Am I Blue?
February 2, 2008 10:49 AM   Subscribe

The allure of blue eyes has long been celebrated. In the Odyssey, Homer gives the goddess Athena "bright blue eyes," and our fascination persists to this day with actors like Brad Pitt and Naomi Watts. Until recently, however, no one could explain the phenomena.

Research focussed on the OCA2 gene, iinvolved in the production of melanin and pigmentation. However, key to blue eyes wasn't on the OCA2 gene but rather on a nearby gene called HERC2, that works like a switch that regulates the behavior of OCA2. Interestingly, the evidence suggests that this mutation is not one that has arisen spontaneously several times, but that all blue-eye people are descendants of a single man.

posted by CheeseDigestsAll (38 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Shit, and I thought I liked Brad Pitt and Naomi Watts because they're fantastic actors.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:53 AM on February 2, 2008

Nitfilter: do you mean "the phenomenon"?
posted by e.e. coli at 10:54 AM on February 2, 2008

e.e. coli: Um, one for each eye? :-) Sorry.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:02 AM on February 2, 2008

For centuries have nerds debated the identity of the bearer of the lamest mutant power EVAR without reaching a clear and irrefutable conclusion.

But now I know, for I am he.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:07 AM on February 2, 2008

I'm no geneticist, but this probably will be debunked in a few years.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:09 AM on February 2, 2008

I can haz double mutashun?
posted by fuse theorem at 11:13 AM on February 2, 2008

Athena has grey eyes, surely?
posted by athenian at 11:15 AM on February 2, 2008

Actually, the Greek phrase translated as "blue-eyed Athena" probably doesn't mean that at all. Perhaps "bright-eyed" without a sense of color, but even that's debated.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 11:17 AM on February 2, 2008

What phenomenon are you saying is being explained here, our supposed fascination with blue eyes or the mere existence of blue eyes? The article is about the second but you seem, to me, to be implying the first.
posted by pracowity at 11:26 AM on February 2, 2008

Nancy Etcoff, in her book The Survival of the Prettiest, quotes research that suggests that people with blue eyes are temperamentally shyer (that is the comparative, isn't it?) than people with dark eyes.
posted by Tarn at 11:32 AM on February 2, 2008

My Greek grandfather was thrilled with my mother's green eyes "like Athena." My guess is that if you have any color of light eyes in Greece, you get to be compared to the goddess.
posted by nax at 11:32 AM on February 2, 2008

fuse theorem: my gf has the same 'mutation'. Two blue eyes, one of them with a puddle of green in half of it. I think it's the coolest thing in the world. She has mentioned Kate Bosworth before, but I had never seen a clear enough picture until that one.
posted by ninjew at 11:38 AM on February 2, 2008

that all blue-eye people are descendants of a single man.

C'mon man. What are the statistical chances of a small group of humans at most producing a blue-eyed mutant and for this event to never again have occurred amongst a population of 6 billion? Want to give me even money it's happened more than once?
posted by three blind mice at 11:45 AM on February 2, 2008

I have the same question that pracowity expressed. I thought I would find out why people are fascinated by blue eyes, based on the wording of the fpp.
posted by Doohickie at 11:46 AM on February 2, 2008

"Green Eyed Athena" - 47 google hits
"Blue Eyed Athena" - 241 google hits
"Gray Eyed Athena" - 1200 google hits
"Grey Eyed Athena" - 2020 google hits

I'd always heard Grey Eyed Athena was a numenic device.

I'd heard having blue eyes went out of style around WWII for obvious reasons, but that's apocryphal.
posted by OrangeDrink at 11:49 AM on February 2, 2008

I like how they write off green eyed people "different gene entirely." Uh...yeah, and what is it?
So Jennifer Connolly could be related to me?
posted by Smedleyman at 12:01 PM on February 2, 2008

Very interesting. So why do some dogs have blue eyes?
posted by Tube at 12:12 PM on February 2, 2008

How cool to find out. Aren't we all related genetically?

Here's a fascinating photograph of a Kenyan child with blue eyes.

Another, similar: Why do I have blue-eyes? I am an African-American. I am 37 now, it's always been a shock to many. I was born with natural blue-eyes. I am not light skinned at all; I am a brown skinned woman. People are amazed that they are blue just like how white people eyes are. I have a 15 year old and he has one total blue-eye, (the right eye) and the other eye is half brown and blue, weird right?


A child from Tamil Nadu with blue eyes.

