Human Sub-Species, Races and Varieties – what are we to believe?

Probably all of us sometimes think of what is ‘race’? It constantly crops up in the news, in reports, on television, in daily life. How do we deal with that? Let me start with three personal episodes. I gave a seminar once on my research in Papua New Guinea and mentioned Polynesian and Melanesian races. A lady in the audience then interrupted me with the claim that according to the latest findings races do not exist and that “We are just one people; we are all human beings”. I politely replied whether she hadn’t noticed that amongst us human beings there are differences with regard to the shapes of the lips and eyes, the structure of the hair and colour of the skin, whereupon she remarked that these were variations which you’d find in any population on Earth. I kept quiet, not wanting to argue that molecular genetics can trace your ancestry quite well and that in the case of one of my daughters 50% of her ancestry came out as South Indian (which pleased her South Indian Brahmin mother tremendously). The other 50% (from me) were an incredible mix from a multitude of regions.

On another occasion I had teamed up with a New Zealander, who had had 40 years of experience as an ophthalmologist and in his years of practice never had seen a case of glaucoma in a Maori (though he had treated Maori for other eye ailments and approx. 18% of the population were Maori). I felt this fact and information we had obtained from Australia (Australian Aborigines also apparently never suffered from this amongst Europeans not at all rare disease) suggested that there were perhaps genetic factors involved and we applied for a research grant. At the interview, the project was well received and looked like being funded, when however, the last question and comment by one person of the selection panel shot it down. He reminded us and the other members of the panel that Maori would never allow the eyes of one of their deceased to be removed for research. So, where and how would we get our eye material for the comparison with people of European ancestry?

The third occasion was at a conference in Germany around 2010, when a professor announced that what was usually termed “races” in humans were biologically-speaking sub-species. In his defence I have to explain that he did not want to be misunderstood and seen his suggestion to be linked with what the Nazis had termed ‘sub-humans’. No, he pointed out that to a biologist populations that become geographically isolated from each other will see certain genes accumulate, ultimately leading to visible morphological or invisible physiological differences between the isolated individuals, (despite identical chromosome numbers) so that (given a chance) they may still be able to mate with each other and have viable offspring. On account of their morphological, anatomical and physiological differences, however, they would have to be treated as sub-species. For animals and plants that was an established category of classification and would free us from using the term ‘race’ in humans, he suggested. The term ‘variety’ (as with apples or white, brown and black poodle dogs) could then be applied to individuals in a sub-species that wouldn’t completely blend in. Needless to say, the professor’s ideas were politely listened to, but did not receive the support he had hoped for.

To say “we are all one” and argue that differences do not exist flies in the face of common sense. Nobody can dispute that on average Koreans are shorter than Europeans, that Inuit have adapted to a meat diet, Thai can’t digest milk well, Bantu look different from Tibetans, etc. Sure, some Koreans are tall, some Thai drink cow’s milk, but centuries of relative isolation and limited gene mixing has indeed led to differences in world populations, actually to an extent that certain afflictions and ailments are more common in some than in others. A student came to me in Jamaica once, and asked why snake bites affected people of African and European ancestry differently. I didn’t know. I also don’t know why Maori and Australian Aborigines don’t seem to suffer from glaucoma, why prostate cancer is twice the rate of Europeans in African Americans, why Indians suffer so often from heart problems or diabetes is common in Pacific Islanders. To explain all these well documented differences away with references to social background and unhealthy life-styles, in my mind, is unscientific. Pure races or human subspecies due to geographic isolation and a lack to interbreed with others do no longer exist, but that the history of past and long-term isolations has left its manifestation should not be ignored. And that it can include (in addition to visible differences) susceptibilities to certain ailments, foods, pathogens or coping with environmental stressors, is likely.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Eyebrows and Eyelashes

Do they have any uses at all?

When I was a child, I often heard some adults remark what beautiful eyelashes that boy has. But as I grew older and taller the eyelashes became shorter and shorter. But what is it with eyelashes that so many people love about them? Certainly not all love them, because when my daughter Yamuna was two or three years old, she kept pulling out their exceedingly long eyelashes, because she must have felt that they were obstructing her visual field and sometimes were getting into her eyes. Trobriand Islanders, as Malinowski in his famous 1929 book The Sexual Life of Savages described (and I can support on the basis of my own observations during four stays on the Trobriand Islands), are proud not to have eyelashes as it indicates to a young girl that she’s had many lovers and therefore must be an attractive girl. Eyelashes are bitten off and eyebrows, too, are kept very short. In fact, all facial and bodily hair is considered ugly.

Some birds and many species of mammals (especially those feeding on grass and sedges or leaves of shrubs and trees) also have eyelashes and some even have noteworthy brows (although the latter are often not recognizable, because of the surrounding fur). The fact that more species which seek their nourishment in trees, bushes, grasses, etc. possess eyelashes than carnivores could suggest that one function of eyelashes is that of a warning device: if something unexpected touches the eyelashes, a nerve impulse from a pressure or stretch receptor at the base of an eyelash is sent to an appropriate eyelid muscle to close the eye to prevent damage. There is no need or time wasted to think of closing your eye: a reflex arc takes care of that. Eyelashes of camels and other mammals living in sandy surroundings serve to protect their eyes against windblown dust particles and give their eyes as well as those of ostriches, giraffes, horses and cows, etc. expressions that resemble those seen in humans. Animals like mice and kin seem not to have long eyelashes as their long whiskers alert them of danger.

Eyelashes and those of eyebrows are structurally and embryologically identical to those of the rest of the body and grow for a while, then fall out, and re-grow. There are, however, some difficulties to explain differences: while eyelashes become shorter as a person ages and the amount of hair on the scalp gets less with age (or may even disappear altogether), eyebrows tend to become fuller and bushier. Although some of the eyebrow’s hairs may function as touch receptors (similar to eyelashes) and can be quite long as in seals (where they may convey information to the seal about currents and swim speed), their main function in terrestrial animals and humans is a different one. It is actually very easy to find out how useful eyebrows are, when you go for a run in a warm, tropical country and the sweat begins to run off your forehead into your face. Getting the slightly salty sweat into your eyes irritates the eyes, but well-developed eyebrows ‘channel’ the sweat to the sides and keep your eyes functioning. A very similar observation you can make when it rains and you have no umbrella to protect yourself against the rain.

Prominent eyebrow ridges further enhance the protective function, shade the eye and reduce injury and radiation effects. A few isolated and long, bristly hairs are often found above the eyes of rodents.

Yet, eyebrows, can also express feelings, moods and intentions and that may be important for animals like apes, monkeys and humans, in which the colour of the eyebrows may be different from that of the surrounding skin and the hair on the scalp. Perhaps that is the reason why women often darken their eyebrows and, removing excess hairs, turn them into thin lines to show without words what they feel. (Besides, it may reduce the chance of Demodex mites colonizing the eyebrows and eyelashes).

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and, 2021.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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Food taboos

What to eat and what not to eat

Electronic journals on the internet are becoming increasingly more popular and although I sincerely hope that printed newspapers and books will still be around for many years to come, I have also begun to publish some my research on the web not too long ago. My first article in an electronic journal appeared in the “Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine” in 2009 under the title “Food Taboos”. The article dealt with their origins and purposes. —>—>