- Area: Social and Behavior Sciences, Education, & Human Services
- Program: Anthropology
- Type of Writing: Essay (Analytical, Interpretive)
- Type of Writing: Science (writing about science for professional or non-science readers)
- Course Level: 1000
- Year: 2020
- Paper ID: SaBSE&HS.A.E.S.1.2.2
The Dichotomy of Human Variation Between Science and Culture
In March 2020, one can look around and see what seems to be thousands of different physical variations amongst the 7,634,002,100 people (Census) populating the various areas on our planet, including variations in gender, stature, and race. This was not always the case; we used to look quite similar. However, between 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, our species homo sapiens began to migrate out of equatorial Africa and disperse to new areas of the planet (James 2010) where the environmental factors were complete opposites to that of the African Sahara.
During this time, we first start to see the processes of our ancient human ancestors beginning to develop new morphologies, to better adapt to their new ecological niches. The articles, Climate Related Morphological Variation and Physiological Adaptations in Homo Sapiens, by Gary D. James, and Genes and Hormones: What makes up an Individuals Sex, by Daniela Crocetti discuss variations amongst the homo sapiens population in different ways. As explored above, the James article discusses how populations evolved to reproduce in extreme climates – intense cold, high altitude and ultraviolet radiation. Meanwhile, the Crocettie article explores the chromosomal make up that affects a person’s sex and gender identity. However, in American culture we tend to view these two biological identifiers completely different than what the scientific hypothesis states, for example the culturized classification of race in homo sapiens, and the perceptions for the LGBTQ community regarding gender identities. I am going to explore how homo sapiens adapted to ecological and biological diversity, and how there is without a doubt a dichotomy between the scientific and social perspectives of how human variation is viewed.
It is commonly known within the scientific community that we as homo sapiens all evolved from equatorial sea level populations in Africa (James 2010). So, the question arises, why are there so many different variations amongst our species? The answer to this question is actually quite simple: as we began to migrate out of equatorial Africa which has a very dry and hot climate and populated new terrestrial lands, the environmental factors began to change drastically such as, adapting to life in extreme cold, high latitudes, and less exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Through the process of natural selection, our bodies began to develop certain traits in order to achieve reproductive success by adapting to these new climates or ecological niches.
It is important for one to note this hypothesis developed after World War II regarding how natural selection acted on the environmental factors to produce new morphologies amongst modern homo sapiens (James 2010). Throughout the centuries, alongside these scientific theories there have been countless issues, and prejudices have been leveraged by arguing that specific phenotypic appearances justify specific social classes within society. These prejudices have created irrational and incorrect hypotheses on the capacities of humans with different phenotypic appearances than the communal norm.
In the nineteenth century, scientists such as Joseph Asaph Allen, Karl Bergman, and Thompson began to develop scientific theories to help justify these genetic changes. Bergmann’s Rule states that within wide-ranging homeothermic species, body mass increases with latitude and with decreasing temperature (James 2010). Animals with a greater mass will radiate less body heat and stay warmer. Building upon this theory of impact on environment on one’s phenotypic appearance, Allen’s Rule states that animals in colder climates have shorter limbs than the same animals in a warmer climate. One could interpret this as people who live in extreme cold or arctic environments tend to be short and stocky compared to their heat-adapted ancestors. One hundred years after Bergmann’s rule was introduced, a scientist named Roberts finally verified the relationship between weight and climate temperature. Modifications to the face have also been verified, the nose in particular. Thomson’s Rule states that the human nose becomes relatively narrower when the climate is cooler and dryer (James 2010, p 156).
Body image today is something that is being promoted everywhere one looks. Pop culture in America does a great job of promoting what the ideal body type should be. However, on the basis of what is ideal for survival in specific climates, it does not coincide with what Bregman’s and Allen’s Rules state is an ideal body type, if one is to survive based on how hot or cold it is in a certain environment . If a person today uses any of the social media platforms i.e. Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter they can witness this firsthand. Specifically, there is what are known as influencers, who by their popularity and how many followers and likes they have on their respective pages, promote to the masses what the ideal body type is. Idealism in this setting is defined by what is trending. Unfortunately, this is an issue all too common amongst children that manifests in situations of them being bullied in the public school system. It is not uncommon to hear of a young student committing suicide based on being bullied for what kind of body they possess and how it is not in conjuncture with what is trending in American society.
In addition, the previously stated Thomson’s Rule on variation in human noses tends to be associated with many racist stereotypes in American society. Unfortunately, I personally know these stereotypes all too well. My family is of Ashkenazi Jewish origins, and it is a common, misplaced stereotype that all Jewish people have larger than normal noses. With this stereotype comes expectations of being a good banker or lawyer and being stingy with money just because I have a larger than trending nose. Sadly, Jewish people are not the only people who face criticism over the dimensions of their nose. In a manifestation of similar ignorance, some people associate people of African origins to have large noses as well. In this stereotype, we often hear of correlations of African Americans to being inferior to whites, and thereby less evolved. These are horrible stereotypes that manifest in racism and racist actions that have and continue to impact generations of people.
