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The Trouble With Harry : Like 7% of the Male Population, He's Colorblind--Living in a World Without Pink

July 19, 1987|JANET SPIEGEL | Janet Spiegel is a Los Angeles writer and author of "Stretching the Food Dollar" (Chronicle Books, 1981).

MY FRIEND HARRY is fed up with feminism. When an anchor-person refers to an unknown perpetrator as a he, Harry never misses an opportunity to point out that it could be a she. When he hosts a game of Trivial Pursuit, he arranges teams of men against women and flashes the ah-ha, one-up glance at any female who shows fear of the sports or science categories. But he handles it with wit and considerable charm. Recently, my spouse and I were house guests at the home of Harry and his wife. On the dresser in the guest room was a bowl of flowers and three books, neatly stacked. One was a book of etiquette for teen-age girls, another a collection of essays on psychology and the third a manual on astrology. The titles told another story. "She-Manners," "What Does Woman Want?" and "Heaven Knows What." Harry had struck again.

Harry's considerable circle of women friends basks in the delightful irony that Mother Nature, in her wisdom, saw fit to give Harry the only gender negative she visits on men. Harry is colorblind.

Colorblindness is gender-related because it is passed on by the mother in the X chromosome. Males have only one X chromosome. Females have two, so if they inherit an abnormal one they have another to make up for it.

About 7% of all men are colorblind. That is, they are missing one of the three color receptors the rest of us have, or perhaps they have three but one does not function properly. To these men (the rate in women is less than 1/10th of 1%) the world is full of color, but without all the variations perceived by people with normal vision.

When you see a red light, the red receptor in your eye sends a signal to your brain. When you see a green light, the green receptor flashes like mad while the blue and red receptors hardly fire at all. The more-complicated color shadings are flashed to the brain by a combination of signals from the three receptors. People with only two color receptors get nearly all those colors, but there's a spot in the spectrum, between red and green, where they can't differentiate one from the other. Obviously a traffic light is a problem. The solution is to memorize that red is on the top and green is on the bottom.

Dr. Alfredo Sadun, an ophthalmologist and neuroscientist at the Doheny Eye Institute, says most of the complaints of colorblindness that he hears are in regard to fashion, mismatched socks and the like. He says that colorblindness is not much of a handicap unless you're in a profession that demands subtlety of color. Colorblind house painters can still do the job. Just don't let them pick the trim.

Harry's first job was selling ladies shoes. The first week he dazzled the staff by selling more shoes than the seasoned veterans. The next day his boss fired him. The manager had overheard Harry tell a woman they had no pink purses to match the shoes she had just bought. The manager walked Harry over to a wall display of purses, many of them pink. "What color are those?" he asked, pointing. "Gray," Harry said.

Harry complains that he sees no red unless there is lots of it, like a red Cadillac, and separated from many other colors. He sees blue quite well, and yellow, but green is gray or brownish gray, and so is red in most cases. He was chagrined when his family, one day, had to tell him he'd bought a suit in Kermit green.

Harry's world has color, but the colors of movies, television and advertising don't have the same effect on him. He can appreciate great works of art only in their linear and spatial excellence. Poor Harry. What can you expect from a man who perceives Marilyn Monroe's lips the same color as tree bark? In other words, Harry is more colorblind than most people. He may be one of the 2% who has only two receptors--one of them faulty. Those men missing only one receptor suffer no real consequences; those people missing two receptors live in a very drab world. Harry must fall somewhere in between.

To bemoan his limitations in the job market he reminds us that a surgeon needs to see the colors of the organs, a pharmacist must see the colors of pills, a file clerk must know which is the pink copy, an electrician uses colors to know which wires won't kill him. On the other hand, colorblindness didn't keep Harry out of the Army. The Army wants colorblind men because they can see a sniper in camouflage. To those with only two receptors, the colors are not a perfect match.

The world is filled with camouflage, predators and prey. The grasshopper's color brought it fewer predators and more prey. According to Dr. Sadun, our early ancestors probably had only two color receptors, red and blue. Over the long evolutionary haul, we developed a third: green. The first animals with green receptors had a tremendous evolutionary advantage at being able to see the green tonality differences necessary to distinguish the snake from the vine, and the lion from the dry yellow grass.

Today there is a new light on colorblindness as result of modern methods of molecular genetics. New findings by Jeremy Nathans and co-workers at Stanford University School of Medicine, printed in the April 11, 1986, issue of Science, connect the dysfunction of color vision with hybrid genes. Far off in the evolutionary future, hindsight, so to speak, may show this as an example of ongoing evolution to improve the vision process. Perhaps mutation of the pigment genes can extend the visual capabilities of those who inherit it. They might even develop the ability to see colors we can't see now.

Drat that Harry! I should have known that his gender-related weakness would have a little ah-ha, one-up wink of superiority.

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