(Just learned in looking that up, about the Waardenburg syndrome, one person with eyes of different colors.)

Can brown-eyed parents have a blue-eyed baby? Yes.

This is a female Blue-Eyed Black lemur. These lemurs are the only primates other than humans with truly blue eyes. The name comes from their sexual dichomatism in which the males are turn black and the females remain brown.

Looking for images of Naomi Watts eyes, found this comparisons page.

I like the variation among blue eyes and all eyes for that matter.

Had always been curious about this. Among Tibetans my blue eyes and blond hair were considered signs of age, like blue from cataracts/blindness and yellowing white hair. Wasn't attractive to them at all.

Thanks for the post which prompted me to find this stuff out.
posted by nickyskye at 12:19 PM on February 2, 2008 [3 favorites]

Whoa, nickyskye, thanks for the comparisons page. Bill Pullman is Michael Douglas' love child! They look identical! Who knew!
posted by nax at 12:48 PM on February 2, 2008

What I hate, personally, is the advent of the colored contact lens. I have very light blue eyes, almost gray, and people always think I'm wearing colored lenses. There was even a person in college who said he "misjudged me" because he "usually hates people who wear colored contacts." As weird as that prejudice is, it's even weirder to have someone think your eye color is just vanity.
posted by sonic meat machine at 12:52 PM on February 2, 2008

all blue-eye people are descendants of a single man

chuck norris
posted by pyramid termite at 1:08 PM on February 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

Tickled pink you liked that nax. I love quality frivolity.

Wondering about Elizabeth Taylor's "violet eyes" I found these images. Looks like she has some of that Waardenburg syndrome with a patch of hazel, which is called sectoral heterochromia (Wikipedia). There's a central heterochomia as well. Interesting the people noted as having it. Iridology (can imagine the MeFite eyes rolling in skepticism as I type that word, lol). It also seems she has that sanpaku thing, where the white shows under the iris.
posted by nickyskye at 1:08 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was always told that blue eyes were less common than brown eyes, which is true (world population speaking). But there was a moment when I realised that I was the only brown-eyed person among all of my friends and most of my family (except my father and grandmother, who obviously I inherited my eye colour from). Even my partly-Chinese friend had blue eyes!

I felt so left out.

My husband has blue eyes. With my luck, so will all of my children. Well, at least I've still got the Van Morrison song.
posted by jb at 2:31 PM on February 2, 2008

In the Odyssey, Homer gives the goddess Athena "bright blue eyes,"

No he doesn't, he talks about glaukopis Athene, and nobody knows what that means. Wikipedia has a decent discussion:
In poetry from Homer, an oral tradition of the eighth or seventh century BC, onward, Athena's most common epithet is glaukopis (γλαυκώπις), which usually is translated as, bright-eyed or with gleaming eyes. The word is a combination of glaukos (γλαύκος, meaning gleaming, silvery, and later, bluish-green or gray) and ops (ώψ, eye, or sometimes, face). It is interesting to note that glaux (γλαύξ, "owl") is from the same root, presumably because of the bird's own distinctive eyes. The bird which sees well in the night is closely associated with the goddess of wisdom: in archaic images, Athena is frequently depicted with an owl perched on her head.
Also, you could probably have skipped the generic Odyssey link; I think you can take for granted that MetaFilter readers have heard of the Odyssey.
posted by languagehat at 2:33 PM on February 2, 2008

Both my husband and I have green eyes. Our kids have brown, blue, and gray (the latter is still undecided though). Eye color genetics are sneakier than common perception would allow, apparently.

nickyskye, thanks for some good links.
posted by artifarce at 2:38 PM on February 2, 2008

Very interesting. So why do some dogs have blue eyes

Maybe they're related to Rick Santorum.
posted by Neiltupper at 3:11 PM on February 2, 2008

In the Odyssey, Homer gives the goddess Athena "bright blue eyes,"

Interesting. In an episode of QI (transcript), they stated that the ancient Greeks didn't have a word for the colour blue.

And if Stephen Fry says it then, quite frankly, that's good enough for me! :)
posted by kaemaril at 3:13 PM on February 2, 2008

I have central heterochromia, and all this time I had no idea what its name was (Thanks nickyskye!).

{I used to just call the rings around my pupils eye halos.}
posted by ambilevous at 3:16 PM on February 2, 2008

...ancient Greeks didn't have a word for the colour blue.

