Thursday, November 4, 2010

Chinese atavists

At the request of my friend James Taylor, I have done my best to confirm the existence of the "Monkey Man" of China (1st image) discussed on Random Citations and The Blog of Pure Awesome. In the process, I learned the definition of the word "atavism" and identified 2 other Chinese examples. Biological (as opposed to cultural) atavism is the reappearance of ancient traits in a modern individual. In humans, these evolutionary throwbacks may include vestigial tails, large canine teeth, supernumerary nipples, and extra - or webbed - fingers and toes. "Whichever human conditions turn out to be atavisms - and we won't know for sure until the genetics of each of them is unravelled - it's apparent that they are far more common than biologists once believed. They are lurking within all our genomes, ready to emerge if anything goes awry during development. And in some cases, far from being a backward step, they prove to be advantageous and can spread through a species, driving evolution forward by making it go backwards. If humans ever have to return to the trees, our long-lost tails may be returning with us," writes scientist Michael Le Page. While he notes that hypertrichosis does not qualify as atavistic, since apes' faces are more or less bald, hairiness is often pointed to in the press as an ancestral trait. This is how Yu Zhenhuan (3rd image) of Shenyang, Liaoning Province - the "hairiest man in China" whose hair covers all but the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet - is described. But atavism is more appropriately attributed to 4-year-old Jiaxue (2nd image, coincidentally taken exactly 4 years ago) of Changchun, Jilin Province, China, who was born with hairy black moles covering parts of her back, chest, neck, and face.

"Monkey Man" Chen Conghua, of Chenzhou, Hunan Province, China, grew up in a poor rural village with a father who has psychological issues and a mother and brother who have developmental disabilities. Doctors were not aware of Chen's existence until 2007, when they transported him 8 hours to the provincial hospital. Then age 30, he measured 1.1m tall, weighed less than 20kg, and was unable to stand upright or walk. At that time, they had not come to a consensus about his condition, except that his deformed face has atavistic characteristics. This and his need to walk using his hands prompted the villagers' nickname.

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