Understanding Race and Skin Color

Why do we have different races and different skin colors among the humans that inhabit this planet? If we all came from "Mother Eve," should we not all be the same color? There have been those in the past that have suggested that people of other races were not really human. In fact, this argument has been used to justify everything from slavery to infanticide. This is a modern phenomena, because in biblical times racial distinction based on skin color was apparently unknown. In Song of Solomon 1:5-6, one of Solomon's wives says ".don't love me because I am black, because the sun has looked with favor upon my skin, love me because.." Racial distinction and prejudice based on skin color seems to be a modern phenomenon that ancient people never considered.

It is interesting scientifically that only humans have mostly naked skin and along with that, different colors of skin. Other animals have hair and virtually without exception their skin is light colored. Human skin also has a larger number of sweat glands located in the skin than other animals. Recently scientists have come to understand a great deal more about skin color and why we are the way we are. Not only are there interesting lessons here about our make up and design, but there are also some messages about how we should treat one another and what our history is all about.

The most fundamental reason for skin color differences is the fact that humans live at different latitudes. It is quite obvious that humans that have lived in equatorial areas for many many generations tend to have darker skin. As one moves from equatorial Africa toward the north there is a constant change in skin color. By the time you get to northern Scandinavia you have very light skinned people with blond hair and blue eyes, while people living near the equator have black skin, black eyes, and black hair. This is easy to understand. Take two tin cans and paint one black and the other white. Fill them with boiling water and measure their temperature five minutes later. Dark colors radiate heat faster than light ones, so the darker can will be cooler than the white one. In Africa the problems of heat release are very large. The brain cannot be allowed to overheat, and getting rid of the heat is critical.

This is not the only factor that is involved. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun can cause many changes in living tissue. Some of these like cancer are bad. To counter this, the skin of human beings produces a material known as melanin. Melanin is God's sunscreen. It is a large organic molecule which both physically and chemically reduces the effects of ultraviolet radiation. Melanin absorbs UV rays causing them to lose energy. It also neutralizes harmful chemicals called free radicals that form in the skin after being damaged by ultraviolet radiation. Humans with very dark skin absorb a very high percentage of UV light. It is important however that not all the UV be lost. Another thing that UV light does is to make the production of vitamin D by the body possible. As you move further north, the amount of UV is less. If you are dark skinned you do not get enough UV light to produce vitamin D. For that reason people need to be lighter skinned the further north you get.

Older couple In some cases people do not get enough vitamin D and a disease called rickets can result. The Inuit in Alaska, for example, do not get enough vitamin D from the sun to survive, but they eat foods that are very high in vitamin D (fish and marine mammals) and the result is that their diet compensates for their low UV exposure. As humans have migrated all over the globe, their ability to produce nutrients like vitamin D has been reduced in some groups. Artificial means of producing this essential nutrient has to be found, and this has become an industry in some areas.

The presence of melanin in the skin, the complex biochemical system that produces vitamin D, and the ability of the body to protect itself against overheating and nutritional problems all speak well of the wisdom and design that is built into our bodies. In Psalm 139:14, the writer says, "I will praise thee Lord, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made, and that my soul knoweth right well." Instead of allowing skin color to be something that divides us and causes hostility between us, we should celebrate the wisdom and design that shows us that we all have a common Creator who designed and planned for us, and equipped us marvelously to live on a planet that has varied conditions and environments. Our diversity is a great apologetic for the wisdom and planning of God.

--Reference: Scientific American, October 2002, pages 74

--John N. Clayton

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