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Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Out of Africa - skin colour

The global market for skin lighteners is projected to reach $19.8 billion in 2018, driven by the growing desire for light coloured skin amongst men and women primarily from the Asian, African and Middle East regions. Skin whitening products represent one of the rapidly growing segments in the global beauty industry. With the concept of beauty in the 21st century revolving around a flawless and fair complexion, there is rising discrimination based on skin colour. The desire for fair and white skin is rooted in the culture and traditions of these countries and obsession for fair skin can be traced to almost all sections of the society. (link 1link 2)

In the Western world, the obsession with skin colour is quite the opposite, amongst others illustrated by the sun tanning industry and sun vacations in the snow and at the beach. Basically, a pale coloured skin suggests a lack of health and wealth.

On 1 May 2015, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an interesting article named "Ancient DNA tells a new human story". This article addressed some of my subconscious questions: how did Caucasians develop a pale skin? And also: would the origin of a pale skin contradict the Out of Africa theory? And finally: did my ancestors really have a black skin?

Yesterday afternoon, I met a woman who originates from Uganda but lives in The Netherlands for 14 years. I told her that I was working on a new blog about this WSJ article. Jokingly, I added that her children's offspring might get a pale skin too, as a result of a very same gene mutation. She almost immediately rejected this hypothesis as it was far beyond her imagination. I fully sympathise with that as I felt the - opposite - same. Hence my questions in the previous paragraph.

Our skin colour has become an essential part of our identity. She feels black. I feel white. The idea that my ancestors have had a black skin colour, and that her offspring may get a similar gene mutation and develop a white skin, is in full contradiction to what we feel, to who we feel to be. The interesting part, however, is that this different identity did and does not prevent us from liking each other. The oxytocin hormone was clearly being released in an abundant quantity.

The WSJ article clearly states: "Two genes that affect skin colour were also subject to rapid evolutionary selection as early farmers tried to subsist on grain-rich, vitamin-D-poor diets in northern areas with low levels of sunlight. (Sunlight helps the body to convert a form of cholesterol into a form of vitamin D.) The shift to pale skin - which produces vitamin D more efficiently than darker skin - among northern Europeans after the advent of farming appears to have proceeded rapidly, pointing to some of the strongest selection pressures ever recorded in human genetics."

The WSJ article concludes: "The lessons of this DNA revolution are not just scientific, however; they are social and political as well. The discoveries made possible by our new access to ancient DNA show that very few people today live anywhere near where their distant ancestors lived. Virtually no one on the planet is a true native - an instructive fact to consider at a time when ethnic and national differences still abound and the world continues to throw human beings together in new and unexpected ways."

I couldn't agree more.