As previously noted, all homo sapiens are descended from equatorial Africa, and these descendants possessed darker pigmented skin. It is important for one to understand the relationship between skin color and the environment, because in contemporary American culture, and throughout the world, the variation in the population’s skin color is used to determine one’s race. It is commonly understood that the highest ultraviolet radiation is found around the equatorial latitude lines and decreases as one travels north or south towards higher latitudes. Our African ancestors possessed high amounts of melanin, which is a pigment that makes the epidermis light or dark depending on the melanin concentration. Our descendants who migrated out of Africa to relocate to new latitude lines originally possessed dark toned skin. This natural adaptation came about to protect their bodies from sunburn and skin cancer which is caused by constant exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Having a higher melanin content in the skin also allowed to help combat folate loss. Folate is a nutrient necessary for DNA synthesis, repair, and expression, and for all the processes involved in cell division and homeostasis, and several studies have shown that serum folate concentrations are decreased significantly after short-term and prolonged exposure to UVA radiation ( James 2010, p 161). This is known in the scientific community as photoprotection.
The dispersal of melanin in the epidermis for populations living in high UVA concentrated areas of the planet 100,000 to 200,000 years ago also played an important factor in the process of photosynthesis of vitamin D3 which occurs in the skin. Vitamin D3 plays an important role associated with bone growth, development, and the prevention of autoimmune diseases. At the time, our African ancestors were living in an ecological niche with a considerably high exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Having a high melanin content in the skin did not affect the body’s ability to produce vitamin D3. Because melanin is effective at absorbing and scattering ultraviolet radiation from the sun, having darker skin ultimately decreases the body’s ability to adequately produce the desired amount of vitamin D3 for normal cellular functions (James 2010) and this began the process of depigmentation of the skin.
As this community of ancient homo sapiens began the migration out of Africa to higher latitudinal regions of the planet, where the exposure to ultraviolet radiation is much less, this begins to negatively affect the species ability to achieve adequate reproductive success. So due to our ancestors migrating out of the African Sahara, new selective pressures emerged i.e. less exposure to ultraviolet radiation, and the only way for the species to survive is through the processes of natural selection, which chooses to act on the depigmentation of the skin. Those individuals whose skin adapted to less exposure to ultraviolet radiation were able to produce the adequate amount of vitamin D3, thus making a positive correlation for these people surviving to reach reproductive age. New genes emerge that produce light skin, which begin to circulate in the gene pool, and ultimately over a substantial period of time through the processes of genetic drift and recombination, produce a new phenotype of light skin colored individuals that adapted to less exposure to ultraviolet radiation. This begins the dichotomy between science and culture. Culture begins to develop a racial classification system, where individuals are classified into separate groups based on the phenotypic expression of the epidermis.
In science, racial classification holds no value. This is because when scientists examine a fossil specimen of the species homo sapiens it is nearly impossible to without a doubt be one hundred percent positive the individual is black or white. As I have discussed, the phenotypic appearance of one’s skin has nothing to do with race, but everything to do with how these individuals adapted to new climates. Unfortunately, here in American contemporary and even global cultures, we view race as to what color an individual’s skin color is. I find it troubling all the injustices people of color have had to go through throughout the history of our country. We are all familiar with the slave trade, which America held a huge stake in during the early part of our country’s history. It was a common understanding at the time that people who were white or possessing less melanin were superior to people who were black skinned or possessed more melanin in their skin. The credited author of the Declaration of Independence, former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, believed “all men to be created equal.” By “all men”, Jefferson is referring to white men. Thomas Jefferson then goes on to state that people of African descent were biologically inferior to white people and could never live alongside white people in peace and harmony (Britannica). With this in mind, I believe racism has deep roots planted in American society and culture. The civil rights movement, fighting for equal rights for people of color, went through countless adversaries just to get public schools desegregated and to help African Americans gain the right to vote in democratic elections.
Unfortunately, the battle for racial equality has still not been achieved in the 200,000 years since melanin adaptation began to develop due to less exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Joe Biden, Democratic Presidential candidate in this year 2020 election is quoted by the New York Times with saying, “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids.” This association of social status, i.e. being poor, being associated with skin color, is a clear correlation of the dichotomy between science and American culture. There is also a substantial divide between people of color and those classified as white in upper level management positions in the American workforce. According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2018, white people held 533,547 executive/senior level job positions, to black people holding just 14,795 of the very same jobs. The exact reasons for this are beyond the scope of this paper, but it demonstrates a clear divide of what science and culture terms as race.
