Prof. Nina Jablonski, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at The Pennsylvania State University and a fellow at STIAS, will present a talk with the title:
Skin Colour: Its Evolution and Meaning in the Modern World
Skin colour is a biological trait freighted with cultural meaning. Skin pigmentation itself is a biological adaptation that regulates the penetration of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) into the skin. It is 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 the genus Homo and of our species, Homo sapiens, skin pigmentation has been a highly labile trait. Similar skin tones have evolved independently numerous times in response to similar environmental conditions. Skin colour thus is an entirely inappropriate trait for grouping people according to shared ancestry. The establishment of hierarchies of races based on preconceived notions of hierarchies of colour is a logical fallacy that has influenced the course of human history more adversely than any other. Understanding how skin colour evolved and came to have social importance is relevant to human health and wellbeing and the future of human societies.
Prof. Jablonski studies the evolution of adaptations to the environment in monkeys, apes and humans. Her research comprises descriptive and functional studies of living and fossil primates and theoretical studies of aspects of primate and human traits not preserved in the fossil record. Many of her studies have involved long-term collaborations with scientists in east and south Asia, and in eastern and southern Africa. In the last 20 years, she has been increasingly absorbed in studies of the evolution of human skin and skin colour. She is a Member of the American Philosophical Society, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the California Academy of Sciences. In April 2005, she was awarded one of first twelve Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowships for her research on the evolution of human skin colour, and earlier this year received a Guggenheim Fellowship to embark on a new project in the Western Cape related to this body of work. She was awarded the 2007 W.W. Howells Book Award of the American Anthropological Association for her book, Skin: A Natural History (University of California Press, 2006). In 2010, she received an honorary doctorate from Stellenbosch University for her research on the evolution and social ramifications of human skin pigmentation. Her latest book, Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color has just been published by the University of California Press.