According to a news reel from China, a young boy there possesses the ability to see in the dark. Like a Siamese cat’s, his sky-blue eyes flash neon green when illuminated by a flashlight, and his night vision is good enough to enable him to fill out questionnaires while sitting in a pitch black room — or so say the reporters who visited Nong Yousui in his hometown of Dahua three years ago.
The footage of Nong and his strange-looking eyes originally surfaced in 2009; it got little attention at the time, but is now making a splash all over the Web. If the boy really does have a genetic mutation that confers night vision, then he would be an interesting subject for analysis by vision scientists, evolutionary biologists, and genetic engineers alike — but does he?
The experts we shared the video with say Nong does have unusually colored irises considering his ethnicity, but he’s not the next step in human evolution.
Night vision is made possible by a layer of cells, called the tapetum lucidum, in the eyes of cats and other nocturnal animals. This thin layer is a “retroreflector” — when a beam of light hits it, it reflects the light directly back along its incoming path. The reflected beam constructively interferes with the incoming light beam, amplifying the overall signal that hits the retina and enabling the animal to see in very low-light conditions. Retroreflection also causes cat eyes to flash when they are lit upon at night, and experts say Nong’s eyes, if they are truly catlike, should do the same. [Red-Green & Blue-Yellow: The Stunning Colors You Can’t See]
“It would be easy to test the boy’s eyes for retroreflection (eyeshine), which would be indicative of a tapetum lucidum,” said Nathaniel Greene, a physicist at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania who has studied retroreflection.
In fact, such a test is run in the video.
In the footage, Nong’s teacher claims the boy’s eyes flash when shined with a flashlight in the dark, but the reporters don’t seem to be able to catch the effect on camera. When Nong’s eyes are illuminated in the dark, they appear normal. James Reynolds, a pediatric ophthalmologist at State University of New York in Buffalo, noted, “A video could capture [eyeshine] easily, just like in nature films of leopards at night.”
Furthermore, there is no single genetic mutation that could produce a fully formed and functioning tapetum lucidum, Reynolds explained; such an ability would require multiple mutations, which don’t just happen all at once. Evolution happens incrementally, he said, not by leaps and bounds. …
I disagree with Reynolds. Multiple genetic mutations that result in major functional physical changes are quite rare, but they do happen. I’m not saying Nong Yousui can see in the dark. Perhaps he can. But I do want to point out that evidence shows generally held ideas about evolution, even among experts, needs updates and refinements. Most experts, for example, would probably still tell you that identical twins are genetically identical, which is false in several documented proven cases.