Skin deep: Race a cultural invention, says scientist

2016-07-08 14:10
(File, iStock)

(File, iStock)

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Cape Town - The reset button needs to be pressed on educating people that traits like skin colour are superficial and have no bearing on our moral fibre, character, behaviour or intellectual potential, a scientific advisor to the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (Past) believes.

Nina Jablonski - a US-based anthropologist, palaeobiologist (study of prehistoric life) and author - said the recent racism storms in SA and ongoing race-driven hatred in other parts of the world showed how far society still had to go to understand that skin colour was a biological adaptation.

She said huge psychological and societal damage were still being caused by a system of human classifications that was started by a small number of European philosophers in the mid-18th century.

"Education is an important step toward healing the open wounds still in existence, and a key part of this journey will be instilling a deeper understanding of how society has been indoctrinated into accepting institutionalised race distinctions," she said in a statement.

Race a cultural invention

Skin colour evolved as an adaptation to levels of ultraviolet radiation and is caused by only a handful of genes in our genome - the complete map of our DNA, Jablonski said, meaning that all humans are indistinctly similar genetically.

"The reason for differences in skin pigmentation genes was due to natural selection, depending on the intensity of sunlight in the regions our ancestors found themselves.”

Skin colour is noticed because we are visually orientated, Jablonski continued.

"Our eyes reflect light and when we look at leaves on a tree, for instance, we see the colour green, whether we like to or not - it is a crucial judgement imposed after a perception is registered in the brain. But how we judge it is not automatic; that is entirely conditioned by our cultural and social surrounding."

The fact that colour was associated with other specific physical and behavioural traits in groups called "races" was a cultural invention and not based on any kind of carefully documented facts or systemic documentation, she said.

A few traveller and explorer reports, with examples of people from exotic places, were reviewed and races were created.

"One of the prurient features that unifies most ethnic classifications is that they are colour-based, with the darkest shades being the most devalued. Unfortunately, over time these irrational and incorrect ideas took on disproportionate importance in society."

'Disabuse children of odd notions about race'

Education was important so that the fundamentals of human nature were understood and so that people could realise that traits like skin colour were superficial and had no bearing on our moral fibre, character, behaviour or intellectual potential, Jablonski said.

"For example, when you drive a car, you use GPS to figure out where you are going, and not a mid-18th century compass. So why do we persist with these old intellectual structures that have been disproven by so many lines of evidence?

"This does not mean local beliefs need to be discounted. Science need not discredit people’s belief systems, as we all live as cultural beings. But the message needs to be that there is no inherent quality to skin colour."

Parents or caregivers had a crucial responsibility to "disabuse children of odd notions" about race, she insisted.

Education had the potential to move SA forward, Jablonski said, and praised Past’s “All From One” campaign, which drives the message that a lack of tolerance for others is one of the biggest ills besetting modern society.

"The celebration of Africa as the birthplace of humankind and the improved public awareness of the shared origins of all people should be applauded and given all the support it deserves – especially because it is through our children that the entrenched notions of race can begin to truly recede," Jablonski said.

Read more on:    culture  |  racism

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