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The Paleo-Etiology of Human Skin Tone
December 17, 2009 6:28 AM   Subscribe

Why are Europeans white? "White," of course, is a a social designation. The question really is, "Why are northern Europeans depigmented?" [...] Most people know that it has something to do with sunlight, UV, latitude, and vitamin D. [...] But this explanation fails for Europe. Northern Europeans are lighter than everyone to the south (Mediterraneans), to the east (Mongols and east-Asians), to the west (Native Americans across the Atlantic), and to the North (Inuit, Sammi, Chukchi, Aleut). Clearly, there once was a factor at work in Europe other than dim sunlight.

That first link goes to a google knol summarizing the topic. The fully detailed and sourced essay is here.
posted by symbollocks (90 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite

 
Also, here are some interesting audio lectures by the people who put together the paper, the online discussion group The Study of Racialism.
posted by symbollocks at 6:36 AM on December 17, 2009


Summary: This essay has offered falsifiable explanations that exploit recent genetic and anthropological findings to suggest that Europeans are unique because their diet became uniquely cereal-based and so deficient in vitamin D. Native Americans had already lost the alleles necessary for dark brown skin before they crossed Beringia. Note that the Gulf Stream is credited with allowing grain to grow in low sunlight across Europe.
posted by Brian B. at 6:40 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've been curious for a while whether anyone had created a map of the Earth with the land area colors keyed to the average skin tone of the residents there c. 1500 CE. Guess this is as close as it gets.
posted by kittyprecious at 6:45 AM on December 17, 2009


"Europeans are unique because their diet became uniquely cereal-based and so deficient in vitamin D"

What was claimed to be unique was the combination of a cereal based diet and lack of sunlight.
posted by idiopath at 6:46 AM on December 17, 2009


Fascinating.
posted by ob at 6:47 AM on December 17, 2009


And so they adapted by retaining into adulthood the infantile trait of extreme paleness. Blonde hair and blue eyes were other infantile traits that were just swept along accidentally.

Supposedly lactose tolerance is also an infantile trait prolonged into adulthood, and mostly found amongst northern Europeans. It seems that far from being the master race, we're just big babies.
posted by Sova at 6:54 AM on December 17, 2009 [45 favorites]


Note that the Gulf Stream is credited with allowing grain to grow in low sunlight across Europe.

Indirectly. The Gulf Stream keeps the temperature warm enough to lengthen the growing season. At high latitudes, even when the days start lengthening, it's still very cold due to the earth having frozen and snow being on the ground. The Gulf Stream keeps things warmer, so that growing can start earlier in the year, and there's enough time to grow grain.

The warmth wasn't directly credited for growing grain in absence of sunlight.
posted by explosion at 6:54 AM on December 17, 2009


This is a great read. I'm looking forward to explaining that I have blue eyes because of the Gulf Stream.

Also, interesting to see people actually using Google knol.
posted by Vectorcon Systems at 6:58 AM on December 17, 2009


Oh my God, Karen, you can't just ask people why they're white!
posted by hegemone at 6:58 AM on December 17, 2009 [17 favorites]


So fascinating - I won't have a chance until later to read the article linked in comments that argues that the Gulf Stream effect is largely "earth science urban legend," but this post is proving to be a highly concentrated dose of interesting information. Thanks!
posted by EvaDestruction at 7:00 AM on December 17, 2009


I thought it was so we could hide in the snow and surprise our enemies.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:01 AM on December 17, 2009 [19 favorites]


The first link seems written on perhaps a National Geographic level, however at the bottom of that page is this: "For the detailed text of this topic, complete with footnoted references, citations, and all the peer-reviewed material, visit The Paleo-Etiology of Human Skin Tone." The link goes to a 4800 word paper that is as described.
posted by vapidave at 7:03 AM on December 17, 2009


So now that we aren't D-ficient I assume Europeans must be darker than their ancestors?
posted by DU at 7:03 AM on December 17, 2009


Because otherwise Wild Cherry wouldn't have had a hit.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:10 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Fascinating. Thanks symbollocks.

