Human Skin Color
Its Evolution and Relevance to Health and Human Society

Nina Jablonski

Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University

2345th Meeting Abstract
Friday, April 10, 2015, 8:00 PM


Variation in human skin color has fascinated and perplexed people for centuries. As the most visible aspect of human variation, skin pigmentation has been used in the past as a basis for classifying people into races. Studies conducted in the past 25 years have shown that skin pigmentation is a biological adaptation that regulates the penetration of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) into the skin, and 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. In the history of our species, Homo sapiens, skin pigmentation has been a highly changeable trait. Genetic evidence indicates that similar skin colors have evolved independently numerous times in response to similar environmental conditions and, because of this, skin color is an inappropriate trait for grouping people according to shared ancestry. This lecture will discuss the evolution of the "human rainbow", how skin pigmentation influences our health, and how skin color has influenced societies and social well-being through color-based race concepts.

Biographical Sketch:

Nina Jablonske

Nina G. Jablonski is Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. For the last 25 years, she has pursued questions in human evolution not directly answered by the fossil record, foremost among these being the evolution of human skin and skin pigmentation. Her research has extended beyond her primary interest in the evolution of skin pigmentation phenotypes to the study of issues surrounding the health and social implications of skin pigmentation.

She currently divides her time between basic research and educational projects. She is the lead investigator on a pilot project examining the factors that affect vitamin D status in healthy youth in the Western Cape of South Africa. She is the convener of a five-year research and education initiative, “The Effects of Race,” based at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS) in South Africa. And she is working with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to develop a new curriculum on “genetics and genealogy” for US middle and high school students and university undergraduates.

Nina earned an AB in Biology from Bryn Mawr College and a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Washington in 1981. She is an author on over 110 research publications as well as numerous chapters in scholarly books. She has written two books for more general audiences: Skin: A Natural History and Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color. And she has appeared frequently on radio, television and other media to discuss her research.

Nina is a member of the American Philosophical Society, a Fellow of the AAAS, and a member of the Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences of the National Research Council. She has received a Fletcher Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Stellenbosch for her contribution to the worldwide fight against racism.

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