December 31, 2008 | 2 Comments
At this particular moment, I am feeling attracted to another riddle. Anomalies can serve to disprove a theory or open doors leading to solutions that draw the theory deeper. Over the course of these entries, I’ve made a number of predictions. The predictions that don’t hold true when experiments are conducted will suggest intuitions that have gone awry, threads of theory that need adjusting or hidden insights waiting for integration.
The riddle is as follows. Nordic culture displays lanky females and males displaying a variety of neotenous features that include blond hair, blue eyes and astonishingly egalitarian societies. Both sexes display these neotenous features.
In Asian societies, females and males exhibit a completely different assortment of highly neotenous features but are short, black haired and dark eyed. Societies are not egalitarian but highly patrifocal.
If we assume that features exhibited reflect cultural visual predilections, visually based sexual selection criteria or tendencies, we have an easy answer to the riddle, but that answer feels unsatisfactory to me. Let’s follow the pathway of pattern to see where pattern leads.
“As I explained earlier, the northern dairying people lived in a mist-shrouded environment and had to bundle up against the cold most of the year. They were without access to vitamin D in fish and sea mammals, and lacked green leafy vegetables as an alternative source of calcium. Under these conditions, individuals who were genetically capable of digesting large quantities of unfermented milk were better able to maintain normal bone growth and avoid crippling bone diseases such as rickets and osteomalacia, and therefore enjoyed higher rates of reproductive success than individuals who obtained their calcium through fermented milk, yogurt, or cheese. Within 4,000 or 5,000 years, the gene that controls for lactose production in adulthood spread to over 90 percent of the individuals in northern European dairying populations.” (Harris, Marvin (1989) Our Kind. Harper Perennial: New York p. 167)
The late anthropologist Marvin Harris suggested that the extreme Northern climate with little light compelled a necessity for adults to derive vitamin D from sunlight by lightening skin and vitamin A from dairy by prolonging the lactate processing abilities of infants into adults by prolonging a basket of infant features into Scandinavian adults. If this hypothesis has legs, this might explain why a number of neotenous features, including increased height, appeared in both sexes.
This could also explain why Scandinavian societies display such high degrees of what Raine Eisler calls Partnership Society characteristics. Both sexes have been selected to display the cooperative tendencies characteristic of neoteny.
Whereas Scandinavians may have selected each other to encourage healthy progeny with access to vitamins, Asian priorities may have revolved around a need for a highly hierarchical society that encouraged cooperation on large scales to achieve societal goals.
Like Scandinavian cultures, Asian cultures reveal neoteny in both sexes, though a different selection of features, outlined in detail by Gould and Montagu, such as light skin, relatively large brain, flat face and eye fold. Unlike Scandinavia, Asian geological/environmental constraints–massive, irrigation-driven agricultural operations with high population densities–demanded cooperation from large numbers of people working closely together within the context of a highly stratified society. These are patrifocal, top-down, male-dominated cultures with females experiencing few rights.
I would hypothesize that males still reveal high testosterone relative to females, encouraging patrifocal social structure, but low testosterone relative to males in other societies. This hypothesis would suggest that Asian females would have the lowest thresholds of testosterone among females in the world, lower than Scandinavian females, who also display neotenous characteristics.
In other words, to create a highly stratified society to be able to manage the resources to survive, natives had to be both highly cooperative and deeply committed to hierarchy, status and top-down control. This commitment resulted in the traditional patrifocal spread of high testosterone males and low testosterone females, but both thresholds were fluctuating within far lower levels than societies without the high demand for cooperation. That’s the hypothesis.
Perhaps the fact that these agrarian populations are so dense at least partially explains their smaller size. Natural selective processes would reinforce the propagation of families that can consume relatively small amounts of food and nutrients. Ten families on 10 10-acre lots all producing the same maximum amount of nourishment would find the families with smaller members more often nourished.
Was this unique set of constraints about short, neotenous, black-haired, dark-eyed citizens?
It’s possible estrogen plays a powerful role in these somatic deliberations. What are the physical effects of low estrogen in females? We might surmise that in patrifocal societies that display female infanticide, estrogen, which displays a compulsive attraction of humans to care for other humans, would be relatively low. If Asian cultures display lower than the average estrogen levels in females, then might that have something to do with the specific basket of neotenous features displayed by individuals in these cultures? This hypothesis would predict that low estrogen in females would result in small body size. We might surmise males might have low estrogen or high estrogen depending on which serves best to create cohesion within society. I would guess that Asian males exhibit relatively high estrogen compared to Asian females. I would guess this way based upon the ubiquity of spiritual paths emphasizing community and compassion.
Conversely, we might predict that cultures featuring tall males and females would reveal matrifocal dynamics featuring low testosterone males and relatively low testosterone females, relative to high testosterone matrifocal females.
Does both low estrogen and low testosterone encourage a particular body type? What body type does low estrogen encourage?
Often these essays return to seeking an understanding of the role of estrogen in evolution. Again, what we don’t know about women may hide the answer to what we seek to understand about ourselves.