Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Nigerian parents and their blonde, blue-eyed baby

The story: 

A black, Nigerian couple are shocked and thrilled to be the parents of a blonde, blue-eyed baby called Nmachi . I know what you’re thinking – she’s probably albino. Wrong. Doctors at Queen Mary's Hospital in Sidcup have told the parents Nmachi is definitely no albino. Blue-eyed blonde Nmachi, whose name means "Beauty of God" in the Nigerian couple's homeland, has baffled genetics experts because neither husband Ben nor wife Angela have ANY mixed-race family history. “It’s a classic mix-up or the ol’ switcharoo” you say? Nicht. The parents were fully conscious when witnessing the birth which was delivered in a caesarean op. “Maybe she was unfaithful” you ask? Perhaps, but highly unlikely. They seem to be a loving couple and husband Ben said, "Of course she's (Nmachi’s) mine." 

Professor Bryan Sykes, head of Human Genetics at Oxford University and Britain's leading expert, yesterday called the birth "extraordinary". He said: "In mixed race humans, the lighter variant of skin tone may come out in a child - and this can sometimes be startlingly different to the skin of the parents. "This might be the case where there is a lot of genetic mixing, as in Afro-Caribbean populations. But in Nigeria there is little mixing." Prof Sykes said BOTH parents would have needed "some form of white ancestry" for a pale version of their genes to be passed on. But he added: "The hair is extremely unusual. Even many blonde children don't have blonde hair like this at birth."
Professor Sykes thinks it is the result of a genetic mutation, the mechanics of which we don’t yet fully understand. He thinks that it is the result of mutation that are involved in controlling melanin production in skin and eyes. He concluded that even if there had been convergence of a pale version of the parents' genes, there would have to be some form of white ancestry on both sides for the baby to look this way. 

A big problem for me with Professor Sykes’ explanation is that it ignores the couple’s statements that they have no mixed-race ancestry. Also, if he didn’t fully understand the mechanics of the mutation, why did he assume that mixed-race ancestry has to be present for the mutation to work like it did? I think there are other possibilities.  Homo sapiens appear to have occupied all of Africa about 150,000 years ago, moved out of Africa 70,000 years ago, and had spread across Australia, Asia and Europe by 40,000 years BC. Migration to the Americas took place 20,000 to 15,000 years ago, and by 2,000 years ago, most of the Pacific Islands were colonized. Therefore, all humans had extremely similar genetic material when some humans decided to migrate out of Africa. Anthropological and genetic studies tell us that most of the genetic alleles seen around the world are also seen in Africa today. I think that both parents had the allele for decreased melanin production, as seen in fair-skinned people. I am not discounting Professor Sykes’ quite reasonable explanation; rather I wanted to add other ideas to consider.

The cloudy, if not already non-existent line between race and biology has effectively collapsed. Nmechi’s mother Angela said, "She's beautiful and I love her. Her colour doesn't matter. She's a miracle baby. 
"But still, what on earth happened here?"