Peter Frost

Ph.D., Université Laval (1995)

Salut ! I graduated from Université Laval in 1995 with a Ph.D. in anthropology. Since then, my academic affiliation has been limited to contracts for an indigenous people research group, previously named Groupe d'études Inuit et circumpolaires (GÉTIC) and now Centre interuniversitaire d'études et de recherches autochtones (CIERA). Most of my work is translation or revision of academic papers, although one contract required a literature review on Labrador Inuit genetics. Recently, I received an invitation to do research on face perception at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. This project is on hold for now.

My own research has focused on the sex difference in human complexion. In short, women are paler and men ruddier and browner because of differing amounts of hemoglobin and melanin in the skin's outer layers. I am interested in the way we perceive this sexual dimorphism, especially in male/female relations and in the historical development of prejudice against dark skin. This research has attracted some academic interest over the years, largely because of a joint article published with Pierre van den Berghe. Outside academia it has gone unnoticed, aside from one piece in the National Post by journalist Steve Sailer.

This subject has also led me to the puzzle of European pigmentation, i.e., the highly visible facial and body hues that occur almost wholly in Europeans. How can we explain the wide range of hair colors, the equally wide range of eye colors, and the maximum lightening of the skin? These color traits are a puzzle, all the more so because they do not have a single genetic cause. Hair color was diversified by an increasing number of alleles at the MC1R gene and eye color by an increasing number of alleles at another gene, OCA2. Skin color was lightened by allelic changes at still other genes, such as AIM1. Nor do these European color traits share a common function, except that of visibly coloring the body surface, notably the face and its surrounding frame.

Until recently, the main explanation has been that all of these genes, even MC1R and OCA2, have some effect on skin pigmentation and thereby played a role in lightening European skin color. As modern humans left the tropics, selection for dark skin would have relaxed, thus becoming less effective in weeding out any defective alleles. Over time, such alleles would have proliferated at MC1R and OCA2. This is how hair and eye color was thought to have diversified—as a side-effect of weaker selection for dark skin.

Two papers, however, have shown that relaxation of selection needs close to a million years to produce the hair-color and eye-color variability that now exists in Europe. Yet modern humans have been in Europe for only 35,000 years or so. In addition, skin pigmentation does not seem to be reduced by the many possible combinations of MC1R or OCA2 alleles, except for the ones that produce red hair or blue eyes.

What if, instead of relaxation of selection, we postulated positive selection for white skin? (to facilitate synthesis of Vitamin D, for example). This would solve the time problem. But it would not explain the high number of alleles at MC1R and OCA2, certainly not the allelic diversity we see today. There would simply have been selection for one allele at the expense of others, i.e., the one that optimally reduces skin pigmentation. And again, of the many possible permutations of these alleles, only a fraction visibly lighten the skin. So the puzzle remains unsolved.

On this, I've written two articles. The first one was barely noticed, but the second one caught the eye of The Sunday Times (London), which reviewed it under the catchy title "Cavegirls were first blondes to have fun." The story was picked up by papers from Brazil to South Korea, including such Canadian media as The National Post, The Discovery Channel, The Edmonton Journal, The Regina Leader Post, The Brandon Sun, The Toronto Star, The Ottawa Citizen, and The Gazette.

Hope you enjoy this site. Please send me any comments you may have.

Evo and Proud! My anthropology blog. I hope to post a new essay every month.
Fair women, dark men. The forgotten roots of color prejudice The sex difference in complexion and how it influenced the development of racial and ethnic attitudes to skin color
Why do Europeans have so many hair and eye colors? A summary and update of my article in Evolution and Human Behavior
Why are Europeans so white? A discussion of the possible role of sexual selection in shaping skin color and other physical characteristics of European populations
Some of my other publications Articles you may have trouble getting online or at a university library.
My curriculum vitae Includes contact information, research interests, and a list of my publications
Other stuff My writings for the Quebec Writers' Circle, the Quebec Art Company, and Chalmers-Wesley United Church.