When we were expecting my son, we found a little online widget for predicting eye color based on that of current family members, and quickly realized that almost every family member on both sides had green or blue eyes (and are pale, sometimes blonde). Interesting to think that it's actually an infantile trait, and that cereal-eating had such a dramatic effect.
posted by emjaybee at 7:23 AM on December 17, 2009


Selective breeding by aliens.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:24 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sova: On the contrary, northern Europeans have one of the lowest levels of lactose intolerance of any ethnic group (source). Presumably because in colder climates with shorter growing seasons animals and their products become a more important part of the diet.
posted by alexei at 7:26 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, crap, I realized I completely misread your comment. Disregard, please.
posted by alexei at 7:27 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


The biggest problem with this hypothesis, which they acknowledge, is the speed in which the light-skin adaptation occurred. It would mean that light-skin blond hair and blue eyes (in adults) arrived as recently as settled farming.

I like this hypothesis over others because they explain not only why it occurred in Europe, but why it didn't occur elsewhere. There is a 600 mile radius zone in which unique geographic conditions made it possible. I suspect it's more complex with sexual selection playing a part.
posted by stbalbach at 7:27 AM on December 17, 2009


I'm light skinned because I am easily frightened.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:36 AM on December 17, 2009


What would be the way to see if it's an albino-esque depigmentation? Like if it's a variation of albinism? (I'm sorry to be so stupid about science.)
posted by anniecat at 7:36 AM on December 17, 2009


So now that we aren't D-ficient
Speak for yourself. Lack of D is increasingly being blamed for Scotland's woeful health record, even adjusting for our woeful diet and our woeful exercise regimes
posted by bonaldi at 7:37 AM on December 17, 2009


Guns, Germs & Chemical Peels.
posted by etc. at 7:37 AM on December 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


Observations from Helsinki supermarkets and the lunchroom show marked preference for cereal based foods, everything labelled clearly re: lactose and gluten, pale Finns but hair colour varies far more than Scandinavian countries and I won't say anything about the big babies bit but they do like their grain alcohol ;p
posted by infini at 7:40 AM on December 17, 2009


>It seems that far from being the master race, we're just big babies.

Neoteny is one of the driving forces of evolution, so we're obviously more evolved. It's just science.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:43 AM on December 17, 2009


"The first link seems written on perhaps a National Geographic level"

I hear things like this occasionally. The magazine in question is not nearly as poorly written as people seem to want it to be. The articles are quite often written by people who know exactly what they are talking about. People act like Nat Geo Magazine is written on the same level as the pap in Reader's Digest.

Oh gosh, I forgot, only Carl Sagan was allowed to make science accessible to the common people. Carry on with your derision.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:45 AM on December 17, 2009 [18 favorites]


I would take what the writer of the "sourced" essay says with a grain of salt. It would take more time than I have right now to try to figure out where he's coming from but this essay of his looks like slavery apologism to me.
posted by mareli at 7:55 AM on December 17, 2009


An interesting point to consider is whether the Gulf Stream acted upon the Europe of 6k years ago as it acts today. At that time, Earth was in entering the Atlantic warm period and sea levels were very different than today. These other factors could have more to do with lengthening the growing period of Northern Europe than just the gulf stream.

It's too bad that the author is more interested in making his case a slam-dunk than exploring other hypotheses and ideas. There might be something to this, but to include a factoid like 'people are the same color as deer in cave paintings, therefore they were dark' is kind of cheap.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 7:56 AM on December 17, 2009



This does seem rather interesting, but it could also be a "just-so" story. I mean it could've been a random mutation in that area, that had no adaptive advantages but had no "disadvantages" so radiated because people mated with people closest to them.

Lack of D is increasingly being blamed for Scotland's woeful health record, even adjusting for our woeful diet and our woeful exercise regimes

But that could be because Scots (and probably other Northern Europeans) in industrialized and post industrialized societies spend so much time in winter *and in summer* indoors?

Which, not to derail, leads me to the hypothesis that we're all so crazy because we all suffer from SAD all year long because we're always inside at work, watching the tube or on Metafilter. We're never building up our Vitamin D stores.
posted by xetere at 7:56 AM on December 17, 2009


So it's not mayonnaise?
posted by grubi at 8:02 AM on December 17, 2009


If the bulk of the descendents of the Israelites could transform from classic Negro north-east Africans into a much paler stock in less than 150 generations and with quite endogamous mating patterns then rapid transformation from dark --> light is indeed possible over very short timescales.

