The Evolution fo Skin Colour and Why it Matters

Professor Nina Jablonski, a professor at Pennsylvania State University in the USA will present a seminar entitled, "The Evolution of Skin Colour and Why it Matters".  

Variation in human skin colour has been a source of fascination for naturalists, philosophers, and anthropologists for over 2,000 years.  For most of the last century, scholars have been interested in skin colour mainly from the perspectives of environmental adaptation and human classification.  In the last 25 years, however, studies of the evolution of human skin pigmentation have advanced significantly because of increased integration of human physiological information with remotely sensed data on environmental data, primarily on ultraviolet radiation (UVR) at the earth’s surface.  Complementary studies by human geneticists and genomicists have established foundational knowledge of the genetic basis of pigmentation.  These bodies of information indicate that skin pigmentation is a biological adaptation for regulating the penetration of UVR into the skin, and that it represents an evolutionary compromise between the conflicting demands of protection of the skin against UVR and of production of vitamin D by UVR.  This compromise represents one of the best examples of evolution by natural selection acting on the human body, and presents us with one of the best available examples for teaching evolution at all levels of the curriculum.  The key role played by skin pigmentation in the regulation of UVR penetration into the body highlights the relevance of skin color to the maintenance of health and the prevention of disease in all people, especially in connection with vitamin D physiology.  Finally, skin colour’s misapplication in human classifications and in the construction of colour-based social hierarchies provides people with an unmatched opportunity to combat the maintenance and reinvention of racism wherever it occurs.

BIO: Nina G. Jablonski is Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology at The Pennsylvania State University, and a world-renowned scientist and public speaker. Jablonski’s research focuses on the evolution of adaptations to the environment in Old World primates including humans.  Her work on the evolution of human skin and skin pigmentation has resulted in two books, and numerous scholarly articles and presentations, including a 2009 TED talk entitled “Skin color is an illusion”.  With the support of the STIAS (the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study), Jablonski also leads a major new scholarly initiative, the "Effects of Race" (EOR) program, aimed at bringing together junior and senior researchers to formulate new approaches to the study of race and the mitigation of racial discrimination in South Africa. 

Monday, July 27, 2015 - 13:00

John Day Lecture Theatre 1, Upper Campus, UCT