A three-year-old video in which a young Chinese boy appears to demonstrate night vision is making the rounds once again, with news sources wondering if the boy really has mutant night vision or freaky alien powers. Yeah...this shouldn't take long.
We had a little fun with this story when it first hit back in February 2009, but now the newsreel itself has emerged. The video up top has about 2.5 million views on YouTube, and its extremely reasonable and well-supported title - "Alien Hybrid Or Starchild Discovered In China? 2012" - gives a pretty good sense of the sort of over-the-top reactions stories like this can provoke. So, in the interest of presenting the "Not Alien Hybrid Nor Starchild" side of the story - what is going on here?
The video makes two key claims: that the boy's eyes shine in the dark like a cat's, and that he can see well in near total darkness. Of course, the video actually fails pretty spectacularly to back up that first point - they spend about ten seconds of the video in a dark room pointing a flashlight at his eyes, and there's no sign at all of any shine. This isn't an effect a camera should have any trouble picking up - the shininess is simply the result of a thin layer of cells called the tapetum lucidum, which is found in nocturnal animals like cats and will reflect back the light that hits it.
Indeed, for him to have cat-like eyes or night vision in any real sense, the boy would have to have a tapetum lucidum, and that's sort of mutation is pretty much completely impossible in a single generation. The good folks at Life's Little Mysteries have a thorough debunking of this story, including this explanation from James Reynolds, a pediatric ophthalmologist at SUNY Buffalo:
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 wouldn't occur all at once. Evolution happens incrementally, he said, not by leaps and bounds. "Evolutionarily, mutations can result in differences that allow for new environmental niche exploitation. But such mutations are modified over long periods. A functional tapetum in a human would be just as absurd as a human born with wings. It can't happen."
Assuming the whole thing isn't just a hoax - and there's no reason to rule out that possibility - then the child's apparent night vision can be explained fairly easily. He might have an unusually high concentration of rods in his retinas, which would enable him to see well in the dark. He might have a mild form of ocular albinism, which would explain the unusual blue color of his eyes and also account for his difficulties in bright light. As a bonus, that condition would actually give his eyes a slight reflective sheen, which with a little imagination could easily be built up into shining cat eyes.
For more, check out Life's Little Mysteries.