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SKIN COLOR AND RACES: What is Really the Difference Between Us?

Skin color and races are two terms that have been used to identify, classify and stratify the human population. We all have different skin hues and we are said to belong to different races which form the basis of our identity as individuals or as a group. But the question is, do our skin color and purported race define us?

Is there really a difference between us all? Should our behavior and cultural differences overrule our anatomy which is generally uniform?  These perhaps, are rhetorical questions that may not present obvious answers, but science may have an explanation as to the perceived differences in human skin and lineage.

 

SKIN COLOR IS ONLY SKIN DEEP

Humans are draped in a variety of skin colors that range from brown shades to lighter hues. Skin color is influenced by many factors but the most prominent is the presence of melanin. Melanin is a pigment produced by certain cells called melanocytes.

It mostly determines the color of darker _skinned humans, while the skin color of lighter-skinned individuals is primarily determined by a bluish-white connective tissue found under the first layer of the skin(the dermis) and by the hemoglobin content distributed within the veins of this dermis.

Is there a gene for skin color or do genetics play a role in skin color? The answer is yes. Skin color is actually determined by genetic factors. Melanin levels are genetically associated;  Children born to lighter-skinned parents inherit their parent’s light skin, likewise, those born to dark-skinned parents inherit their parent’s dark skin complexion.

Other factors that are present at birth also determine an individual’s inherited pigmentation_such as hormonal production and function; the way hormones are produced may be individual – specific and the way those hormones trigger melanin production may also be unique to an individual. These irreversible skin pigmentation factors that are determined at birth are known as intrinsic factors.

 

External factors (extrinsic factors) also play a role in skin manifestation. Exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation (UVA) is the primary extrinsic factor that affects the skin. It affects skin pigmentation in different ways; regular sun exposure tans the skin by giving it a brown color while exposure to occasional sun rays burns the skin and increases the risk of cancer.

Age and DNA damage are other extrinsic factors that affect skin color. Harmful alterations to the  DNA are also associated with skin burn and an increased risk for cancer.

 

TYPES OF HUMAN SKIN COLOR

Skin type and the color are classified based on the Fitzpatrick scale which is hinged on the skin’s reaction to UVA exposure after a period of non-UVA exposure. The skin’s reaction to UVA exposure is analyzed according to skin tanning and burning. The scale is often used to assess the skin’s risk for cancer. List of all skin colors and types according to the Fitzpatrick scale are as follows :

  • Type 1 _Extremely White/fair skin that is highly susceptible to sunburn and never tans
  • Type 11_White/fair skin that is highly susceptible to sunburn and sometimes tans
  • Type 111_ Medium; White to light brown skin that is moderately susceptible to sunburn and always tans
  • Type 1V_Olive skin; copper skin tone that is less susceptible to sunburn and always tans
  • Type V_Brown to dark brown skin that is not susceptible to sunburn and always tans
  • Type VI _ Pigmented black skin that is not susceptible to sunburn and always tans

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SKIN COLOR MAP

There is a direct relationship between human geographic distribution, UVA, and indigenous skin color. Regions of the world that are located close to the equator are characterized by high UVA emissions and as a result, the human population located within these regions tend to be more dark-skinned than other populations in other regions.

Those that are located near the poles that are far from the tropics with higher latitudes are characterized by low UVR emissions and tend to have lighter-skinned populations.

Research once suggested that human skin color pigmentation has evolved over the past 50,000 years from dark skin to light skin due to geographical migrations from areas of high UVA intensity to those with low UVA intensity.

However, recent research contradicts this theory. The research which was published in 2017 revealed that genes that code for both light and dark skin pigmentation have been in the human gene pool for about 900,000 years. They also found that humans with dark and light-colored skins have co-existed for several millennials.

The team of researchers evaluated the skin pigmentation of more than 2000 people with diverse genetic and ethnic distributions across Tanzania, Botswana, and Ethiopia. 1600 genome of these populations were analyzed and it unraveled eight key areas associated with DNA skin pigmentation.

Each of these identified areas had genetic variants that are linked to paler and darker skins. Seven of the genetic variants that are linked to lighter skin pigmentation originated from about 270,000 years ago while four of the variants dated back to about 900,000 years ago.

Considering that the human species (homo sapiens) only evolved about 200,000-300,000 years ago, this discovery only implies one thing _that genes that encode light skin have been in the genetic pool thousands of years before the first humans came into existence.

