Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Blondes and Dialects: Parallels in Evolution

jaferr's picture

The concept of evolution is one that is most often associated with biology.  When I hear the word "evolution," I cannot help but think of Darwin's name and those progressive drawings of monkeys slowly beginning to walk upright before finally ending up as modern humans.  However, the concept of evolution is much more complicated than that.  Within the field of biology, it applies to more subtle changes than the gradual transformation from a monkey to a human, including changes that we are not even able to see.  Outside of its biological context, evolution can apply to a wide variety of subjects, from art to architecture to literature to one's own personality.  As a result, we live in a world that is constantly evolving.  Our societies, cultures, personalities, languages, and physical selves are all encompassed by evolution, and even mimic what we think of as "traditional," biological evolution.  As a student of biology and Italian literature, I have had the unique opportunity to see the parallels between human evolution and the evolution of the Italian language and literature.  The patterns that are evident in the biological evolution of humans are, upon closer inspection, mirrored in the evolution of human culture, specifically in the evolution of the Italian language.  The idea that the evolutionary pattern of a non-living thing would mimic that of a biological organism is an unusual and surprising one, but it is one that can easily be seen nonetheless.

The scientific community is currently divided on the subject of human evolution.  Some biologists, such as Steve Jones, claim that humans are no longer evolving in a biological sense (Belluz), while others claim that human evolution is actually occurring more frequently and more rapidly than ever before (Holzman).  However, those who argue that humans are no longer evolving rely largely on phenotypic evidence (Belluz).  Because of the way that human genetics work, one may carry genes that do not have any physical effect on the way that person appears or on the way that his or her body functions.  Because of the dominance of certain genes over other recessive genes, a person can have a recessive gene for a certain physical trait, such as light eyes or red hair, but he or she will not exhibit that physical trait if he or she also has a copy of a dominant gene, in this case the genes for dark eyes or dark hair.  Someone who physically exhibits a dominant trait like dark eyes has a dominant phenotype.  However, their genotype or actual genetic makeup may consist of two copies of the dominant gene (one from each parent) or one dominant gene and one recessive gene, with both combinations resulting in the dominant phenotype.  When someone exhibits the phenotype of the recessive trait, light eyes, we know that their genotype must consist of two copies of the recessive gene, because otherwise the dominant gene would essentially cancel out the recessive gene in his or her phenotype.

Through this understanding of the difference between one's phenotype and one's genotype, we can see the fatal flaw in the argument that human evolution is no longer occurring.  Steve Jones specifically argues that because technology has made travel so quick and easy, small, isolated populations of humans essentially no longer exist.  He also argues that for this same reason, human cultures have merged and been globalized to such a degree that cultural differences are no longer a significant factor in keeping humans from different population groups from reproducing with each other.  Jones states, "World wide, all populations are becoming connected and the opportunity for random change is dwindling. History is made in bed, but nowadays the beds are getting closer together. We are mixing into a global mass, and the future is brown," (Belluz).  However, Jones' argument that human evolution is no longer occurring only concerns evolution in a phenotypic context.  His statement that "the future is brown" betrays this flaw in his argument.  It is true that when people with recessive traits reproduce with those who exhibit dominant traits, the resulting offspring will most likely have dominant phenotypes.  However, those offspring will also carry the recessive traits that they inherited from their parent that exhibits recessive traits, and if two people with dominant phenotypes who both carry recessive genes reproduce, there is still a significant possibility that their offspring will have a recessive phenotype (Annals).  In fact, it is because modern humans are so connected and largely do not live in isolated populations that these recessive genes will never be completely lost from the human gene pool (Holzman).  Therefore, the potential for recessive phenotypes will always exist.

Additionally, This potential disproves the popular myth that blondes and redheads will soon be extinct (Dobson).  In order for a trait to go completely extinct, that trait would have to be selectively bred against, with people specifically avoiding reproducing with anyone who may carry that specific recessive trait, such as the trait for blonde hair, until only one person who carries that trait is left on the planet, and he or she dies without reproducing.  Obviously, this scenario is incredibly unlikely.  Because a person who carries a recessive trait but has a dominant phenotype cannot be identified by any means short of an actual genetic test, it is incredibly unlikely that people carrying a recessive gene will be reproductively selected against in the near future.  In fact, the history of biological evolution is full of periods of divergence, such as the Cambrian explosion, and convergence, such as the proliferation of mammals after the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.  Even Steve Jones' assertion that human evolution is over gives evidence for the continuation of evolution.  If "the future is brown" (Belluz), then human beings as a population are evolving towards homogeneity, but that does not change the fact that we are still evolving.  The examples that we see in the media of this extinction myth are usually in regard to the future of natural blondes.  However, even though we may evolve towards a population where natural blondes become scarce, we can only speculate as to what will happen after that, as well as how blondes evolved in the first place.