Also:
first published in (Coon 1939, 270-71). This map of head hair gradients
Eponystericalism. Is this entire "essay" a wind-up?
posted by meehawl at 8:08 AM on December 17, 2009


Yeah, what's with the National Geo hate? I've always thought that it was a pretty well-written mag; probably one of the better science publications aimed at non-specialist or lay readers. I can't really speak to other disciplines, but most of their coverage of physics topics seems pretty decent.

Admittedly, from time to time they produce some cringeworthy eyeball-grabbing headlines (and some of the promos for stuff on their TV network makes me think it's a bit questionable), but I think that's just them trying hard to survive in an era where fewer and fewer people are willing to subscribe to a magazine with multipage articles that doesn't deal with pop entertainment or political scandal, and where the public seems increasingly hostile to science in general.

It'll be a hell of a sad day when they go under.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:09 AM on December 17, 2009


Also, why do they walk like this, when most other races walk like this?
posted by Eideteker at 8:15 AM on December 17, 2009


Also, seriously. Use the damn washcloth.
posted by Eideteker at 8:16 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've been curious for a while whether anyone had created a map of the Earth with the land area colors keyed to the average skin tone of the residents there c. 1500 CE. Guess this is as close as it gets.

But it's just not true. In northeast Asia (China, Manchuria, Mongolia, Korea, Japan) there is no *one* skin tone like the map suggests, even within a specific geographic area such as Japan. Yet on the map it's all labeled "yellow" (which is pretty offensive). There are folks with "depigmented" skin (my wife is whiter than I am), and folks with dark complexions. The only constant seems to be black hair. And that's it.

So I hate this racialized shit.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:19 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've been curious for a while whether anyone had created a map of the Earth with the land area colors keyed to the average skin tone of the residents there c. 1500 CE. Guess this is as close as it gets.

> there is no *one* skin tone like the map suggests,


Of course there isn't just one skin tone. No one is saying that. But there are clear differences in the range of skin tones in a given area, and certainly in the average skin tone. You can "hate this racialized shit" all you want, but I'm having a hard time seeing why it would be offensive for scientists to figure out exactly how the evolutionary process worked that resulted in Norwegians being lighter than Zulus. Or is any bit of science that acknowledges that there are some inherited differences that are clustered in specific geographic regions racist and therefore off limits? I'm really not sure what you are trying to argue here, or what you are upset about.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:34 AM on December 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


meehawl: If the bulk of the descendents of the Israelites could transform from classic Negro north-east Africans into a much paler stock in less than 150 generations and with quite endogamous mating patterns then rapid transformation from dark --> light is indeed possible over very short timescales.

um... cite, please? My Jewish ancestry comes from white Russian converts. My understanding was that the "bulk" of the descendants of the Israelites are still dark-skinned individuals to this day. They're called "Palestinians."
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:37 AM on December 17, 2009 [5 favorites]


and we're off!
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:41 AM on December 17, 2009


Yes it's a massive racial brush. But, at the same time, we're creatures subject to evolutionary pressures just like any other, and it's a subject that deserves study.
posted by saysthis at 8:42 AM on December 17, 2009


I thought it was a natural selection process of people who drive like this!
posted by Aquaman at 8:43 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is pretty interesting, but what I can't tell exactly what the point is?

I guess it makes some contribution to the larger story of why things are the way they are, and anything that helps deconstruct "categorical difference" narratives and provides alternative explanations for the superficial differences between groups of humans is good.

Anything that helps shutdown those weird "genetics, skin color & IQ" arguments is a boon to humanity.

Is that the point or am i reading too much into something that's just a straight-forward interest in the history of white people, or history of humanity (white people edition)...
posted by ServSci at 8:44 AM on December 17, 2009


Who cares? We're all the same inside.

