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Evolution of Human Skin and Skin Pigmentation

Research on the evolution of skin color in humans was avoided by scientists for many years. Skin color is worthy of scientific investigation, however, because it is the product of over five million years of evolution in the human lineage, it the most obvious characteristic in which people vary in their appearance, and it is of great social importance. Our research on the evolution of human skin and skin color has demonstrated that skin color is the product of natural selection acting to regulate levels of melanin pigment in the skin relative to levels of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) in the environment. Melanin is a natural sunscreen that prevents the breakdown of certain essential biomolecules (in particular, the B vitamin folate, and DNA), while permitting enough UVR to enter the skin to promote the production of essential vitamin D.

The large family of studies in these areas - the evolution of human skin and skin pigmentation, including the effects of skin pigmentation on health and human social well-being - is conducted by Nina Jablonski, George Chaplin, Hsin-Yu Chen, and Tess Wilson, along with collaborators from medical and social sciences from many institutions, including Penn State.  One body of studies is focused on understanding the interplay of biological and cultural forces in the evolution of skin pigmentation and in exploring the relationships between skin pigmentation and thermoregulation, in collaboration with W. Larry Kenney and Tony Wolf. Another large group of studies is focused on exploring the relationships between skin color and race, including how colors have come to have pervasive and enduring meanings beyond "just" denoting color. Public education and outreach activities about skin pigmentation and its implications for health and human social well-being (including lectures and the writing of books for the general public) are conducted regularly by Jablonski and other members of the Lab.

 

 

 

Relevant Publications:

Chen, HY., Jablonski, N.G. (2021) Deeper than the surface: Exploring symbolic cultural cues behind skin color among three groups of women of Chinese heritage. American Journal of Cultural Sociology. doi:10.1057/s41290-020-00124-9

Jablonski, N.G. (2021). The evolution of human skin pigmentation involved the interactions of genetic, environmental, and cultural variables. Pigment Cell and Melanoma Research, 34(4), 707-729. doi:10.1111/pcmr.12976

Jablonski, N. G. (2021). Skin color and race. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 175(2), 437-447. doi:10.1002/ajpa.24200

Jablonski, N. G. (2021). Social and affective touch in primates and its role in the evolution of social cohesion. Neuroscience, 464, 117-125. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2020.11.024

Chaplin, G., & Jablonski, N. G. (2020). Semantics in the philosophy of race. In N. G. Jablonski (Ed.), Persistence of Race (pp. 143-154). Stellenbosch, South Africa: AFRICAN SUN MeDIA. doi.org/10.18820/9781928480457/08

Chen, H.-Y., Robinson, J. K., & Jablonski, N. G. (2020) A cross-cultural exploration on the psychological aspects of skin color aesthetics: implications for sun-related behaviour. Translational Behavioral Medicine, 10, 234–243; doi:10.1093/tbm/ibz063

Jablonski, N. G. (2020). An introduction. In N. G. Jablonski (Ed.), Persistence of Race (pp. 1-8). Stellenbosch, South Africa: AFRICAN SUN MeDIA. doi.org/10.18820/9781928480457/0

Jablonski, N. G. (2020). An unlikely turning point: Skin bleaching and the growth of colourism in South Africa. In N. G. Jablonski (Ed.), Persistence of Race (pp. 33-41). Stellenbosch, South Africa: AFRICAN SUN MeDIA. doi.org/10.18820/9781928480457/02

Jablonski, N. G. (2020). The effects of racism on the human body. In N. G. Jablonski (Ed.), Persistence of Race (pp. 117-125). Stellenbosch, South Africa: AFRICAN SUN MeDIA. doi.org/10.18820/9781928480457/06

Jones, P., Lucock, M., Chaplin, G., Jablonski, N. G., Veysey, M., Scarlett, C., & Beckett, E. (2020) Distribution of variants in multiple vitamin D-related loci (DHCR7/NADSYN1, GC, CYP2R1, CYP11A1, CYP24A1, VDR, RXRα and RXRγ) vary between European, East-Asian and Sub-Saharan African-ancestry populations. Genes and Nutrition 15, 5. doi.org/10.1186/s12263-020-00663-3

Wolf, S. T., Jablonski, N. G., & Kenney, W. L. (2020). Examining “race” in physiology. American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology, 319(6), H1409-H1413. doi:10.1152/ajpheart.00698.2020

