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Science and Society

Professor Nina Jablonski

Prof. Nina G. Jablonski

Tuesday, 29 April 2014 at 18:00 in The Print Media Academy

Kindly supported by Manfred Lautenschläger Stiftung

Prof. Nina G. Jablonski, The Pennsylvania State University

Skin pigmentation: Its evolution and meanings in the modern world

Abstract

Variation in human skin pigmentation has fascinated and perplexed people for centuries. As the most visible manifestation of human variation, skin pigmentation has been used in the past as a basis for classifying people into races. Studies conducted in the past 25 years have shown that skin pigmentation is a biological adaptation that regulates the penetration of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) into the skin, and that it represents 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 our species, Homo sapiens, skin pigmentation has been a highly labile trait. Genetic evidence indicates that similar skin colors have evolved independently numerous times in response to similar environmental conditions and, because of this, skin pigmentation phenotypes are an entirely inappropriate trait for grouping people according to shared ancestry. This lecture will discuss the evolution of the "human rainbow", how skin pigmentation influences our health, and how skin pigmentation has influenced societies and social well-being through color-based race concepts.

Biography

Nina G. Jablonski is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at The Pennsylvania State University. She is a biological anthropologist who, in the last 25 years, has pursued questions in human evolution not directly answered by the fossil record, foremost among these being the evolution of human skin and skin pigmentation.

Jablonski received her A.B. in Biology at Bryn Mawr College in 1975 and her Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Washington in 1981. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the California Academy of Sciences, a member of the Advisory Council for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences of the National Science Foundation, and a member of the Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences of the National Research Council.  She received an Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship in 2005 and the W.W. Howells Book Award of the American Anthropological Association for 2007 for Skin: A Natural History (University of California Press, 2006). In 2009 she was elected to membership of the American Philosophical Society, in 2010 she received an honorary doctorate from University of Stellenbosch in South Africa for her contribution to the worldwide fight against racism, and in 2012 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Jablonski is a committed public educator and is currently leading work on a new “genetics and genealogy” curriculum for middle- and high school students and university undergraduates. Her latest book, Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color, was published by University of California Press in 2012 and has been described by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as a “groundbreaking book [that] brings the biological and social meanings of skin color into dialogue with one another, creating an open, rich, and essential conversation about this fact of life that differentiates us from one another but that ultimately, and profoundly, unites us.”

Jablonski is currently in South Africa as a fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study (STIAS) working on two projects, one of which is focused on the factors determining vitamin D status in healthy youth in the Western Cape.