Early Greeks seem to have distinguishedless by actual color and more by the brilliance of the color. So bright green, blue, gray, etc. could all be put under the same umbrella in Homer. This is why Homer can get away with a phrase like the "wine-dark sea;" he doesn't mean the sea is dark red but that its blue/green intensity/darkness is on the same level as wine.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 3:19 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

My Anglo-Saxonist friend also tells me that Old English did not distinguish between blue and green, but had a colour that expressed "coolness".

But how much of this - in Anglo-Saxon or Greek - is because we are reading primarily poetry from these languages, and not dye-makers inventories?
posted by jb at 3:31 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is why Homer can get away with a phrase like the "wine-dark sea;"

The original expression would be "wine-like sea". I can easily picture the sea resembling white wine.
posted by ersatz at 4:04 PM on February 2, 2008

Oh man, this is interesting now we're talking about the old Greek color-language thing. Fascinating about Greeks using color brilliance rather than hue. I always wondered about that "wine dark sea" phrase. It gave me a visceral meaning but not a logical one.

Cool to learn about the Athena epithet of gleaming eyes connected with the owl's eyes. Reminds me of the word "bright", meaning intelligent in English, having that double aspect, bright light and bright intelligence. Makes me wonder why light and intelligence would be connected like that.

When I started learning Tibetan I was astounded they didn't have or use lots of words for different colors. I wondered if they were partly color blind but then they use intense colors in their rugs, the brilliantly striped sign of being married aprons, pronounced pang-den, and what I especially love, as the lining of the male garment, pronounced choo-bah. They often use a dark men's suiting fabric, charcoal gray for example, on the outside and some spectacularly brilliant and unexpectedly contrasting lining inside, like turquoise. Or contrasting jewelry and brilliant colored silk for the blouse underneath a women's chuba. So I couldn't figure it out.

Tibetans normally use red to also mean dark orange, pink, rust. Black to also mean blue, brown, tan, anything other than white. There's green and yellow but not commonly used and mostly by educated lamas in describing religious images. Forget violet, pink, olive, beige, mauve, scarlet, taupe or any of the subtle color variations. Those colors are used not only in dye maker inventories but by also people making or buying clothing, jewelry, weaving, painting, writing poetry, telling stories. So how could they talk about those things without names for the variations of color?

I couldn't figure this weird cultural thing about limited names for color. Maybe at such a high altitude, with no trees and lower level foliage, they only observe the wonderfully subtle hues of herbal turf?

At least now I see that another ancient culture, the amazingly poetic Greeks, who obviously loved language and nuance, lived at sea level, also had only a few words for color. This is fascinating. I wonder if anyone has done a study on this?
posted by nickyskye at 4:44 PM on February 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is pretty darned interesting. My green and orange eyes (yeah, really) have a very dark ring around the iris. I never gave it any thought before, but is there a name for that?
posted by puddinghead at 5:47 PM on February 2, 2008


The book Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters mentioned the first theory I've ever seen for why blue eyes could be evolutionarily preferable -- because it enables the blue-eyed-one's partner to see dilation of the pupils more easily, as a sign of lying, attraction, etc.
posted by stephthegeek at 6:02 PM on February 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

puddinghead, Ring around the iris:

The iris contains pigment granules. Density of granules is a determinant of eye color. Some people have especially dense concentrations of granules towards the periphery of the iris. This causes the dark iris "ring"

Corneal limbus. Image. Corneal arcus related to high colesterol; corneal arcus; Cholesterol, white.

Scurf Rim (iridology).

Eye color can change with age or health related issues.

Kaiser fleischer ring, greenish yellow.
posted by nickyskye at 10:49 PM on February 2, 2008

Also, you could probably have skipped the generic Odyssey link; I think you can take for granted that MetaFilter readers have heard of the Odyssey.

Just in case they didn't understand the rest of that.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:10 AM on February 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

nickyskye - some interesting links there. I have slight heterochromia caused either by a congenital eye condition (I have pigmentary dispersion syndrome in one eye) or possibly by the medication for it (both eyes dark brown but one distinctly lighter than the other). My great-grandmother had one blue eye and one brown, and my mother has sectoral heterochromia. Interestingly, my half sister who I share a father with also has sectoral heterochromia.
posted by kumonoi at 1:40 PM on February 3, 2008

"all blue-eye people are descendants of a single man"

chuck norris Charles Bronson
posted by ZachsMind at 9:01 PM on February 5, 2008

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