The study suggests that skin color evolution is more complex than we make it out to be and it is linked to inherited ancestral gene variants. It also debunks the societal notion that race has anything to do with skin color because there is skin color variation even within the dark-skinned populace.

Take, for instance, the dark-skinned people of Southern India and Australia who have a more distinct skin color compared to their lighter-skinned counterparts of the same descent_They inherited the dark skin gene variants from their hominian ancestors.

 

 RACE IS A MISCONCEPTION

The idea that the human species is separated into distinct groups based on inherited physical and behavioral differences is termed “RACE”. But scientists have refuted this conception and called it a cultural and societal label after 20th-century genetic studies revealed that race has no genetic nor scientific basis.

The conceptual foundation of race can be traced back to the 19th century when a cranium obsessed scientist and human skull connoisseur, Samuel Morton asserted that the human population can be divided into five distinct races. Morton might have been inspired by his work with numerous and diverse human skulls to have made this deduction which he further amplified by creating a racial hierarchy.

According to Morton; The “whites” or “Caucasians” were the most intelligent of the group( races), East Asians, or “Mongolians” (as he referred to them) followed closely. Then the south East Asians followed behind, then the  Native Americans. Blacks or “Ethiopians” got the bottom of his stratification ladder.

Morton’s hierarchy fed the embers of the slavery phenomenon with slavery defendants making reference to his deductions. Morton has long since been crowned the “father of scientific racism”. His biased representation of “race” supported the notion that one race is inferior to another. It can be said that he paved the path for racial horrors of the past centuries whose impact still lingers in today’s world. However, scientists have refuted his claims.

Scientists in 2003, completed the Human Genome Project which made the evaluation of human genetic ancestry possible. Morton believed he had shed light on the inherited differences among the human population, but the genome project which analyzed genetic samples of people from different “races” discovered that the concept of race was more or less a “myth”.

One Stanford study sought to answer the question of human diversity and evaluated the genetic distribution of 4000 alleles across seven major geographical locations. Alleles are the different “units” of genes that code for different characteristics of the same trait. For example, a common gene is earmarked for eye color in all humans, but the different alleles are responsible for the different eye colors in humans such as blue, green, and brown.

 

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WE ARE MORE SIMILAR THAN WE THINK

The study findings discovered that over 92% of alleles were found in more than two regions and nearly half all the alleles studied were identified in all seven geographical locations. Results from this study indicate that alleles are shared across multiple regions of the world(if not the entire world) and this points to the fact that people share genetic similarities irrespective of location and cultural differences. Many similar studies support this idea too.

It stands to reason that if the race is actually a true phenomenon, then alleles and other genetic features will be specific to each class and group of people and will not be present in others. But this is evidently far from the case. The Stanford study found that only a slight minority, about 7.2% of the alleles were specific to a particular geographic location. And even within this geographic region, only 1% of the population exhibited that allele.

Also, the common classification of race is mostly hinged on skin color and other features like eyes, hair, and height. Though these physical features may vary among individuals, the truth is that they are only determined by a very small portion of the genome, not to mention the fact that it has already been established that we share about 99.9% of our DNA with each other.

 

AND THE BOTTOM LINE IS…..

The scientific and biological community has made its stance on race and skin color clear; It is nothing more than a social construct and has no ground in genetics or biology.

Today, scientists would rather use the term “ancestry” to make reference to human diversity which implies that human variations are linked to the geographical origins of past generations or ancestors. Unlike race, the term ancestry does not discriminate or make disparities between different skin colors or human descents.

But the fact remains that societal disposition to the idea of race is still strong. It’s not every day you can convince someone that An Asian and European are the same when they look so different and act differently too. And there is that question of heath problems exclusive to each race; sickle cell anemia is more prevalent among the “blacks” and cystic fibrosis is common among the “whites”.

However, scientists in a dignified bid to refute these disparities will rather say; sickle cell anemia is more prevalent among those of Sub-Saharan African descent, while cystic fibrosis is common among those with Northern European descent.

The question as to what makes us different or similar in terms of skin color has no clear-cut answer. It all depends on whom you are asking. The scientists will tell you we are similar and the race is nothing more than a misguided social and political construct. Society will tell you to look at the different skin colors and behavioral variations and judge for yourself_ Aren’t we all different?.

But at the end of the day, it all boils down to how we understand the concept of race and skin color from the two different standpoints. Science undoubtedly gives us a compelling insight into our biology and how that unites and binds us while society simply looks to the surface. Perhaps, human diversity shouldn’t be debatable but united.

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