Wolf, S. T., Jablonski, N. G., Ferguson, S. B., Alexander, L. M., & Kenney, W. L. (2020). Four weeks of vitamin D supplementation improves nitric oxide-mediated microvascular function in college-aged African Americans. American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology, 319(4), H906-H914. doi:10.1152/ajpheart.00631.2020

Lucock, M., Thota, R., Garg, M., Martin, C., Jones, P., Furst, J., . . . Beckett, E. (2019). Early lifecycle UV-exposure calibrates adult vitamin D metabolism: Evidence for a developmentally originated vitamin D homeostat that may alter related adult phenotypes. American Journal of Human Biology, 31(4), e23272. doi:10.1002/ajhb.23272

Passeron, T., Bouillon, R., Callender, V., Cestari, T. L., Diepgen, T., Green, A. C., . . . Young, A. R. (2019). Sunscreen photoprotection and vitamin D status. British Journal of Dermatology, 181(5), 916-931. doi:10.1111/bjd.17992

Quillen, E. E., Norton, H. L., Parra, E. J., Lona-Durazo, F., Ang, K. C., Illiescu, F. M., . . . Jablonski, N. G. (2019). Shades of complexity: New perspectives on the evolution and genetic architecture of human skin. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 168(S67), 4-26. doi:10.1002/ajpa.23737

Chen, H.-Y., Yarnal, C., Chick, G., & Jablonski, N. (2018). Egg white or sun-kissed: A cross-cultural exploration of skin color and women’s leisure behavior. Sex Roles, 78, 255-271. doi:10.1007/s11199-017-0785-4

Iliescu, F. M., Chaplin, G., Rai, N., Jacobs, G. S., Mallick, C. B., Mishra, A., . . . Jablonski, N. G. (2018). The influence of genes, the environment, and social factors on the evolution of skin color diversity in India. American Journal of Human Biology, 30(5), e23170. doi:10.1002/ajhb.23170

Lucock, M., Thota, R., Garg, M., Martin, C., Jones, P., Furst, J., . . . Beckett, E. (2018). Vitamin D and folate: A reciprocal environmental association based on seasonality and genetic disposition. American Journal of Human Biology, 30(5), e23166. doi:10.1002/ajhb.23166

Wolf, S. T., Stanhewicz, A. E., Jablonski, N. G., & Kenney, W. L. (2018). Acute ultraviolet radiation exposure attenuates nitric oxide-mediated vasodilation in the cutaneous microvasculature of healthy humans. Journal of Applied Physiology, 125(4), 1232-1237. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00501.2018

Jablonski, N. G., & Chaplin, G. (2017). The colours of humanity: The evolution of pigmentation in the human lineage. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 372(1724). doi:10.1098/rstb.2016.0349

Davids, L. M., van Wyk, J., Khumalo, N. P., & Jablonski, N. G. (2016). The phenomenon of skin lightening: Is it right to be light? South African Journal of Science, 112(11/12), 1-5. doi:10.17159/sajs.2016/20160056

Coussens, A. K., Naude, C. E., Goliath, R., Chaplin, G., Wilkinson, R. J., & Jablonski, N. G. (2015). High-dose vitamin D3 reduces deficiency caused by low UVB exposure and limits HIV-1 replication in urban Southern Africans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(26), 8052-8057. doi:10.1073/pnas.1500909112

Jablonski, N. G. (2012). The evolution of human skin colouration and its relevance to health in the modern world. Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 42, 58-63. doi:10.4997/JRCPE.2012.114

Jablonski, N. G., & Chaplin, G. (2012). Human skin pigmentation, migration and disease susceptibility. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367(1590), 785-792. doi:10.1098/rstb.2011.0308

Jablonski, N. G., & Chaplin, G. (2010). Human skin pigmentation as an adaptation to UV radiation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(Supplement 2), 8962-8968. doi:10.1073/pnas.0914628107

Jablonski, N. G. (2010). Skin coloration. In M. I. Muehlenbein (Ed.), Human Evolutionary Biology (pp. 192-213). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chaplin, G., & Jablonski, N. G. (2009). Vitamin D and the evolution of human depigmentation. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 139(4), 451-461. doi:10.1002/ajpa.21079

Jablonski, N. G. (2004). The evolution of human skin and skin color. Annual Review of Anthropology, 33, 585-623. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143955

Jablonski, N. G., & Chaplin, G. (2000). The evolution of human skin coloration. Journal of Human Evolution, 39(1), 57-106. doi:10.1006/jhev.2000.0403