Foundation of Human Culture -
Human variation stems from a number of sources which can be crudely
classed as either genetic or environmental embedded in the process
of evolution. Over the past weeks we have done a safari tour of the
foundations of evolution, which is precisely the long term interaction
of these two.
Human Morphological Variation
For the remainder of the course we will be focused mainly on what
is called population genetics . Population genetics is
concerned with variation within a single species or groups composed
of the same species (in our case Homo sapiens ). Population
genetics framed in an evolutionary framework is called microevolution ,
as opposed to macroevolution, which is concerned with
evolutionary processes which lead to the formation of different species.
We will be framing this within examinations of human adaption, variation
due to adapting to local environmental circumstances.
This week we will look at basic features of human variability, and
try to examine how these are framed in genetic and adaptive terms.
VII. The ABO blood group system.
The antigens for the ABO system are a set of glycoproteins. Directly
attached to the red cell membrane is a protein. At a certain section
of the protein is attached a type of 5-carbon sugar, fucose. This
fucose sugar molecules is referred to as the H antigen, and reacts
with an antiserum called anti-H. The production of antigen H is controlled
by a separate locus from that of the ABO blood group, but antigen
H is intimately associated with the ABO system.
- I. Body size. Heritability estimates for most body size measurements imply that
- about 80% of the variability in body size is due to genetic factors
(.8 heritiability), and about 20% is due to environmental factors.
- A. Sexual dimorphism in body size is typical of humans, with females being
- 90-95% the size of males in almost all populations.
- B. The secular trend. It seems that most of the world's populations are
- becoming larger through time. This is part of what is called the
- Few people think that this is actually a genetic evolutionary
trend, and place the cause somewhere in the environment, mostly to
- Some biologists have suggested that the secular trend is, in part,
the result of selection due to mate choice (called sexual selection).
- However, in 1900 I would have served nicely as an 'average' height
male in either the US or UK. Now most males are grotesquely taller.
In Japan in 1949 the average height of males was not quite 5'4''.
Now the average is equal to European males (5'10''). In Pakistan in
1972 the average height of males was just over 5'4'', and is now (for
males 18-35) just less than the average for European males. Selection
can simply not operate this quickly.
- Changes in public sanitation, particularly water supplies may
also have an important impact. Most human populations maintain a fairly
large disease and parasite load, which compete for the energy produced
by the human body. Many of these are transmitted by human waste products
which contaminate water, and through water (or lack of it) food.
- C. Advantages of large body size. There are some advantages to large body
- Big people are stronger.
- Bigger people are better predators - a lion can kill a wider
variety of prey than a house cat.
- Bergman's rule. Large bodies are beneficial in colder climates
according to Bergman's rule:
- The larger the animal the better it is at retaining heat. That
- is why during the glacial times many lineages of animals developed
giant forms. Humans follow this rule in a broad way. People living
near the poles tend to be larger on the average than those living
near the equator, but there are a lot of exceptions. Certainly this
is true in the new world where the native americans living in the
amazon basin are among the shortest of all native americans.
- Larger people are generally faster runners. The fact that their
stride length is longer and that they can apply more force with each
stride due to larger muscles gives this advantage.
- E. Advantages of small body size.
- The most important of all selective pressures on body size is
that small people require less food and can better survive when food
is limited. Famines kill people in size order from largest first
to smallest last.
- Smaller people are generally quicker and more agile. This is
due to the principle of inertia from physics. A larger body takes
more force to get moving and more force to change direction than a
smaller body does.
- F. Distribution of body size.
- Europeans have the largest average body size. It is in Europe
where Bergman's rule most clearly applies. The largest Europeans
are from the far north, and the farther south you go in europe, the
smaller the people.
- Africans include both the worlds tallest (if not exactly the largest)
people and the world's smallest people. The Nuer, Masai, Watusi,
and similar peoples of East Central Africa are the world's tallest
and among the worlds largest. The Pygmies of West Central Africa
and the Khoisan of Southern Africa are among smallest.
- Asians and Native Americans usually fall in the middle ranges.
Only a few populations could be considered large, maybe the Samoans
are one. Many populations could be described as small.
