I’ve just been reading an excellent article in Scientific American magazine and I’m going to pass on the bones of it to you. The piece is all about why humans are the colour they are and it examines the history of skin colour throughout evolution.
Humans started to branch off from other primates about 7 million years ago. We then spent the next five million years getting used to being upright, foraging and using tools. Throughout this time we were based in equatorial Africa.
As our brains developed it became necessary for our bodies to shed heat in order to protect brain cells from overheating. People who know about meningitis will know how important it is to protect the brain from high temperatures.
And that is the reason that we lost our body hair. We are the only land mammals to have done so. When we lost our hair the skin underneath became exposed to the sun and all the damage that ultra-violet can do to human skin.
There is a delicious irony here for the racists among us. People will have heard racist football fans make apelike sounds at black players. But actually apes are white-skinned – only their hair is black.
The first humans were also white and their skin gradually turned black to protect skin from ultra-violet light. It is well-known that UV radiation causes cancer and it was generally believed that this is the reason that human skin became black (melanin enriched). Now scientists recognise that black skin also protects the human’s folate stores in the skin and that this is the reason why there is a variety in human skin colour.
Most people know that women are advised to take folic acid if they are intending to get pregnant. Folates are vital in the bone formation of babies in the womb and a lack of folates can cause spinal diseases such as Spina Bifida. It is now known that folates also assist sperm production in men so that folate production has played a huge role in human reproduction and evolution.
Strong sunlight attacks the body’s folate stores so that when the first humans in Africa lost their hair they developed suitable brown skin to protect us from UV. However there is a contradictory factor. Humans need sunlight to manufacture vitamin D, which is essential for our development and immunity systems.
So there’s the balance: too much sun – too little folates; too little folates – too little vitamin D.
Just when humans got the balance right they began to wander off to other parts of the earth. As groups of humans moved further north their skin began to change colour as the threat to the folate stores in the skin diminished and the need for more sunlight to make vitamin D increased.
And thus white people are white and black people are black. It’s all about sunlight and nothing to do with culture, breeding or superiority. Not that this will make the slightest difference to those who hold prejudices on the basis of skin colour. Not a bit.
As well as that…
Women are different
For those who define their race in terms of skin colour there is shock news.
Women are a different colour than men. On average women are 4 per cent lighter skinned than men.
The reason for this is linked to child bearing. Women need more vitamin D to produce calcium, necessary during pregnancy and lactation.
This also means that women are 4 per cent less protected against the ravages of UV. Women should bear that in mind.
Stay out of the sun
As each year passes the stupidity of white people (or pink people as Steve Biko said) travelling to lie in the sun becomes more obvious. There is an epidemic of skin diseases and skin cancers among white people due to the ridiculous notion that tanned skin looks better.
The truth is that tanned skinned is damaged skin. The sooner people see it that way the less misery there will be.
The irony is that many black people want to be whiter in an equally stupid fashion idea. Across Africa conmen are selling skin-whiteners to foolish people who take their self worth from media images.
When will we just accept ourselves for what we are? Black or white.