Currently, the most popular theory in the scientific community is that blondes evolved in northern Europe as a result of selective pressure.  In this scenario, prehistoric men would go on long hunting trips, and the communities that were left behind were largely women who would maintain shelter and raise the children.  Retreating glaciers in northern Europe left a landscape and ecological system in which humans were largely dependant on hunting for food, because much of the plant life was not edible.  This is contrasted with the living conditions in Africa, where the climate allowed many edible fruits to grow, resulting in a population where men and women were both able to collect fruit for themselves.  It is believed that approximately 11,000 years ago, changing weather conditions in Europe led to food shortages.  These food shortages combined with the high death rate on hunting trips would have led to a significantly decreased population of men.  Scientists speculate that because there were so few men in comparison to the numbers of women, a mutation occurred in women which gave them light hair and light eyes.  This made these women stand out and they were chosen over dark-haired, dark-eyed women for reproduction, leading to reproductive success and the proliferation of light-eyed blondes in northern Europe (Dobson).  Of course, this theory of a reproductive preference for blonde women cannot be proven; modern biological science can only provide an approximate date for the first appearance of the proliferation of the recessive, blonde mutation.  Regardless of the reasons why, the fact remains that around that time period, lighter hair and eye colors evolved and spread throughout northern Europe.  However, we can speculate as to the origins of the blonde mutation, and we can speculate as to its future.

In the same vein as this theory, one could speculate that as blondes become more rare in the future due to Steve Jones' theory of the human species' future homogenization, those who exhibit blonde hair, light eyes, and other recessive phenotypes will once again experience the same drastic increase in reproductive success.  Thus, the human population would once again diversify itself through evolution.
Similarly, modern Italian has experienced a pattern of convergence and divergence in the past centuries.  Italy has a long history of colonization by foreign powers, and between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the unification of Italy in 1861, it existed as separate states and colonies.  The colonies used the colonial language as their official language, and the independent states such as the Vatican often used Latin.  Local vernaculars existed, but because they were not the official language, grammar and structure were not officially established within the vernacular.  These vernaculars, often mistakenly referred to as dialects of Italian, were called the lingua volgare (or, vulgar language) because of their derivation from spoken Latin (Maiden).  It was not until sometime between 1308 and his death in 1321 when Dante Alighieri wrote the Divina Commedia in the Florentine vernacular that a vernacular was used for a written text.  Through it's popularity and accessibility to those who spoke only the vernacular and could not read or write in Latin, the Divina Commedia popularized the Florentine dialect throughout Italy (Lepschy).

Although Dante was the first known writer to publish a text in one of the vulgar languages and his singular work has since become and remained pervasive and omnipresent in Italian culture and education, the Divina Commedia did not revolutionize the Italian language on its own.  In 1801, the epistolary novel by Ugo Foscolo, Le Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis, was published.  Ugo Foscolo, in the tradition of The Sorrows of Young Werther, wrote Le Ultime Lettere in a loosely autobiographical form.  Additionally, Foscolo wrote his novel in a more modern version of Dante's Florentine dialect.  The popularity of translations of The Sorrows of Young Werther in Italy at the time in addition to the popularity of the epistolary novel in general contributed to the wide distribution of Foscolo's novel.  The subject matter of Le Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis also contributed to the evolution of the Italian language.  The story follows Jacopo Ortis, the main character, as he leaves Venice to escape persecution under Austrian rule.  At this point in Italian history, members of the Italian middle class had begun to involve the general public in a movement to end colonial rule in Italy and unite the Italian states.  Foscolo understood the importance of a national language, and chose to write his novel in the same dialect that Dante Alighieri had used several centuries earlier in an effort to create a common Italian language (Lepschy).

Approximately three decades later, Alessandro Manzoni published the first edition of his novel I Promessi Sposi.  Although Manzoni was a member of the aristocratic upper class and a native of Milan, he crafted his masterwork in the spoken Florentine dialect.  Unlike Foscolo, however, Manzoni did not simply take the language and write in it in its then-current state; he instead spent twenty years learning, modifying, and crafting the language that he intended to become a common Italian language, understood and spoken by the entirety of Italy.  Alessandro Manzoni's mother tongues were French and the Milanese dialect, but because of the popularity of Dante's Divina Commedia and other works written in the Florentine dialect, he chose to learn and write in the same dialect, with some modifications.  Manzoni studied other dialects and incorporated their grammatical structures and vocabulary in his novel in order to make it more widely understood.  The purpose of I Promessi Sposi was and is clear: set in Milan in the seventeenth century when Milan was under Spanish rule, the oppressive, ruling Spaniards are a clear metaphor for the Austrians who ruled Milan during Manzoni's lifetime in the nineteenth century.  In fact, Manzoni intended the novel to be a "call to arms" of sorts for the general public to rise up against colonial rule and become one, independent country.  Manzoni himself later wrote about the importance of a shared language for the unification of any group of people, and believed that it was his responsibility as someone who was fortunate enough to read and write multiple languages to help create and promote this language that Dante and Foscolo had begun to craft before him (Lepschy).