Meaty.
posted by felix betachat at 8:49 AM on December 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


That cave painting bit is pretty weak. More than likely the painter had only one color of paint to work with, so no wonder the people & deer are the same color. It doesn't even count as anecdotal evidence of dark skin color at the time.
posted by echo target at 8:50 AM on December 17, 2009 [4 favorites]




But that could be because Scots (and probably other Northern Europeans) in industrialized and post industrialized societies spend so much time in winter *and in summer* indoors?

I think that's less to do with the stresses of living in a post-industrial society, and more to do with the shite weather.
posted by kersplunk at 9:00 AM on December 17, 2009


I think this explains it.
posted by ob at 9:03 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


People act like Nat Geo Magazine is written on the same level as the pap in Reader's Digest.

Yeah, I've been called several times by National Geographic fact checkers and they have always struck me as very serious about getting it right. Compared to New Scientist, say, they are a sober and well-put-together outfit.

Also, a book some may be interested in: Skin - A Natural History by Nina Jablonski, who is a noted biological anthropologist who recently took on this question of skin colour, and her TED talk.
posted by Rumple at 9:08 AM on December 17, 2009 [8 favorites]


first published in (Coon 1939, 270-71). This map of head hair gradients

Eponystericalism. Is this entire "essay" a wind-up?



Carleton Stevens Coon, (23 June 1904 – 3 June 1981) was an American physical anthropologist, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, lecturer and professor at Harvard, and president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. (wiki)
posted by Rumple at 9:12 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


felix betachat: Who cares? We're all the same inside.

Delicious.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:14 AM on December 17, 2009


That cave painting bit is pretty weak. More than likely the painter had only one color of paint to work with, so no wonder the people & deer are the same color. It doesn't even count as anecdotal evidence of dark skin color at the time.

The people are shown as darker than the animals, dark brown versus light brown.
posted by molecicco at 9:14 AM on December 17, 2009


People act like Nat Geo Magazine is written on the same level as the pap in Reader's Digest.

NatGeo is very serious, I've been there and seen the process a draft goes through. Every fact is checked and double checked and sourced. There is a footnoted version of each article, it would compare with a densely footnoted Wikipedia article, maybe more. They write with about a 100 year time frame in mind, that is, the article will be used and referenced for a long time to come. Indeed if you need to fact check, they can help you and will source whatever your interested in.
posted by stbalbach at 9:15 AM on December 17, 2009



"Lack of D is increasingly being blamed for Scotland's woeful health record, even adjusting for our woeful diet and our woeful exercise regimes"

"that could be because Scots (and probably other Northern Europeans) in industrialized and post industrialized societies spend so much time in winter *and in summer* indoors?"


Interesting because Scandinavian are in much better health than Scots. Based on my experience in Sweden, people there love to exercise (many bike even with ice on the roads) and eat traditionally (fish, game, high-fiber sourdough flat bread, root veggies, berries).
posted by melissam at 9:18 AM on December 17, 2009


The walls of typical caves are pale allowing for a gradient of tones to be used. The painting in question is from Lascaux, where there are a variety of pale-skinned animals, e.g., horse. Lascaux is also well south of where he claims the pale skin epicentre is, of course.

There is other evidence that pale skin/red hair may be a neanderthal trait or at least a mutation which arose then (news snippet with awesome photo) and be a trait which was conserved where needed and not something that developed rapidly according to this author's "Just-So" story.
posted by Rumple at 9:32 AM on December 17, 2009


Based on my experience in Sweden,

Is there anything bad about Sweden at all? Seriously, the place sounds like a damned paradise, and the only downside ever seems to be that it's tough to integrate if you're not Swedish.
posted by explosion at 9:33 AM on December 17, 2009


Scotland.
posted by Damienmce at 9:35 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Baby_Balrog:My understanding was that the "bulk" of the descendants of the Israelites are still dark-skinned individuals to this day. They're called "Palestinians.""


Quite true, my mistaken omission. Sometimes we fail to state facts that seem obvious, sometimes from lazy assumptions, sometimes for effect. I should have qualified my assertion thus: "the bulk of self-identified Israelite descendents now historically indigenous to Temperate latitudes". But that's a sentence with a lot less punch.
posted by meehawl at 9:43 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


NEEDS MORE AQUATIC APE.
posted by GuyZero at 9:46 AM on December 17, 2009


Wait, you mean it wasn't an ancient magician that created white devils? But Minister Farrakhan said ...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:53 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is there anything bad about Sweden at all?

