Day By Day

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Origins of Whitey

The WaPo, writing in an agonizingly delicate manner, reports:

Scientists said yesterday that they have discovered a tiny genetic mutation that largely explains the first appearance of white skin in humans tens of thousands of years ago, a finding that helps solve one of biology's most enduring mysteries and illuminates one of humanity's greatest sources of strife.

The work suggests that the skin-whitening mutation occurred by chance in a single individual after the first human exodus from Africa, when all people were brown-skinned. That person's offspring apparently thrived as humans moved northward into what is now Europe, helping to give rise to the lightest of the world's races.


The work raises a raft of new questions -- not least of which is why white skin caught on so thoroughly in northern climes once it arose. Some scientists suggest that lighter skin offered a strong survival advantage for people who migrated out of Africa by boosting their levels of bone-strengthening vitamin D; others have posited that its novelty and showiness simply made it more attractive to those seeking mates.

The work also reveals for the first time that Asians owe their relatively light skin to different mutations. That means that light skin arose independently at least twice in human evolution, in each case affecting populations with the facial and other traits that today are commonly regarded as the hallmarks of Caucasian and Asian races.

Of course the whole thing is delicately embedded in statements to the effect that racial differences are only skin deep, that sociologists are worried about the use to which this information might be out by wrong thinking people, etc. Ignore the PC crap. This is an interesting and informative study.

Read the article here.

If anything the article best illustrates the extent to which both scientific inquiry and the reporting of scientific results are constrained and distorted by political and cultural imperatives.

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