After the unification of Italy in 1861, dialects still persisted and many official documents continued to be written and published in Latin.  Many educated Italians spoke and understood the common Italian language, but only used it to be understood by Italians from other states.  Otherwise, Italians spoke dialects to one another and their families, and common Italian remained a language that was spoken at school rather than at home.  It was not until the introduction of the television and the industrialization of northern Italy that a common language became absolutely necessary.  Because the different dialects evolved within their respective states over many centuries, they were not mutually understandable.  Italians from neighboring states who only spoke dialects could be understood by one another, but two Italians from opposite ends of the country essentially spoke different languages.  For example, a speaker of the Milanese dialect and a speaker of the Neapolitan dialect would have an incredibly difficult time trying to understand one another.  However, as workers from the largely agricultural south moved to the industrialized north, understanding of a common Italian in order to communicate was needed.  Because of this immigration, dialects in the north of Italy have since almost entirely disappeared.  In the south, where there was only emigration and essentially no immigration, dialects are still spoken in everyday life and common Italian is a language that is used mostly in school.  Television and radio broadcasts as well as official documents and popular literature are all in the common Italian language, however, and those in southern Italy who only speak in dialects are largely from the generation born before World War II (Maiden).

As a result of the disappearance of dialects in the north and the largely northern structure of common Italian, as well as concern raised by linguists, dialects in Italy are experiencing a resurgence in popularity and usage.  Many schools in northern Italy now teach students the local dialect as well as common Italian, and novels written in dialects that are not as closely related to the Florentine dialect that spawned common Italian language (Maiden).  Andrea Camilleri, a Sicilian author, has experienced great success with his murder-mystery series that follows the cases of a fictional detective, Montalbano.  Both his novels and the extremely popular film adaptations include large amounts of the Sicilian dialect, to the extent that the films are often shown in northern Italy with subtitles in common Italian.  However, through the popularity of his novels, Camilleri has helped to diversify the Italian vocabulary and erase some of the stigma associated with the southern Italian dialects (Lepschy).

Just like the predicted fate of the recessive, blonde mutation in humans, Italian language and dialects have experienced a proliferation, convergence, and a possible future divergence and proliferation.  Although one would not expect to find such clear parallels between an aspect of biological evolution and the evolution of a country's literature and language, the patterns that both of these evolutions follow are remarkably similar.  Throughout the course of this semester, the students of The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories have been asked to look for similarities between fields and topics that are generally considered to be incompatible with one another, or complete opposites.  Instead, we have found that culture, art, language, literature, and science are in fact much more related and hopelessly intertwined than many of us thought.  In American culture, and very likely in most modern societies, the humanities and sciences are considered to be completely separate entities that are impossible to mix.

Through this side-by-side comparison of both of my fields of study, I feel even more comfortable than before with my unusual choice of majors.  Whenever I first tell someone that I am studying both biology and Italian, the reaction is almost always one of surprise and disbelief.  I believe that this surprise comes from a common misconception that a person is good at and understands either the humanities or the sciences, but never both.  However, I have always believed that an education in both fields is important, and through a study of the relationships between humanities and sciences, we can see that so many of the things we as a society believe to be incompatible and irreparably different are actually incredibly similar and much more related than we often consider them to be.

Annals of Human Genetics, The. Vol. 20, pp. 327, 1955-56.

Belluz, Julia. "Leading Geneticist Steve Jones Says Human Evolution is Over," The Times. 7 Oct. 2008.

Dobson, Roger, and Abdul Taher. "Cavegirls Were the First Blondes to Have Fun," The Times. 26 Feb. 2006.

Holzman, David. "Modern Times Causing Human Evolution to Accelerate," New Scientist. Iss. 2634, 14 Dec. 2007.

Lepschy, G. Mother Tongues and Other Reflections on the Italian Language. University of Toronto Press, 2002.

Maiden, Martin, and Mair Parry. The Dialects of Italy. London, 1997.