Maybe She’s Born with It: Genetic Versus Acquired Behaviors

Last week, we talked about the evolution of color perception.

Why were traditional societies without the color “blue” in their vocabulary? Was it due to their culture? Or their genetics?

That’s exactly what researchers Paul Kay and Brent Berlin set out to investigate.

Inferiority

As discussed in our last post, the scientific community previously assumed that the so-called genetic inferiority of “primitive” societies resulted in a lack of color perception – and thus a lack of color language.

It was only in 1969 that Kay and Berlin took a deeper look.

In researching the languages of twenty ethnic groups, they collected the groups’ color descriptions, using twenty different color chips. In this way, they systematically compared these groups’ color vocabulary.

Their Findings

Primary colors were identified across nearly every culture, which suggests that color language is unrelated to retina development or genetics.

Evolutionary research also confirms that the eyes of Hebrews and ancient Greeks possessed the same color vision as they do today.

What Does This Mean?

This means that color language is a cultural norm; there is no difference in our genetics, our vision or our perceived color spectrum.

The difference is only in the language. And while some cultures differentiate distinct separations between certain colors, others don’t.

One example: Blue

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Take a look at this color spectrum.

In the Russian language, what English speakers call “light blue” qualifies as a different color from “dark blue.”

“Goluboy” and “siniy” in Russian, respectively.

Both light and dark blue are the same color in English, just two different shades of that color.

In fact, Russians may be more on point than the Brits on this differentiation. The wavelengths of light and dark blue differ as much as light blue and green.

So, equating dark and light blue makes as much physiological sense as calling light blue green and vice versa.

Now, consider early Russian scientists or linguists studying the English language.

The absence of vocabulary between what they saw as two distinct colors – goluboy and siniy -would certainly have made the English language – and, therefore, the British – seem primitive and uncivilized.

The Russians may have viewed their lacking color vocabulary as a lack of color perception and, therefore, genetic inferiority.

Civilized/Uncivilized

So, does color vocabulary (and the assumed “color perception” that accompanies it) make one culture more civilized than the other?

Of course not.

Whether your language lumps light and dark blue together or it differentiates between the two – or whether you have the color “blue” in your language at all – no color vocabulary is inferior to the other.

We’ll talk more about this next week.

Coloring the World: The Evolution of Color Perception

What colors do you see here?

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What about here?

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Here?

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Here?

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It might surprise you to know that in Homer’s famed works, The Iliad and The Odyssey, he described the sea as wine-dark.

He described sheep’s wool as violet.

And the color of honey? Green.

All of this seems to imply that either the world’s color palette has changed…or, more likely, the human perception of color has.

Old Testament Eyesight

We assume that our world has and will always appear visually the same to everyone. In fact, that is not the case at all.

Guy Deutscher explains in his book, Looking Through the Language Glass, why the world looks different in other languages. 

Deutscher highlights philologist Lazarus Geiger’s 1867 discovery of strange color descriptions in old text.

Along with Homer’s descriptions, listed above, the Old Testament also describes faces that turn green with panic, red horses, and dove feathers in green gold.

These color descriptors are unusual today, and that may not be due to artistic license; rather, the evolution of eyesight may be at play here.

Evolution of Eyesight

Color perception and evolution walk hand-in-hand, according to one of the first research theories into what links the two.

As color perception became more important in developed civilizations (like the ancient Greeks), the human eye’s color sensitivity enhanced across generations.

Take blue, for example.

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The color blue was absent in early text (see the wine-colored sea above). Yet, the color red was everywhere, as distinguishing red was paramount to survival.

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Why?

Red=blood = danger.

Red appears in most old languages and has long appeared in garment dyes. Blue, on the other hand, has always been rare in nature and difficult to manufacture, thus our unnecessary sensitivity to it and its description.

Absence of Color

“The more delicate cones of the retina, which impart the higher color-sense, have probably developed gradually only during the last millennia.”

– biologist Ernst Haeckel, 1878

Darwin’s co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, agreed with Haeckel. He said in 1877 that our “perception and appreciation of color” was a recent acquisition.

When researching language of color in traditional cultures – like that of the Klamath Indians in Oregon and the Nubians in Africa – scientists found similar color descriptors used as in old scriptural languages.

At the time, many in the scientific community assumed this similarity in language between old scriptural color descriptions and those used by what they called “primitive societies” was due to the assumed physical and intellectual inferiority of these groups (a popular belief at the time).

But they would soon discover they were very wrong to assume. Tune in next week to find out why.