- II. Body build. Most of the variation in body build in humans can be reduced
- to linear build vs lateral build. Let's contrast an extreme linear
build with an extreme lateral build.
- A. The extreme linear stereotype would be found in the previously
- mentioned tall peoples of East Central Africa. These people are very
tall and slender. The chests, shoulders, and hips are very narrow
- the narrowest in the world for their height. The limbs are extremely
long, especially the legs.
- B. The extreme lateral stereotype would be found in some Asian and
- Native Americans. Eskimos, Japanese, Samoans, Apache, and many South
American Indians exhibit lateral build. A few Caucasoid groups also
approach lateral build, especially the peoples of northern Europe.
Laterally built people tend to have long and broad trunks, with wider
chests, shoulders and hips. The widest hips of all can be found in
Europeans. The limb bones tend to be short and the legs make less
of a contribution to overall height.
- C. Allen's rule. One primary selective force acting on body build
- is Allen's rule:
- Animals living in colder climates should have shorter appendages
- and be more spherical than those living in warmer climates. This
says that laterally built people should be found in colder climates
and linearly built people in warm climates. This is true for humans
on the average. The traditional comparison is between the Inuit and
the Masai. The Inuit of the far north tend to be stocky with short
arms and legs. The Masai of east africa tend to be very tall and
slender, with long arms and legs.
- D. These contrasting body builds have definite advantages for
- certain tasks. The linear builds seem to have a definite advantage
in overall health, especially in that they experience much less heart
disease and diabetes than laterally built people. Linear builds have
the advantage in running speed - they make great sprinters. The mechanics
of long slender legs, as explained in terms of levers and forces,
are well designed for fast running. A non-human example is the contrast
between cows and antelopes. Cows and antelopes are closely related,
but cows are extreme laterals in build and antelopes are more linear.
Obviously, antelopes can run faster than cows.
- Narrow hips are another advantage in fast running. This is the reason
- that most men can run faster than most women. Women have broader
hips as an adaptation for childbearing. The muscular arrangements
that accompany narrow hips are much more efficient in moving the legs
rapidly and powerfully. Since most Europeans have very broad hips
you would expect them to be among the world's slowest runners, and
this is pretty much what is observed.
- E. Lateral builds have an advantage in endurance running, and any
- task that requires endurance. This is because the larger rib cage
allows more room for a larger heart and lungs. The endurance feats
that have been recorded for some Indians are legendary.
- III. Hair. Several things about hair are variable.
- A. Color. In general, dark hair goes with dark skin and light hair
- goes with light skin. You can have dark hair with light skin, but
it is rare to have light hair with dark skin. People can have different
colored hair on different regions of their body. Beard color and
pubic hair color are often lighter than head hair color - rarely darker.
Eyebrow color can be different as well (usually darker). People's
hair color changes with age too - most people's hair becomes darker
as they grow from childhood into adulthood, then gets gray as they
- Blond hair has little melanin and black hair (actually very dark
- brown) has a lot. In contrast to skin melanin, which is always brown,
hair melanin can be either brown or red. There is a wide range of
variation in the amount of red melanin vs brown melanin in the hair
from a slight reddish tint to strawberry red. In general, brown melanin
is stronger in color than red melanin and can mask it.
- The distribution of hair color is almost entirely a European phenomenon,
- with most of the rest of the world's people having dark brown hair.
The farther north you go in Europe the more likely the hair is to
be blond. The farther west you go, the more likely the hair is to
- B. Hair curvature. The degree of curvature of the hair is broken
- down into 3 categories: straight, wavy, and curly. The shape of the
hair follicle is what determines the curvature of the hair produced
by it. Round follicles produce straight hair, oval follicles produce
wavy hair, and disk-shaped follicles produce curly hair.
- Straight hair is found throughout most of the world, including the
- Americas, Asia, and parts of Europe. Europe has the most variation
in hair curvature, ranging from straight to very wavy. The Middle
East and North Africa have a lot of wavy and a few curly heads. Subsaharan
Africans range from curly to very curly. The most curly hair is found
in the Khoisans whose hair is often so tightly curled that it is called
peppercorn hair because it looks like pepper corns placed on their
- The predominance of straight hair on a world-wide basis suggests
- that it is the original type of hair that the first humans had. If
so, then we need to explain the development of curly hair in Africa.
