Article

Morphological and population genomic evidence that human faces have evolved to signal individual identity

  • Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4800 (2014)
  • doi:10.1038/ncomms5800
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Abstract

Facial recognition plays a key role in human interactions, and there has been great interest in understanding the evolution of human abilities for individual recognition and tracking social relationships. Individual recognition requires sufficient cognitive abilities and phenotypic diversity within a population for discrimination to be possible. Despite the importance of facial recognition in humans, the evolution of facial identity has received little attention. Here we demonstrate that faces evolved to signal individual identity under negative frequency-dependent selection. Faces show elevated phenotypic variation and lower between-trait correlations compared with other traits. Regions surrounding face-associated single nucleotide polymorphisms show elevated diversity consistent with frequency-dependent selection. Genetic variation maintained by identity signalling tends to be shared across populations and, for some loci, predates the origin of Homo sapiens. Studies of human social evolution tend to emphasize cognitive adaptations, but we show that social evolution has shaped patterns of human phenotypic and genetic diversity as well.

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Acknowledgements

We thank M. Phifer-Rixey and A. Werner for computational assistance during this project. W. Allen, K. Ferris and T. Hendry provided useful comments on earlier drafts. M.J.S. was supported by a Ruth Kirschstein National Research Service Award from NIH. M.W.N. was supported by NIH R01 GM074245.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Museum of Comparative Zoology and Integrative Biology, University of California, 3101 Valley Life Science Building, Berkeley, California 94720, USA

    • Michael J. Sheehan
    •  & Michael W. Nachman

Authors

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Contributions

M.J.S. conceived the project; M.J.S. and M.W.N. designed the study; M.J.S. collected and analyzed the data; and M.J.S. and M.W.N. wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael J. Sheehan.

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    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1-19, Supplementary Tables 1-3 and Supplementary References

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