are democratic. Issues are settled by discussion, not by imperial edict.
And the ancient parliaments of Northern Europe and Iceland reflect that. The Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britannia brought their democratic customs with them and their "Witangemot" evolved in due course into the Westminster parliament on the Thames, sometimes called "the mother of parliaments". So most long-established parliaments serve people with predominantly azure iris pigmentation: Democracy as we know it today arose in the cold climates of Northern Europe.
While they retained something of their hunter-gatherer traditions, Greece and Rome were also democratic -- but democracy there eventually succumbed to imperialism. The big bureaucratic governments that characterize the modern world threaten a similar fate for us. Democracy can be lost. And if the Left have their way, it will be. All the great tyrants of the 20th century -- Stalin, Hitler and Mao -- were socialists.
And there is yet another thing that cold climates select for: IQ. To survive a Northern winter you need to do a lot of thinking ahead and thinking ahead involves abstract and symbolic thought. You have to imagine yourself in the midst of a Northern winter with no wood to burn to keep you warm. Only if you can imagine it will you provide against it. Blue eyed people were people who tended to think ahead, and, mostly, they still do.
AS a small coda to this ramble through evolutionary history, I will say a word about a recent claim about the color blue in general. The claim is that people could not see the colour blue until recently. The claim is based on the curious fact that words meaning blue are largely absent from ancient writings. Homer's well-known reference to a "wine-dark sea" is held up as an example. That Homer was simply not talking about its color is discounted.
Since the human eye does contain cones specifically devoted to being activated by blue wavelengths, it is clear, however, that any deficiency about blue-perception is social rather than physical. People could always see blue so the question is why did they say so little about it? And the article does point us towards an answer to that: It was only the ancient Egyptians who had a way of dying things blue. And the ancient Egyptians do use blue color words freely. So it was because they could not produce it that ancient peoples tended not to refer to it.
The whole thing boils down to a version of the old Sapir/Whorf "codability" hypothesis in linguistics. The strong version of that hypothesis says that your thinking is dictated by your language. It is reminiscent of Marx's claim that your thinking is dictated by your social position. The current "check your privilege" accusation reprises Marx. But Marx is easily refuted by the simple fact that people of the same social class can have radically different opinions and by the fact that people from different social classes can have similar opinions.
British sociologists have long been puzzled by the fact that about a quarter of the British working class vote Tory. They are seen as voting for the "wrong" party, not "their" party (the Labour party). Only a Marxist would be puzzled by that however. People are NOT blinded by their class origins. I wrote about that some time ago. And the strong Sapir/Whorf hypothesis can be rejected on similar grounds.
Does anyone, for instance, think that Germans are in any way incommoded or limited by the fact that their language has no word for pink, heaven or happy? They just give double duty to their words for rosy, sky and lucky. They are many happy Germans who sometimes wear pink and none of them expect to float up into the sky when they die.
The weak form of the Sapir/Whorf hypothesis is however informative: People "cut up" their perceptual world according to what is important to them. Eskimos have several different words for different types of snow while we do not. For us, snow is snow but for Eskimos recognizing different types of snow can have survival implications.
So ancient people did not mention blue because it was not important to them. They could not produce it so they largely ignored it. It was not a useful category in their lives and hence also not important in their speech.
So let me end with a tease: The first American to step on the moon (Neil Armstrong) and the first Russian in space (Yuri Gagarin) both had blue eyes. What should we make of that?
Footnote: My large academic background does at times cause me to lapse into academic jargon -- but I try to explain myself when I do that. The Latin word mores above, for instance, is used by social scientists to mean the full range of attitudes and behaviors that is characteristic of some human group. Even people who know what it means sometimes pronounce it as if it were the plural of the English word "more". There is no such plural, however. mores is the plural of the Latin word mos and is pronounced as "morays" (just like the eel).