Over Christmas I sat down to watch The Royal Institute Christmas Lecture – as I do every year. This year it was presented by biological anthropologist, author and TV presenter Alice Roberts, and geneticist Aoife McLysaght. The subject was “Who Am I?” and the lectures took a look at how our genes make us the individuals we are. It is amazing how close we are to each other; we share 99.4% of our genes with our human neighbours, 98.7% with a chimp and even 44% with a fruit fly and yet we are also entirely unique individuals – there is nobody else quite like me or you.
It was lecture two which really caught my attention because it looked at our evolution from early two-legged hominins to modern humans – revealing how a humble African ape became a successful global species. Alice and Aoife uncovered the story of our journey out of Africa as we spread across the globe, and asked what sets us apart from the other, now extinct, hominin species. Reading between the lines, I think the answer they came up with was that our thumbs worked better than many other ape-like creatures and so we were more adaptable.
We have a great deal to thank our thumbs for!
The thing that really caught my attention, however, was a tiny section about earlobes. Amongst the millions of genes in our DNA sequence is one – or so they thought for years – which decides if we have a large earlobe – like I do – or no earlobe at all – like Chimpton. This was fascinating stuff and something which Chimpton and I have deliberated on over the years. They did a study when Chimpton was in school and found that she was the only one who didn’t have an earlobe at all.
The myth is that earlobes can be divided into two clear categories, free and attached, and that a single gene controls this trait, with free earlobes being dominant. Neither part of the myth is true. Earlobes range from large (like mine) to non-existent (like Chimpton’s) but cover many size variants in between. This continuous range from one extreme to the other, suggests the influence of several genes. In fact, more recent studies maintain that whether your earlobes remain attached to your skin or hang beside your neck is the result of 49 separate genes.
Since the earlobe does not contain cartilage, it has a large blood supply and may help to warm the ears and maintain balance. Personally, I agree with this wholeheartedly because I am always warm while Chimpton is always freezing bloody cold and is always complaining of feeling dizzy. However, earlobes are not generally considered to have any major biological function. The zoologist Desmond Morris in his book The Naked Ape (1967) conjectured that the lobes developed as an additional erogenous zone to facilitate the extended sexuality necessary in the evolution of human monogamous pair bonding.
Some internet research we undertook, maintains that eyes and not ears are a dead giveaway as to whether you are trustworthy or not, especially if your eyes are too close together. However, there is also a saying that you should never trust a person without earlobes. Over time, this condition goes onto affect their mental state and in the end they try using a marker pen or Biro to give their ears some definition. When this fails, they begin lying to everyone they know, and eventually become estate agents. This only goes to show you can never entirely trust the internet!
So why is this so important to Chimpton and I and why am I posting about it on Jammy Toast?
Well, as many of you know, I have always maintained that I adopted Chimpton from a boat down at Birkenhead Docks in the late 1970s and that she was a Vietnamese Boat Child fleeing the Vietnam War. I paid the captain of the boat she came over on £2.50 as an adoption fee. No one believes me, in fact many people laugh at this version of events. So I have always searched for proof but come up empty handed.
Now, however, we have some concrete evidence because the incidence of no earlobes in British nationals is 0.48% – a very small number you will agree. However, in Vietnam, this number nearly doubles to 0.87%.
Could this mean that Chimpton is a British mutant or simply Vietnamese?
Maybe not the definitive proof for which I search but surely…
What can’t talk, can’t lie!