A fair eyed lass!

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Every now and then a bizarre character named Alistair Moffat comes on my radar. I presume he’s famous in Britain, but I don’t know much about him. Except that is he is keen on making the most bizarre pronouncements. A lot of the Debunking Genetic Astrology website is devoted to tackling Moffat’s mischief. There’s an unfortunate aspect here in that Jim Wilson, a scientist who I respect, seems to have gotten involved with Moffat’s ventures. If you don’t follow the scientific literature you wouldn’t know that Wilson is a respected scholar after listening to Moffat’s garbling of his science. In any case the latest Moffat gem is pretty amusing. The British tabloids are reporting on a Map of blue-eyed Britain: As scientists suggest colour is more attractive, study shows it is most common in Ireland and Scotland, but least likely in the south. If you click through you’ll see a map, derived from data compiled by Moffat’s firm. They report that in Ireland and in Scotland the frequency of blue eyes is on the order of 50 percent or more, while it drops to 35 percent in Cornwall, and 41 percent in East Anglia. The always factually innocent Moffat declares “…he was surprised at the findings. He told The Times: ‘A lot of people think blue eyes are much rarer than they are.’” I don’t know. Perhaps Moffat spends a lot of time in East London in the Tower Hamlets, because the little time I’ve spent in England didn’t suggest to me the British were a dark eyed folk, at least compared to Italians. Mind you, that doesn’t compare to the time in Tampere, Finland, where I counted to 30 before I saw someone with brown eyes step off a boat. The range in frequency is actually somewhat smaller than I would have expected (note that “not blue” does not mean brown, as many of the rest would have green or hazel eyes). It seems what Moffat’s firm is doing here is just repeating the sort of anthropometric observations which were reported by John Beddoe, most famously in his index of negrescence. Beddoe found that darker hair predominated among the people of the Celtic Fringe, and linked it to various theories of the inferiority of these aboriginal peoples.

I actually think attempts to map and catalog phenotypic variation are interesting and worthwhile. It just bothers me when people turn it into a veritable carny-show. Here’s what I mean:

He [Moffat] said the colour may be more dominant because it is regarded as attractive, adding: ‘It may be that blue eyes are like the peacock’s tail. It doesn’t confer any evolutionary advantage … except that it gets him more mates.’

Blue-eyed Hollywood stars Angelina Jolie, Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, Kate Winslet and Paul Newman all support the theory that blue eyes add to a person’s sexual appeal.

Mr Moffat added: ‘All of them have inherited their eye colour …  through their DNA, and because of the way that blue eyes deal with light, they also appear to have inherited a natural sparkle.

The idea that light eyes rose in frequency because of sexual attractiveness has scholarly support (e.g., Peter Frost). But this is a very frontier zone of science, and not everyone believes that this is the most likely explanation (I myself would put my money on it being a side effect of selection for something else, but my confidence is low). It shouldn’t be that hard to judge whether blue eyed individuals have more sexual partners, or are more fertile, than their co-ethnics. Eye color segregates within families, and as suggested in the article we know where most of the genomic variation is resident (in the HERC2-OCA2 region). If it was strongly correlated with fertility I presume it would have showed up in GWAS earlier.

All I can say is that in the interests of his personal gain Moffat is making a potential area of scientific inquiry as to the genetics of the British peoples into a farce.

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