Monday, April 12, 2021

Noah's eyes

Blue irises and white sclerae

This is from Mauricio Berger's Sealed Book of Mormon (Sealed Moses 4:3). Little things like this have a way of capturing my imagination.

And Lamech lived a hundred and eighty-two years, and begat a son, and named him Noah . . . and when he saw the newborn child, he perceived that his eyes were different, and he was afraid that Noah would be the son of a watcher, but the Spirit of the Lord rested on Lamech, comforting his heart by making him know that he was not a descendant of the watchers, but it was the beginning of a new human progeny.

In context, watcher refers to angels that were mating with human women, as recounted in the Book of Enoch and alluded to in Genesis 6. Noah's eyes were sufficiently "different" that his father, Lamech, feared he might not be fully human -- but of course all humans alive today are supposed to be the descendants of Noah, so "Noachian" eyes -- eyes of a type like those of the watchers, but unknown among antediluvian humans -- must be commonplace, perhaps even universal, among modern humans.

My first thought was that Noah must have had white sclerae. This trait is now so universal among humans that the sclera is commonly called the "white of the eye" -- but our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, have black sclerae (darker than the iris), and so our distant ancestors may well have had all-dark eyes as well. Interestingly, bonobos have sclerae which, while not as white as our own, are lighter than the iris. Among gorillas and orangutans, sclera color varies from individual to individual, much like iris color in some human populations, and may be either lighter or darker than the iris.

Another obvious possibility is that Noah had "blue eyes" -- meaning blue irises. When we think of "eye color," we think of the iris, taking it for granted that the sclera is always white. Among monkeys and apes generally, though, it is sclera color that is variable, while irises are almost universally brown. I am open to correction by any primatologists among my readers, but I believe it is correct to say that (excluding albinos from consideration) no other monkey or ape has blue eyes; certain lemurs are our closest blue-eyed relatives, and blue eyes in lemurs are genetically different from those in humans and apparently evolved independently. It seems quite likely, then, that early humans were all brown-eyed, and that blue eyes appeared later.

If we are all descended from blue-eyed Noah, though, why do so few of us (8 to 10%) have blue eyes? Well, Noah was apparently a mutant, so we can assume that neither his wife nor any of his three daughters-in-law had any blue-eye genes. Since blue eyes are recessive, all of his children and grandchildren would have been brown-eyed. His great-grandchildren (assuming they were the product of cousin-marriages among his grandchildren) would have been 6.25% blue-eyed -- reasonably close to the modern percentage.

Thus far I have been trying to guess the nature of "Noachian" eyes by thinking of ways (some) human eyes differ from those of our nearest relatives, but we are also told that Noah's eyes were like those of a watcher. Are there any hints in old books as to what the watchers' eyes looked like? Nothing in the Bible or Book of Enoch comes to mind, but aren't the Greek gods -- heavenly beings that came down, mated with human women, and begat the "mighty men which are of old" -- likely the same beings as the watchers? And we know from Homer that Athena, at least, had distinctive eyes. Her stock epithet is γλαυκῶπις -- which could be calling her eyes either "bright, gleaming" or "blue-green, blue-gray." I do not believe Homer gives any of his human characters eyes of this sort. Athena's epithet leads us back to the two possibilities I have already discussed: Athena's eyes may have been blue or gray, or they may have been unusually "bright" because her sclerae were white rather than black.

Why bother writing a post like this, about what Noah's eyes might have been like if a certain obviously bogus book were actually true? Because -- and I am quite confident in saying this -- if I don't, no one else will!


Bruce Charlton said...

No conclusions to offer - but to add to the mix:

I used to teach that genetic studies indicated that all blue eyes probably came from a single male mutation in Sweden or thereabouts as suggested by this map:

I and my brother have blue eyes, which come from my Father's side (Charlton, Northumbrian) and I live in one of the highest blue-eye prevalence places in the world.

Why it was selected (if it was) may be - along with pale skin, which may be because of pale skin giving greater vitamin D production in places where there is little sunlight.

But with colour, we get into the realms of consciousness; since colour depends on an interaction between perception and interpretation. Relevantly, quite a few people believe that the Ancient Greeks could not/ did not see blue as we do - eg 'the wine dark sea' in Homer is supposed to mean that the colour of (Greek) wine (that we would see as red or even purple) and the sea were seen as the same colour.

There isn't anything in Homer comparing eye colour with wine, is there?

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

"blue eyes probably came from a single male mutation in Sweden or thereabouts"

The tallest people in Europe are in Scandinavia, Germany, and the Balkans -- also places where blue eyes are common. This reinforces the connection between blue eyes and the "giant" offspring of the watchers.

"There isn't anything in Homer comparing eye colour with wine, is there?"

Just possibly. Hera's stock epithet is βοῶπις, "ox-eyed." One naturally assumes this is similar to our "doe-eyed" -- indicating large, dark, gentle eyes (perhaps with prominent lashes like a cow) -- but could it be a color reference? Elsewhere, Homer describes oxen, like the sea, as "wine-dark." One also notes that oxen, unlike many mammals, have white sclerae.

HomeStadter said...

Lot of interesting stuff about blue eyes:

No Longer Reading said...

I don't have anything to add, but found this to be a very interesting post.

Ixnay on the <i>No sé</i>

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