I have demonstrated how climate related morphology divided the population into different groups based on the amount of melanin production the body produces. However, the homo sapiens population is also divided scientifically and culturally into separate groups based what sex and gender one identifies with. There are a lot of stigmas in American culture retaining to sex and gender identities. Specifically, culture stereotypes this even further stating that males and females play different roles in society.
According to the article Genes and Hormones: What Make Up an Individual’s Sex by Daniela Crocetti, there is a lot more to what makes up a person’s sex than just identifying a person as male or female. Sex is biological and is determined by chromosomal make up, and gender is what is referred to in a cultural sense, or to what gender a person identifies with. In chromosomal sex, having XX is considered to be female, while XY is considered to be male. The Y chromosome possesses the SRY gene which suppresses what are known as Mullerian structures for female internal development, and the Y chromosome allows for Wolffian structures to be present, which are necessary for male development. However, with this being said, there are what the medical community terms disorders of sex development or DSD. Gender dysphoria is the medical term for transgenderism. Transgenderism has endured an ongoing stigma in American culture, which preserves the false belief in the gender binaries. Railing against the culture, transgender identity causes social outrage over activities such as public restrooms usage, sports, and even allowing children to participate in boy or girl scouts.
Gender dysphoria is not a mental disorder, which is one of the narratives American fundamentalists push on to society. Rather, gender dysphoria is caused by a genetic mutation during chromosomal exchange in the cellular process of meiosis. There are two separate medical conditions this causes: androgen insensitivity syndrome or AIS, and Klinefelter syndrome. A patient who is diagnosed with androgen insensitivity syndrome, has the XY chromosome make up, where Wolffian or male sexual development structures develop internally, while phenotypically the patient possesses female genitalia. It is estimated that 1 in 20,000 people are affected by AIS (Crocetti 2013). Klinefelter syndrome is surprisingly more common, affecting 1 in 700 patients. Klinefelter syndrome occurs when a patient possesses three sex chromosomes in the combination XXY. Most patients who are diagnosed with Klinefelter syndrome express phenotypically as female, such as developing breasts and possessing an increase in body fat to muscle ratio. In American culture, we tend to view gender as what is termed as binary, or two separate sexes male or female. Unquestionably, science gives enough evidence to support that this is not always the case, and proves that gender dysphoria is not a mental health issue, but a complex medical condition, resulting in a patient to be trapped inside a body that can be expressed culturally as male or female.
American culture, for the most part, I believe is heavily influenced by Christian fundamentalist teachings. I believe the majority of people cannot wrap their heads around the idea that an individual can be non-binary and although they may look male or female, genetically they possess genes that support a different gender identity. Recently, this has been the subject of many controversies in modern American society, and I believe the Christian religious values this country has placed on the masses has everything to do with how the masses of society view this issue. In Utah, leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints used to encourage the controversial method of conversion therapy. From what I understand, this causes mental trauma for individuals who are affected by gender dysphoria. However, as a person who is Jewish, I have a personal belief system that deviates from the norm. The ancient rabbinic text known as the Talmud uses the Hebrew word “tumtum” to refer to an individual who has gender dysphoria. This allows Jewish law to omit them from following strictly male or female practices, and I find it fascinating that this issue is addressed in the ancient text. The stigmas relating to gender dysphoria hopefully will disappear one day, and it will not matter what restroom one uses, just if they wash their hands.
I have explored how homo sapiens adapted to ecological and biological diversity, and how there is a clear divide between how science and American culture view the variation amongst our species. As our ancient African ancestors migrated out of Africa to explore new opportunities and resources in new geographical regions of the planet, our bodies began to adapt to these new climates, and over thousands of years we began to see new phenotypes emerge.
However, it is when culture gets involved that we begin to create social stigmas regarding not just race, but also binary gender identities. Regardless of what an individual’s phenotypic expression or historical ecological journey might be, we are all homo sapiens, and I hope one day what makes us different will be what brings society together.
Crocetti, D. (2013). Genes and Hormones: What Make Up an Individual’s Sex. In M. Ah- King(Ed.), Challenging Popular Myths of Sex, Gender and Biology (pp. 23-32).
Encyclopedia Britannica. (2019). Thomas Jefferson. In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved March 8, 2020, h ttps://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Jefferson
James, G.D. (2010). Climate-Related Morphological Variation and Physiological Adaptations in Homo sapiens. In C.S. Larsen (Ed.), A Companion to Biological Anthropology (pp. 153- 166). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Stevens, Matt. (2019, August 9). Joe Biden Says “Poor Kids are Just as Bright as White Kids”. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/09/us/politics/joe-biden-poor-kids.html
United States Census Bureau. (2020). U.S. and World Population Clock. https://www.census.gov/popclock/
United Sates Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2018). 2018 Job Patterns for Minorities and Women in Private Industry (EEO-1). https://www1.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/employment/jobpat-eeo1/2018/index.cfm#select_label