One explanation for curly hair has been proposed based on the fact
that the Khoisan inhabit a very hot and dry environment. In this
type of environment the body needs to cool itself by sweating, but
when you sweat you lose water and run the risk of becoming dehydrated.
It has been observed that the very curly peppercorn hair of the Khoisan
does a good job of trapping the sweat on their heads and holding it
in place as it evaporates and cools the body.
- C. Hair length. Many people are surprised that there is genetic
- variation in hair length. As in all mammals, each of us has a certain
hair length beyond which the hair simply won't grow. Hair length
is longest in people with round follicles, because round follicles
seem to grip the hair better. So, people with straight hair have
the potential to grow it longer. The shortest hair is associated
with flat follicles.
- Hair length is sexually dimorphic, not just because of cultural
- rules - females really can grow longer hair than males in most cases.
This has been measured for Europeans, where in males the maximum
length for wavy hair is about shoulder length and the maximum for
straight hair is about midback length. For female Europeans wavy
hair can usually reach the waist, and straight hair can reach the
buttocks or longer.
- Nobody has proposed any selective advantage for either long or short
- hair in terms of the environment. But, given the general worldwide
cultural preference for longer hair in females, it is possible that
there is some sexual selection going on.
- IV. Eyes. Eye color and form presents a striking range of variation.
- A. Color. The colored part of the eye is the iris, which surrounds
- the pupil of the eye and contains muscles which dilate and contract
the pupil. The iris has several layers, two of which contain melanin.
All eye melanin is brown.
- The variation in eye color is caused by the nature of the pigmentation
- of the external layer of the iris. The iris may or may not be pigmented.
If pigmented, the distribution of pigment may not be even. There
can be some contribution of other pigments as well.
- If melanin is present in the external layer of the iris then the
- eye will be brown. If melanin is lacking, the iris will be colorless
but perceived as blue for the same reason that the sky seems blue
and a lake seems blue. If melanin is present but unevenly distributed
the eye is perceived as a brownish green and is called olive or hazel.
- True green eyes are extremely rare, and only a few cases have been
- documented. True green eye color is caused by presence of pigment
in the external layer of the iris, carotene. The yellowish carotene
combined with the blue of an unpigmented iris gives a green tint.
- Most people in the world have brown eyes (uniformly distributed
- pigmentation). The only place to find blue, hazel, or green eyes
as anything other than an occasional mutation is in Europe. One proposed
advantage of non-brown eyes that has been put forward is that it might
be advantageous for hunters against a snowy or light-colored background.
- B. Eyelid folding. The inner corner of the eyelid has a characteristic
- fold in many Asian peoples, called an epicanthic fold. The fold makes
the inner corner of the lid curve downward. Most Asians have this
characteristic to some extent, as do many Europeans. The epicanthic
fold does seem to offer some protection against snow blindness, caused
by sunlight reflecting off snow.
- V. Ears. Ears are extremely variable in size, size of the ear lobe, protrusion,
- and whether the ear lobe is free or attached.
- The African ear stereotype is a relatively small, non-protruding
- ears with small free lobes. The american indian stereotype is the
other extreme in average size and protrusion, and asians stereotypically
have the highest frequency of attached ear lobes. Europeans are the
most variable and have ears that span the entire range of human variation.
- No advantage or disadvantage to ear characteristics has been seriously
- proposed, but the physics of sound tells us that large protruding
ears should give an advantage in the ability to locate sounds.
- VI Lips. Having distinct lips is a uniquely human phenomenon. When the
- mouths of other mammals (including other primates) are closed all
you see is the mouth slit with hairy skin going right down to the
opening. All humans do have lips, which vary primarily in the extent
to which they are rolled up to expose the pink membranous portion.
