Want to blame something for differences in skin color, blame the sun. It’s all in the melanin.
The concept of different races is a farce, largely concocted as “scientific racism” by an American physician before the Civil War, as noted in a fascinating special April 2018 issue of the National Geographic, “Black and White.” It is devoted solely to the variety of shades of the human skin, which are caused by gene mutation and evolution, all dependent on where one lived.
There is but one race: the human one, Homo sapiens.
When the results of the first complete human genome were unveiled in 2000 during the presidency of Barrack Obama, Craig Venter, a pioneer of the sequencing of DNA, the microscopic code of life, said, “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.” This according to the Geographic’s lead article, “Skin Deep,” by noted journalist, author and staffer at The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert.
The publication appeared during the Trump administration’s barring of Muslims and restricting people of color from entering the United States in a bid to appeal to the president’s base of white supremacists and others opposed to diluting the country’s majority white-skinned population, which the Census projects will become a minority in 2045. President Trump made it abundantly clear this year that he is a racist.
Kolbert’s piece deserves to be highlighted at a time when the ugly polarization of America has been heightened by unfounded racist animosity promulgated by an ignorant president and a sycophantic Republican-led Senate that has no interest in uniting a widely diverse nation, once the leader of the free world.
Samuel Morton, born in Philadelphia in 1799, collected skulls from around the world, measured them and believed they represented five different races, with Caucasians, or whites, being superior to the others. Then came East Asians, Southeast Asians, Native Americans and blacks (“Ethiopians”).
So was the thinking of one doctor when the knowledge of medicine was limited compared to today. But those who defended slavery adopted Morton’s ideas. He died in 1851, when the South Carolina Charleston Medical Journal lauded him for “giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race,” Kolbert wrote. We live with this absurd nonsense today, all based on lies.
What is true based on genetic research, when people today can trace their origin through DNA, is that humans are more closely related than chimps and that, as Kolbert wrote, “in a very real sense, all people alive today are Africans.” Yes, all of our ancient ancestors once were black.
Eumelanin, a type of melanin, is what darkens skin, as in a suntan among lighter skinned people. Black skin evolved among humans in Africa about 1.2 million years ago to compensate for the loss of body hair, which increased the harmful effects of the sun’s ultraviolet rays on bare skin. Migration out of Africa between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago led to interbreeding with other human species, now nonexistent, as people moved into Europe and Asia.
Once in those cooler climes, eumelanin production in the body decreased because the sun’s radiation was less intense. People’s skin became lighter. “This eventually produced the current range of human skin color,” according to a Wikipedia chapter on melanin.
There are more differences among Africans than on all other continents combined because modern humans lived there the longest, giving them more time to develop genetic diversity, including skin color.
“Near the Equator,” Kolbert wrote, “lots of sunlight makes dark skin a useful shield against ultraviolet radiation; toward the poles, where the problem is too little sun, paler skin promotes the production of vitamin D. Several genes work together to determine skin tone.”
Mutations in a particular gene, 370A, gave Native Americans and East Asians thicker hair. Another gene, SLC24A5, gave Europeans lighter skin.
Anita Foeman, who directs the DNA Discussion Project at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, told Kolbert that her genes showed that some of her ancestors were from Ghana, some from Scandinavia. She identifies as African-American.
“I grew up in the 1960s, when light skin was really a big deal,” Foeman told Kolbert. “So I think of myself as pretty brown-skinned. I was surprised that a quarter of my background was European. It really brought home this idea that we make race up.”
Richard C. Gross, a longtime journalist at home and abroad, is a former op-ed editor of The Baltimore Sun. His email is email@example.com.