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Reviewed by:
  • Skin: A Natural History
  • Jeremy MacClancy
Nina G. Jablonski , Skin: A Natural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 281 pp.

The usual metaphor is of the skin as a blank canvas, an extended surface on which humankind can paint its designs. Jablonski's book shows just how superficial, how dead that view is. For the skin is third-dimensional, forever changing, and modified by individuals, time, climate, and geography. It has depth, cut into by tribal etchers, tattoo engravers, or others of that ilk. It has colour, exploited by indigenous dressers, native jewellers, and other exponents of material culture. It has texture, utilized by local artists or Western professionals of the visual. It can be whitened, blackened, polished, covered, punctured, or raised, in patterns which may well have tactile as well as aesthetic dimensions. Skin is the most malleable of all our corporeal aspects.

As that old question to medical students ('What is the largest organ of the body?') reminds us, the skin is a large, living organ, whose dead, rejected cells are but the most evident to our eye. And, like all organs, it is subject to biological evolution. Jablonski emphasizes this dimension in her introductory book to the topic. The overall aim of her slim tome is to review, in a broad anthropological manner, the interactions of the environment, various species (mainly humans), and migrations, all with respect to skin. First, she informs [End Page 1199] us about the structures and functions of skin, highlighting her main points by comparing humans with primates, and other, more distant animals. Then she tours (for once, the verb in the blurb is accurate) the 300,000,000 year evolution of skin, stressing the adaptive role of skin colour in different environments. The closer to the Equator the darker the skin, for long-resident populations; the pigmentation offers protection against the damaging effects of the sun. But the lighter the skin the easier it is to produce vitamin D. Thus lightly pigmented people can spend five times less hours under the sun than darker pigmented ones in order to produce the same amount of the chemical. Jablonski proposes that our need to generate the vitamin may explain why women, wherever in the world, are lighter skinned than their menfolk: to reproduce successfully, they have greater need for the vitamin.

Of course Jablonski kicks away any supposedly dermatological underpinning to "racial" classification, as convergent evolution in different places but with similar environments can lead to different peoples having the same skin tones. Just because one's skin is the same shade as another's does not mean that the two can be lumped into the same category: their ancestors may have had radically different geneaologies but similar environmental histories. Use of skin colour to classify humans thus serves to tell us more about the classifiers than the classified.

In a delightful and unexpected chapter in a book on skin, Jablonski rhapsodizes on the importance of touch and gently chides American culture as "touch averse." Primate mothers, she underlines, "are generally exceedingly patient…and physical punishment is rare" (110). The implication is patent: if the weak (children, women, the elderly) are all too often the victims of physical abuse in touch-averse societies, why can't we reach out to one another more? Why avoid physical demonstrativeness, especially if it lowers stress, and boosts the immune system? It would be very easy to mock this biomedical reasoning as latter-day moralizing, but the point is still well-made: "only connect," you've little to lose, and it's good for you both in the bargain.

Her chapter on "Emotions, sex and skin" is disappointingly short (a lamentable lack of relevant research, she states), above all given that "the skin is the largest sexual organ of the body" (119). Once again, the softly chiding tone reemerges as she recounts her repeated observation in zoos of embarrassed parents avoiding explanation to their children of why the monkeys are engaging in clearly sexual behaviour. I can add my own anecdote here; I'm sure you could too. [End Page 1200]

And so, via a chapter on "Wear and tear" (summarizing moles, scabs, scars, warts...


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pp. 1199-1201
Launched on MUSE
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