This phenomenon is called lip eversion. Everted lips seem to have
a slight ability to help cool the body because capillaries run very
close to the surface of the lips, and the slight moistness of the
lips helps in cooling by evaporation. The most everted lips are found
on the faces of some Africans and the least everted lips on the faces
of some Europeans. However, lip eversion is extremely variable by
A. Most people who have an allele for blood type O have antigen
H, and should more correctly be classified as blood type H. Therefore,
the most correct way to refer to this blood group system is the ABH
system. There are a few individuals, who lack the H antigen and just
have a naked protein chain hanging off their red cells. This is also
called the Bombay blood type, which I mentioned earlier in the course.
The frequency of the Bombay allele is somewhere around .0066, so
homozygotes are very rare. This allele is usually designated as h,
and the normal H allele is dominant to it.
B. The allele for blood group A causes another sugar to be attached
to the antigen H, fucose, sugar molecule. This attached sugar is N-acetylgalactosamine
(NAG), and is the A antigen. The allele for blood group B causes
a molecule of simple galactose sugar to be attached to the fucose
molecule. This is the B antigen. The O allele causes the H antigen
to remain unmodified.
C. People who are AA homozygotes or AO heterozygotes have mostly
the A antigen, with usually a little free H antigen. Actually there
are 4 different A alleles, the differences between which are poorly
understood, but which seem to differ primarily in the amount of H
antigen that gets converted to A antigen. So, they cause differences
in the strengths of the antigen-antiserum reactions. However, specific
antisera can be made to at least some of the 4 different blood group
a subtypes, so there must be some differences in the actual antigen
Most non-African populations have only A1 and A2 alleles, but Africans
can also have Aint and Abantu alleles.
D. People who are BB or BO have mostly the B antigen, with a little
free H antigen. There is no major variability in the B blood type.
E. People who are AB heterozygotes have both the A and B antigens.
Each cell will have approximately half of its H antigens modified
into A antigens and about half modified into B antigens. This illustrates
the phenomenon of codominance. Neither A nor B is dominant to the
other, so the products of both alleles can exist in a heterozygote.
Both A and B are dominant to O.
F. An individual does not normally make antibodies to any antigen
which he or she personally possesses. The galactose and fucose sugars
are common enough in nature, particularly in disease carrying organisms,
so people make antibodies to these sugars if they are not part of
their personal antigen system. Therefore, everyone who is not blood
group A will make anti-A antibodies. Everyone who is not blood group
B will make anti-B antibodies. Almost nobody makes anti-H antibodies,
but you can extract an anti-H antiserum from the seeds of the common
(in England) gorse plant. Let's summarize the antigens and antibodies
produced by each genotype.
The main importance of the ABH blood group system is in blood matching
for transfusions. If the donor and recipient are not matched in terms
of their ABH blood types then the antibodies in the recipient's plasma
may cause an agglutination reaction of the red cells from the donor.
This is not fun for the patient. Note, however, that people with
blood type AB have no antibodies in their plasma, so they can actually
receive blood from anybody. For this reason they are referred to
as universal recipients.
Usually, the small amount of antibodies introduced with the plasma
from the donor's blood doesn't cause a severe enough reaction in the
recipient to cause any problems, although it is still preferable to
match blood types exactly.
Note also that blood type O individuals have no A or B antigen. This
means that nobody's antibodies can agglutinate their cells. For this
reason type O people are often called universal donors, although you
may occasionally have problems with the antibodies in the plasma of
type O blood.
| | blood |antigens| |
| genotypes | type |present | antibodies present |
|AOhh, AAhh, BOhh|Bombay | none | anti-H, anti-A, anti-B |
|BBhh, ABhh | | | |
| OOHH, OOHh | O (H) | H | anti-A, anti-B |
| AOHH, AAHH, | A | A, H | anti-B |
| AOHh, AAHh | | | |
| BOHH, BBHH, | B | B, H | anti-A |
| BOHh, BBHh | | | |
| ABHH, ABHh | AB | A, B, H| none |
Many other serum proteins, red cell proteins, blood groups,
and antigen systems exist. we have just scratched the surface of
the most well known ones. As we will see in a later lecture, many
of these are very localized to certain racial or tribal groups.