Yeah, I wonder this as well. But... having lived in Scandihoovia...

Iceland =/ Sweden, but there are some way significant downsides. The integration thing holds true, even if you're of some other Scandihoovian ancestry. (The farthest south any of my ancestors come from is swarthy Southern Germany. And yet, I was seen as a threat to the Icelandic bloodline. I have a friend who is 1/2 Norwegian who was taunted throughout school for not being Icelandic enough. It's all or nothing.)

But really, I'm going to go with the climate being the biggest downside. New England winters are actually colder than Icelandic winters, but I'll take them any day of the week over a mere 4 hours of "daylight" and having those hours be pretty hazy at best. Icelanders would argue for the inclusion of twilight to boost the December/January numbers to a whopping 6 hrs, but as someone who grew up where the sun actually got ABOVE the horizon on a daily basis, I call shenanigans.

And summers? Where a warm day means wearing a sweater, but no jacket? And unless you're a mutant like myself, you have terrible insomnia from 24 hour daylight?

Yeah, there's a reason why Scandinavians end up being rather cranky and stoic. You would be too if moving to Minnesota seemed a step UP, weather wise.

(I mean this seriously. I always thought people who moved someplace for "better weather" were bonkers. And then I went to Portugal. ZOMG WHY DID MY ANCESTORS CHOOSE AN ICY HELL IN WHICH TO SETTLE? IDIOTS.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:07 AM on December 17, 2009 [6 favorites]


This sure reads like just-so BS to me. There are so many holes in his argument that I hardly know where to begin.

First, the cave painting pigmentation evidence makes very little sense. Are we really to believe that the colour of a painted statue of an Egyptian tells us when the skin colour of Northern Europeans lightened?

His whole argument is premised on some kind of sharp divide between people that the author thinks are really white and everyone else. To demarcate those who are white for the purposes of his essay, he shows us a map of hair colour, rather than skin colour (the map he provides of skin colour does not differentiate between Northern Europeans and people from Southern France and Northern Italy). It betrays an odd worldview to assume that you can explain skin colour by focusing on Northern Europeans and completely ignoring those with even slightly darker skin colour.

He doesn't seem to understand the geography of the area. He makes an argument about the viability of growing grain north of 55°, which is a line cutting through Scotland, Denmark, and Lithuania. However, the map he presents of hair colour shows the lightest region extending far south of 55°.

I could go on, but I've probably spent more time than some dude with a website deserves already.
posted by ssg at 10:09 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's a good thing white people can't tan or this theory would be messed up....
posted by srboisvert at 10:38 AM on December 17, 2009


It's a good thing white people can't tan or this theory would be messed up....

White people can totally tan! I got one in summer 2008. It's been my pride and joy ever since...
posted by Sova at 10:45 AM on December 17, 2009


So if white people are white to prevent a vitamin D deficiency, and fish like herring has lots of vitamin D, why are Scandinavians white again?
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:53 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


There might be something to this, but to include a factoid like 'people are the same color as deer in cave paintings, therefore they were dark' is kind of cheap.

Yeah, I thought this was pretty weak too - everything in that painting is the same colour, because, um, the painter probably just had one colour? I'm not sure about the Egyptian thing either - was that how it looked originally? My understanding is that much of ancient art is missing its original colours, due to age, wear and tear etc.
posted by Zinger at 10:56 AM on December 17, 2009


Long ago in the warm, beautiful equatorial lands everyone lived in peace. Then one day people began to notice the paler ones were becoming rude and cliquish. The kind dark people got disturbed as these grub-like people became arrogant, aggressive and disturbed the peace. Eventually, the dark people just made the grubs move on. The pale ones had to keep moving (their reputation preceded them) until they reached the less inhabitable, deserted, colder climes where they settled. They lived in the dark cold, angry and brooding for centuries. Eventually they retaliated for the forced exodus.

