Why do white people have thin lips?

Genetic causes of thick lips sought

Essen / Vienna - The young man in the dock of the Vienna Regional Court was a black man and found guilty of drug trafficking. Now it was all about the length of the prison sentence. Two years in juvenile, four years in adult prison. The dealer said he was a minor. He was an adult, said the appraiser. How did the court-sworn anthropologist want to prove this? He had measured the guilty person's face: the length of the head and ears, the width of his mouth and nose. Very strictly according to the scientific literature that has existed for decades.

The excitement was enormous at that time, in May 2000. "Racial biology" was still the most harmless word of the critics of such studies.

At the Institute for Human Genetics at the German University of Essen, faces are also being measured in a study that has now started. This time, however, the size, width, height and spacing of different facial features should not provide information about the age of the measured people, but about their supposedly physiological development, which is supposed to be determined in the genetic make-up - about whether or not there is a genetic defect.

"Ideally," explains study leader Stefan Böhringer, "we will in future be able to draw conclusions about genetic information from the phenotype, that is, from the face." The ethics committee of the university approved.

4000 features

Over 200 people have already had their photos, films and blood drawn for an expense allowance of 15 euros. 660 should be there by the end of the year. The images are evaluated at the Institute for Neuroinformatics in Bochum, around 4,000 facial features are recorded and measured.

In addition, the Essen researchers evaluate the genetic information obtained from the blood. This is then compared with the survey data in order to discover the secret of protruding ears, big noses and thick lips. Of course, not everyone is allowed to take part; any ethno-specific differences in the genome could be too great, which could affect the specificity of the study. The test persons are only allowed to be Germans - more precisely: "German descent".

And why is it all? Broken genes can lead to the production of defective proteins. These proteins, in turn, explains Böhringer to the STANDARD, can not only cause various ailments, "but also change the face. And often much earlier than the disease can be diagnosed." If there is evidence of a connection between facial features and genetic defects, this could lead to earlier diagnosis and thus therapy for many ailments.

Böhringer has no ethical concerns, although he is well aware of the crooked optics "in view of the story". However, the study only examines the genetic causes of facial features, not their connection with other characteristics. It is also "for the time being pure basic research". Misuse of the research results, admits Böhringer, "can never be ruled out, but that also applies to data that already exist".

Ulrich Körtner, director of the Vienna Institute for Ethics and Law in Medicine, does not see this as completely unproblematic. Since there are already reliable early diagnostic methods for diagnosing a large number of genetic diseases - such as trisomy 21, known as "Down's syndrome", which is known to be reflected in facial features - the question arises as to the value of such research. Apart from study parameters such as "German ancestry", which Körtner is very reminiscent of "race research". (Andreas Ferien / DER STANDARD, print edition, July 8, 2003)