The following three summaries are of articles written by Nina Jablonski.
“Human Skin Pigmentation as an Example of Adaptive Evolution”is focused on human skin color variation, in terms of health, is on how skin color helps to manage the affects of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) on folate metabolism in terms of adaptive evolution. It is also on the affects of ultraviolet B waves (UVB) on our vitamin D production. She states that while skin cancer is, of course, a danger, it occurs after reproduction and thus wouldn’t have affected our evolution (and so, skin color is not related to skin cancer). She found that dark pigmentation occurs with high UVR, and light pigmentation occurs with low UVR. In modern times, as people move around outside of what they were adapted for, there arise issues of disease related to vitamin D deficiency and cancer.
“The evolution of human skin colouration and its relevance to health in the modern world” is focused on how our skin has evolved to suit various conditions. It covers the evolutionary loss of hair, resulting in skin nakedness (and sweating) to deal with increased heat. Next, it follows up how that skin nakedness triggered production of eumelanin pigmentation as a reaction to the increased exposure to UVR (in high UVR conditions) as well as the opposite affect of depigmentation in low UVR. UVR matters in evolutionary terms because it destroys folate, which is necessary for reproductive fitness. However, UVR also helps stimulate vitamin D, which is necessary for bone health. Dark skin evolved to protect folate production, and light skin evolved to protect vitamin D production.
“Human skin pigmentation, migration and disease susceptibility” goes over the reasons why evolution selected for eumelanin and skin color as discussed in the previous two articles, but this time with more of a focus on the resulting health issues that arise when people who are born from people evolved in one category (high UVR or low UVR) move to the opposite category. The article focuses on vitamin D’s use in many areas of the body, and details how the body uses it to preserve these functions (skin barrier, immune system, muscular system, etc.). Therefore, when people rapidly migrate and change their diet and lifestyle (indoors vs outdoors), supplements are required in order to maintain overall health.
When considering how to untangle skin color and health from the concept of race, I believe education is key. However, it’s easy to toss out a word like “education” without considering what that means, and how education should be provided. Part of the problem is that people don’t think about skin color in terms of why humans have so many shades of skin. Skin color evolution is not a topic people think is necessary to know about – and that’s even if they think about it in the first place. As we’ve seen through this semester, skin color and race is a topic that evokes a lot of thought, and a lot of feeling. Unfortunately, very little of that thought and feeling is about anything besides social issues relating to skin color. In order to untangle skin color and health from race, first humanity needs to more firmly cement skin color with health in the public consciousness.
Education about vitamins and health is pretty dismal. Doubly so when you consider the role skin color plays in protecting the body against harmful levels of UVR, and simultaneously allowing enough UVR to get through to produce vitamin D – as Nina Jablonski takes great pains to detail in her articles. It isn’t something generally thought of to be worth spending time educating children about in the US. Considering that race is such a hot-button issue, it would be unlikely for anyone involved near politics (such as legislators or school board committees) to want to be involved with focusing education on skin. At the same time, however, the education needs to come from some place that reaches a wide range of people.
Advertising is one sphere that reaches a wide range of people. Specifically, advertising aimed at women. Makeup. Beauty products. Youth is venerated in the Western world, and definitely is venerated in the US. This makes beauty advertising a big deal. While skin health deals with more issues than what women look like (such as vitamin D deficiency causing rickets, as per Jablonski), advertising is a way to affect people. Whether or not people pay attention to advertising, it gets in peoples’ heads. And makeup, in particular, is an area where skin color is focused on without necessarily tying it in to race. If a drugstore makeup company could be convinced to incorporate subtle messages about skin health and skin color in with some of their products – such as foundation, a type of makeup that deals with evening out the skin tone to reduce the appearance of blemishes, and requires matching of skin color with makeup color – it would be a way to better introduce the subject into public consciousness.
The public at large does not link skin color with health. And yet, the beauty industry introduces a baffling array of products every year that connects outlandish claims with physical health. If a beauty company produced a skin care or makeup line that touched on making your skin color work to protect you against UVR and vitamin D deficiency (after all, beauty products have promoted health-conscious buzzwords for years), it would help promote the idea of skin color being linked with health. While this would not completely sever the tie, it could help to separate out the issue of race, and help to make skin color and health more of an issue on its own.
Attaching skin color and health to beauty is not the best solution to the issue of skin color and health being attached to the race concept. However, educating people about skin color and health is a good way to make it separate from race. Since the social issues surrounding race make it unlikely for that connection to make it into the classrooms, I believe the next best step is to put it out in a way that people will see and respond to. Beauty companies selling beauty products and makeup already talk about skin color in a way that is largely separate from race. If a beauty company was to advertise products based on skin color and health, it would help the public to focus more on skin color and health over skin color, health, and race.