Apples, oranges, and genes

Source:  Apples, oranges, and genes    Tag:  eye color genetics chart

Publicly funded misinformation. Source: PBS website

In human genetics, a ‘population’ is a group of individuals who share ancestry and hence genes. This sharing is not absolute. There is always some gene flow from outside, and sometimes “outside” means another species. We humans, for example, have received genes not only from Neanderthals and Denisovans but also from … viruses.

In addition, new gene variants are constantly arising through mutation. Most of them are harmful or useless. But some are useful and will thus spread through the population.

So below the species level, and often even at the species level, population boundaries tend to be fuzzy. Genes vary both between and within populations.

You’ve undoubtedly heard that there is much more genetic variation within human populations than between them, this being true even for the large continental populations we used to call ‘races.’ This was the finding of the geneticist Richard Lewontin (1972), and others have concluded likewise. You’ve probably not heard, however, that the same kind of genetic overlap exists between many sibling species that are nonetheless distinct in anatomy and behavior (Frost, 2011).

How come? First, keep in mind that genes vary a lot in adaptive value. Some are little more than ‘junk DNA.’ Others code for structural proteins that form the building blocks of flesh and blood. Others still are very important because they code for regulatory proteins that control how other genes behave and, hence, the way an organism grows and develops. The last kind of gene accounts for only a tiny fraction of the genome. Most genes have modest effects, or none at all.

Second, keep in mind that different populations occupy different environments and are thus exposed to differences in natural selection. In most species, these differences are due to physical environments that differ in climate, vegetation, and wildlife. Humans also have to adapt to cultural environments that differ in social structure, belief systems, and technology. In either case, when a gene varies between two populations the cause is probably a difference in natural selection, since the population boundary also separates different selection pressures. Conversely, when a gene varies within a population this variation is less likely to have adaptive significance. It hasn’t been flattened out by the steamroller of similar selection pressures.

This is one aspect of “Lewontin’s fallacy.” Within-population variation isn’t comparable to between-population variation. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.

Another aspect of Lewontin’s fallacy is that natural selection within a population exercises a leveling effect only on phenotypes, and not on genotypes. If two gene variants have a similar phenotypic effect, natural selection will take longer to replace one with the other. Sometimes, this sort of diversity will persist indefinitely because epidemics often spare individuals whose surface proteins are somewhat different from those of their neighbors.

Thus, within-population variation tends to consist of different gene variants at different loci whose effects nonetheless point in the same general direction. To some degree, these variants can stand in for each other. If one is absent, another one might do the trick. This is probably why population differences are more sharply defined if several gene loci are compared simultaneously. If we chart how each gene varies geographically and then superimpose these maps on top of each other, the resulting composite map will show population differences in sharper relief (Edwards, 2003; Mitton, 1977; Mitton, 1978; Sesardic, 2010).

This point has been made by Emmanuel Milot, the principal author of the paper I reviewed in my last post. His research team found that the time between marriage and first birth steadily shrank among succeeding generations of French Canadians on Île aux Coudres (Milot et al., 2011). In the land-rich environment of the New World, there was strong selection for married women to get pregnant faster. A genetic difference has thus developed between French Canadians and the French who remained in France.

But this difference is not due to a few genes. As Milot points out, natural selection tends to produce effects at many different genes:

“We should not think that there are genes that code specifically for age at first reproduction. In fact, this type of trait is probably influenced by hundreds, even thousands, of genes. These genes act on other characteristics, like body weight at birth, age at first menstruation, or even personality traits, which impact on age at first birth” (Bourdon, 2011)

This point is important. If two populations differ at one gene, and if the difference is sensitive to natural selection, they probably also differ at many other genes. The same selection pressure that caused one difference has almost certainly caused others. Typically, we see only the tip of the iceberg—a gene variant that produces an obvious effect in affected individuals, such as illness. Most gene variants, however, don’t cause medically recognized illnesses, and their effects also tend to be subtler.


Bourdon, M-C. (2011). L’espèce humaine. Toujours en évolution. UQAM. Entrevues

Edwards, A.W.F. (2003). Human genetic diversity: Lewontin’s fallacy. BioEssays, 25, 798-801.

Frost, P. (2011). Human nature or human natures? Futures, 43, 740-748.

Lewontin, R.C. (1972). The apportionment of human diversity. Evolutionary Biology, 6, 381-398.

Milot, E., F.M. Mayer, D.H. Nussey, M. Boisvert, F. Pelletier, and D. Réale. (2011). Evidence for evolution in response to natural selection in a contemporary human population, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), early view

Mitton, J.B. (1977). Genetic differentiation of races of man as judged by single-locus and multilocus analyses, American Naturalist, 111, 203-212.

Mitton, J.B. (1978). Measurement of differentiation: reply to Lewontin, Powell, and Taylor, American Naturalist, 112, 1142-1144.

Sesardic, N. (2010). Race: a social destruction of a biological concept, Biology and Philosophy, 25(2), 143-162.