(... maybe there was something in the cereal? ... )
posted by Surfurrus at 11:05 AM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I thought it was the case that, in Egyptian art, women were typically painted as paler than men, anyway, as a kind of artistic convention. I am therefore skeptical about using this as evidence for real skin tone.
posted by sineala at 11:36 AM on December 17, 2009




I thought it was the case that, in Egyptian art, women were typically painted as paler than men, anyway, as a kind of artistic convention. I am therefore skeptical about using this as evidence for real skin tone.

Yeah, his example is poor. But Egyptians did color people of other cultures in different shades as well. Certainly more as a generalization based on culture, and I'm not sure if any of these images of lighter and darker skinned cultures fit into the timeline he's suggesting. They do exist, though.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:53 AM on December 17, 2009


As others have pointed out, the article linked at the end is much more detailed. I don't understand your arguments though ssg. The entire point of the article is to ask why northern Europeans are the most de-pigmented people on earth. Why are they the only people to have blue eyes and blond hair that commonly extend into adulthood? Of course the data on this focuses on northern Europe. This isn't an argument based on who the author thinks is "more white" it is based on observable, physical difference.
posted by BenNewman at 12:03 PM on December 17, 2009


"Lack of D is increasingly being blamed for Scotland's woeful health record, even adjusting for our woeful diet and our woeful exercise regimes"

I have two things to mention here: one, deep fried Mars bars and two, munchy boxes.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:23 PM on December 17, 2009


Also *gag*, deep fried pizza.

Seriously, Scotland, I love you, but WTF?? I think I need to go eat a salad now.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:24 PM on December 17, 2009


They talk by flapping their meat at each other.

See also.
posted by Evilspork at 1:10 PM on December 17, 2009


caution live frogs: ""The first link seems written on perhaps a National Geographic level"

I hear things like this occasionally. The magazine in question is not nearly as poorly written as people seem to want it to be. The articles are quite often written by people who know exactly what they are talking about...
"

I love National Geographic.
posted by vapidave at 1:20 PM on December 17, 2009


I'm not convinced. There's a lot of weirdness in that article, with the more detailed article being even weirder. For instance, the business with the "default human complexion," for all I know that may be accepted scientific lingo but it strikes me as odd. And Coon's whole "caucasoid subspecies" nonsense is thrown in there and left pretty much unremarked on. Again, I'm not familiar enough with the science to really offer any authoritative remarks, but it throws up some pretty red flags.

Anyway, it's a neat theory, but it doesn't strike me as particularly well argued. I think I'll have to wait to see what the scientific consensus will be. That said, I'm heavily jetlagged right now so my comprehension faculties aren't at full blast.
posted by Kattullus at 1:22 PM on December 17, 2009


Is that the point or am i reading too much into something that's just a straight-forward interest in the history of white people, or history of humanity (white people edition)

You're probably just reading into it and getting some PC "racist" alarm in your head. People need to chill out, and stop assuming everything is a conspiracy. It's just a study of skin tones and the reasons for the variety.
posted by Liquidwolf at 1:34 PM on December 17, 2009


The author's other works, particularly their repeated use of the odd word "racialism", and their apparent self-published nature, ping my race-loon radar good and hard. Call me superficial.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:56 PM on December 17, 2009




The author's other works, particularly their repeated use of the odd word "racialism", and their apparent self-published nature, ping my race-loon radar good and hard. Call me superficial.



I haven't looked at the author's other work but what about this alarms you? The word "race"? How could a person present the topic in a way that wouldn't offend you?

Regardless of how true any of the info is, I don't see anything that comes off as saying white people are superior here.
posted by Liquidwolf at 2:06 PM on December 17, 2009


Oh yes. If National Geographic Magazine covered this, it would be at least 20 pages, about half of which would be describing the various people studying population genetics as they collect data from small towns in Finland and Libya. It would also include at least one collage of representative faces, an artist's conception of stone-age Europe, and a pull-out infographic map.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:07 PM on December 17, 2009


No, not the word race, the word "racialism", which I associate with old school English Tories who think that Enoch Powell was treated rather unfairly.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:12 PM on December 17, 2009


It matches the skin-tone map everywhere but Europe.

