The 2011 UK census has shown that fewer than half the people in London have long earlobes, as earlobe lengths become increasingly diverse. Across the UK the proportion of people with long earlobes has fallen from 91% in 2001 to 86% in 2011. Figures from the census show that immigration has meant that in some parts of London fewer than one in three people have long earlobes. And the number of people with medium length earlobes has risen dramatically…..
OK, OK, you get the point.
But what is it with skin colour? Why are we so obsessed? Obsessed enough to include it in a national census?
Perhaps you may be thinking that skin colour is more interesting than earlobe length because it is a better indication of race.
Well you’d be wrong about that. Not because ear lobe length also indicates race, or because skin colour is a faulty indicator but because the concept of ‘race’ itself is actually meaningless. You heard me. Meaningless. There’s no such thing as race! Whilst apparent similarities and differences between human populations may be superficially interesting the idea of ‘race’ doesn’t make sense in biology – it’s a concept without any definition pulled together variably from a ragbag selection of physical characteristics, fuzzy sets of traits, culture, cuisine, dressing habits, religion, language, location…
And ultimately, however much we may feel identified with a particular place or group of people, our genes show otherwise. Analysis of our DNA shows that we are all actually inter-related and mixed up, world-wide. ‘Race’ is a social construction not a scientific one. There’s no genetic basis or other scientific rationale for dividing humanity into ‘racial’ baskets. Moreover, there’s compelling evidence that we all came from the same initial basket. We all originated together in Africa – the homeland of Homo Sapiens.
Why then, I hear you ask, do some of us have black skins and some white? Good question. And surprisingly few people know the answer. Take a moment before reading on to check if you do. It’s odd how few people know this. You might even think we are attached to not wanting to know.
The answer has to do with vitamin D and sunlight. Light skin allows for more synthesis of vitamin D from sunlight. Dark skin provides better protection from sunlight. We acquire more or less pigment to our skin according to our need for vitamin D versus protection from the sun.
Here’s how the scientists tell the story: initially humans had light skin covered by dark hair. Part of the reason for thinking this is that our closest extant relative, the chimpanzee, has light skin covered by thick body hair. But, as humans moved away from the shade of the trees, human hair gradually disappeared to allow better heat dissipation (through sweating), and our skin grew darker to cope with increased exposure to sunlight. That meant that those with lighter skin were less likely to survive under the intense African sun. So through evolution and by around a million years ago, the ancestors of all people living today had developed the same dark skin as modern Africans.
Our skin stayed dark until just 70,000–100,000 years ago when some humans began to migrate away from the tropics to where the sun wasn’t so strong. This and the fact that they needed more clothing to protect against the colder climate meant that skins no longer needed to be dark to protect against the sun. In addition, lighter skin is able to generate more vitamin D so it would have represented a net health benefit to have light skin in reduced sunlight. As populations migrated, the reasons for keeping skin dark decreased proportionally to the distance north that the population migrated, resulting in a range of skin tones according to latitude.
So, we all started off white, then we all turned black, and now we’re a mix, and probably, with the changes in ozone and climate, the next phase is that we all end up black…
But why does this all matter? Well the point is: it doesn’t. Skin colour doesn’t differentiate us racially. And we are not differentiated racially no matter which characteristics you select out to focus on. We are all the same species.
Why then did they keep the questions about skin colour in the 2011 census? Apparently to enable researchers to check how fairly resources and services were being distributed between different ‘groups’ and how well the interests of ‘specific groups’ were being met. On the face of this all this seems laudable, we want to reduce discrimination, and indeed 92% of the respondents of a prior survey wanted such questions preserving.
But I think keeping questions about skin colour was a mistake. Not so much because the results allowed for a few inflammatory tabloid headlines (though that was bad enough) but because it helped to perpetuate the myth that skin colour is a meaningful basis for classifying us into different groups. It isn’t. And that way of thinking needs challenging. They could just as well have chosen to classify us by the length of our earlobes.