Living Color: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Color

  • Nina Jablonski
  • University of California Press
  • 178 pp.

This compact book investigates the significance and meanings of human skin color through human history and across cultures.

Reviewed by Josh Trapani

This concise book moves beyond Nina Jablonski’s earlier work, Skin: A Natural History, to focus on, as the title suggests, the various meanings ascribed to skin color. Jablonski is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Penn State University and her work spans the field, ranging from primate evolution to the development of bipedalism in humans. A unifying focus of her research is the interactions of organisms with their environments, and skin — literally the interface between them — fits squarely within this interest.

Skin color is one of the most visibly variable of human traits, and it evolved during the vast spans of human history when geographically stable populations were exposed to similar solar conditions over long periods of time. Lighter or darker skin conveys distinct advantages and disadvantages depending on the environment, and the magnitude of differences that evolved to optimize skin color under particular conditions is a helpful reminder of how variable solar conditions over the face of the Earth are and, conversely, how locally adapted humans are. (Consider, as a related example, how little of the Earth’s surface humans could inhabit without the aid of material culture. Without clothes or built shelters, Siberia — or even Washington D.C. — might as well be Antarctica or Mars.)

Jablonski surveys skin colors across the world to show the utility of these local adaptations. Only in the relatively recent past, as humans rapidly spread across the globe — first through exploration and colonization over the sea, and now through the air — has this led to widespread mismatches between skin types and the solar conditions where people live, with adverse effects on the health of large numbers.

The author considers how, throughout human history, people have responded to meeting others who have not looked like them. Starting with Egypt and India, she also investigates Greek, Roman and Islamic attitudes towards “others.” (An interesting piece that covers some of the same ground is Emily Wilson’s review of Rethinking the Other in Antiquity by Erich S. Gruen, which appeared recently in The New Republic.) Greeks and Romans thought themselves superior to other societies, but did not believe in races as we now conceive them. Jablonski reports: “The major cultural centers of Egypt, Greece, and Rome were mostly tolerant of diversity in physical appearance, and differences did not affect social status, marriage prospects, status of offspring, judgments of beauty, or assessments of physical strength, courage, and fitness for battle.”

Both Greek and Roman societies allowed slavery, but slaves — while certainly not entitled to the same rights as citizens — were not dehumanized to nearly the extent that the trans-Atlantic slave trade would allow. Indeed, as Jablonski’s analysis moves into the Renaissance and the colonial period, she shows how the development of the idea of races — that is, the tying together of skin color with inferred intellectual and emotional capacities and the overall worth of individuals — justified the dehumanization of indigenous Americans and Africans whose labor fueled the economies of European powers and their colonies. Philosophy, “science” and even Biblical reference were all used to solidify ideas about race — damaging baggage that much of global society, and certainly we in the United States, still carry today.

There is not much new in this recap of history, but I still learned a lot and appreciated the way Jablonski tied together so many threads, from the Zanj rebellion through Immanuel Kant through minstrelsy in the United States. The one weakness was the sometimes heavy-handed presentation. The descriptions in the early European travel book The Travels of Sir John Mandeville are “outrageous and ludicrous”; Thomas Jefferson exhibited “hypocrisy” in his ideas about slavery; Chief Justice Roger Taney’s logic in the Dred Scott case was “tainted.” It’s not that I necessarily disagree with any of this, but the damning history of race and slavery speaks quite plainly for itself and needs no augmentation, especially in a book with an anthropological and scientific bent.

Jablonski concludes by looking at perceptions of skin color around the world. A preference for lighter skin over darker has appeared independently in a number of societies, often tied to the ability of people of higher social class to avoid working in the sun. In many places, this preference continues today with harmful practices such as skin bleaching. But now that much of the industrialized world has become filled with office drones, we are also seeing the opposite: associations between bronzed skin tone and wealth and leisure, with the accompanying growth of tanning into a huge industry.

It is impressive that all this ground is covered in a conversational, well-illustrated book of less than 200 pages. But in such a short treatment of such a complex subject, plenty must be left out, and I felt the book skirted certain issues. For instance, it’s an irony I’m sure Jablonski appreciates that so much of her book is Euro- (or white American) centric. How much of this is of necessity, and how much by choice? She relates a few instances of what Africans and indigenous Americans thought of the appearance and character of Europeans, but only a few. Is this because there aren’t more, because she chose to highlight the dynamic that has caused by far the greatest effect in human history, or for some other reason?

As another example, the focus on skin color often gives little attention to, or sometimes overlooks completely, related characteristics. We all know that people across the world do not look precisely alike even apart from skin color, and that features like hair, eyes, facial structure and even stature and build vary regionally. I don’t feel confident making pronouncements about how these traits might or might not correlate with skin color, but surely they have played important roles in our views about race over time. Racist attitudes that Europeans and similarly pigmented Asians may hold toward one another cannot be solely, or even primarily, a factor of differences in skin color. And in the United States today, few dark-skinned people engage in skin bleaching, but hair straightening among African-American women is common. While it might be unfair to have expected it, I was disappointed the book didn’t say more about this.

I do not want to lose the forest for the trees, however. What is refreshing about this wide-ranging book is its ability to take us out of our own particular place and time to see the big picture on human skin color along dimensions of culture, history and biology. “Skin color is a lasting statement of our evolutionary history,” Jablonski writes. “It is a biological trait — an adaptation to the environment — that has come to have many layers of social meaning.” Jablonski concludes with a plea to use this knowledge of skin color’s origins to help change social attitudes. It’s hard to imagine a thoughtful reader disagreeing by the end of the book, and just about everyone will learn something along the way. Quibbles aside, that is a considerable accomplishment.

Josh Trapani, a scientist by training, is The Independent’s managing editor.

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