And Australia. And South America. In fact the UV map is only an approximate predictor of skin color. So a more interesting question is, why is it approximate, and why is it only approximate? And the answer is that our capacity for developing skin pigmentation is determined by our genes, and the genes found in each population are restricted to the genes possessed by the founding population plus any mutations that have occurred since then. So Australian Aborigines are pretty dark, even the ones who lived in Tasmania with a temperate-to-cold climate. If there had been any light-skinned people among the founding population(s), their descendants might have had a competitive advantage at the lower latitudes.

The theory put forward by this article supposes that white skin would have appeared among the founding populations of Northern Asia and the Americas, the Southern end of South America, and the Australian Aborigines inhabiting Tasmania and Southern Australia, if they had depended on grain. But surely a more parsimonious explanation is that the founders didn't carry the gene for it, and/or the mutation didn't arise. In contrast, the gene(s) for white skin were either early mutations among the founders of the population in Northern Europe or they already existed at some level. And they weren't necessarily selected for because of diet: there might have been some social or sexual advantage that accrued to people who looked leisured (untanned) or childlike.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:44 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Duh. It made us harder to hunt in the snow.
posted by chairface at 3:48 PM on December 17, 2009


Is there anything bad about Sweden?
Booze is ludicrously expensive, and sold in off-licences that are never open. But, then again, you don't get people fighting and being sick all night, so it's really a plus.

I have two things to mention here: one, deep fried Mars bars and two, munchy boxes.
Yeah, but really, even people here who exercise and eat healthily end up with heart disease. What do the doctors say? There's nothing you can do about it. Scottish men just get heart disease.
posted by bonaldi at 4:57 PM on December 17, 2009


NEEDS MORE AQUATIC NAKED APE.

Don't forget taking your skin off

because pink works

it's sophisticated and sexy

stands out as springs

hottest color
posted by bwg at 5:17 PM on December 17, 2009


Seems kinda crack potty.
posted by delmoi at 5:33 PM on December 17, 2009


The entire point of the article is to ask why northern Europeans are the most de-pigmented people on earth.

But you can't just take Northern Europeans out of geographic context. People to the south of the particular group that the author focuses on (e.g. people in France) have only slightly more pigment (in fact, in the skin colour maps that the author presents, there is no differentiation between people in France and people in Sweden).

As Joe in Australia points out, the UV map is only an approximate predictor of skin colour. There are many ways in which the skin tone map and the UV map don't match. Focusing on one particular instance while ignoring other instances (including other populations that are immediately adjacent) just doesn't make any sense.
posted by ssg at 6:40 PM on December 17, 2009


> It seems that far from being the master race, we're just big babies.

Neoteny is one of the driving forces of evolution, so we're obviously more evolved. It's just science.

Skin colour is only one variable (the one in which Europeans are more neotenous). For others such as average age at puberty, muscle mass at maturity and so on East Asians are on average more neotenous than Europeans.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 7:21 PM on December 17, 2009


I appreciate the tact that black people show to neotenous white me by suppressing their urge to talk to me in motherese ("who's a good boy? Yes, you are") and pet me.
posted by joost de vries at 11:12 PM on December 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


man this thead is so white
posted by tehloki at 1:26 AM on December 18, 2009


I'm Norwegian (well largely) and this actually kind of explains why I've more or less looked the same since the day I was born.
posted by whoaali at 12:55 PM on December 18, 2009


Skin pigmentation is a balance between the need for vitamin D and the need for folic acid. D is created in the skin by sunlight, while folic acid is destroyed by sunlight . Low levels of folic acid during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects, since it is important for the formation of the nervous system, so in a high-UV region, women with fair skin will breed out fairly quickly. Conversely, low levels of D lead to a variety of birth defects that eliminate those with darker skin in low-UV regions, unless diet (such as high consumption of fish) compensates.

It could be that the burka is a culturally evolved response of lighter-skinned Arabs to the high-UV regions that they migrated into. Groups without the tradition of complete coverage would have had lower birth rates than those with the tradition, and thus would have grown more quickly and been more successful within the region.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:14 PM on December 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


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