restricted access 3 The Skin We're In
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3 The Skin We're In CHRISTOPHER WILLS Melanin is in the news these days. There's a pseudoscientific idea floating around that says that if you have lots of melanin-the pigment that colors your skin and hair and the irises of your eyes-you will be smart and exquisitely attuned to life's rhythms and have a warm, outgoing personality. In short, you will be nicer and more talented than people with less melanin-that is, white people. Proponents of this idea, such as Leonard Jeffries, chairman of the Department of Black Studies at the City College of New York, have based their conclusions on the single scientific fact that melanin is found not only in the skin but also in the brain, and they have used the compound's presence there to imbue it with magical properties. Their "melanist" approach has gone beyond promulgation in a few pamphlets and backroom debates; it is now being taught at a number of high schools and colleges in the United States, usually as part of an effort to correct a Eurocentric view of the world. Not surprisingly, such programs have generated a great deal of criticism in the mainstream, white-dominated press-which the melanists claim is an expression of racism. Why, they counter, hasn't an equal amount of disapproval been directed against the pronouncements of white biological superiority? Two wrongs do not make a right. As a reaction and antidote to white racism, melanism is understandable. But from a scientific standpoint it is just wrong. There's no evidence for melanist claims of black superiority, just as there's no evidence for the pseudoscientific claims of white superiority that have been made for centuries. That's not to say that melanin isn't a fit subject for scientific inquiry. What research has shown us is that the real story of melanin is much more interesting, and tells us more about ourselves, than any magical hokum trotted out to support divisions between the races. We are visually oriented animals, and the color of a stranger's skin, if different from our own, is often the characteristic we notice first. Of all the superficial differences that divide us-the shape of our nose, the texture of our hair, and so on-none seems to mesmerize us as much as skin color. As psychologists have shown, among blacks in this country the darkest-skinned children in a group or family are often treated less well than other children by their teachers, their peers, and even their parents and thus suffer repeated blows to their self-esteem. Obviously, differences in skin color matter greatly to society-but is there any physical basis for all the prejudice and psychological damage? Today geneticists like myself would say no. We have known for decades that variation in skin color is caused by rather small genetic differences, and it seems highly unlikely that these differences have anything to do with intelligence, personality, or ability. Sadly, DISCOVER 77 November 1994. CopyrighI © 1994 The Walt Disney Co. Reprinted with permission of Discover Magazine. Copyrighted Material The Skin We're In 13 though, genetics itself has not always been free of racism. The models that early geneticists used to explain the inheritance of skin color actually had a segregationist bias, reflecting the pervasive prejudice of their time. The white American eugenicist Charles Benedict Davenport set the tone in 1913 with an investigation into the genetics of "Negro-white crosses." As racist as most of his contemporaries, Davenport assumed that blacks were inferior to whites. He did, however, correctly deduce that there were distinct genes that control skin color. But he thought only two genes were involved and that each of them came in two forms, or alleles: a "white" allele and a "black" allele. How dark you were depended on how many black alleles you inherited from your mother and father. Davenport assumed that the black and white alleles were as clearly different from each other as he thought the black and white races were different. We now know that this is not correct and that the differences between the alleles are small. But Davenport was right in his conclusion that a rather small number of genes make substantial contributions to skin color-more than two, but fewer than half a dozen. And skin color is inherited independently of other characteristics used to differentiate between races. Among the grandchildren of interracial marriages, he saw, there were often individuals with...


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