This first appeared in Weekly Trust on December 22,2005.
By Farooq A. Kperogi
Since its début about a month ago, this column has enjoyed an enthusiastic reception from readers in ways that have exceeded my anticipation. I have got several laudatory emails and requests for me to comment more on African Americans, the place of religion in the United States and so on. I’m at once flattered and honored by these responses.
In deference to the requests of my readers, I had intended this week to start a series about the astonishing and, in the opinion of many people I have spoken to here, unexampled ascendancy of religion in contemporary American public life, but a report I read in the Washington Post of December 16, 2005 concerning a research on human evolutionary history inspired me to change the topic.
I personally have an enduring curiosity about race, and my sojourn in the United States (unarguably the most racially sensitive society in the world) has only heightened this interest.
Why are some people black and others white, and yet others brown or red or yellow? What accounts for what appears to be the widely variegated physical differences between the races of the world? Is race a biological construct or a social construction of biology?
These questions are especially relevant because both science and religion (which have otherwise widely and wildly different views on the origins of the human form) have converged on the notion that the emergence of the human form is traceable to a single ancestor. If we all have a single ancestor, why are we so different? Or is our difference only skin deep?
Scientists at the Pennsylvania State University here in the United States said they have found answers to these ultimate, soul-searching questions. They said they have “discovered” how black skin mutated and evolved to the first white skin in the world.
(Never mind that no human skin can truly be white, else it will be spooky and ghostly! The adjective “white” was appropriated by Europeans and people of European descent to describe themselves because of the word’s association with purity, peace, holiness, innocence, power and beauty in the popular imagination.)
“The work suggests that the skin-whitening mutation occurred by chance in a single individual after the first human exodus from Africa, when all people were brown-skinned. That person's offspring apparently thrived as humans moved northward into what is now Europe, helping to give rise to the lightest of the world's races,” the Washington Post reports.
Ignore the reluctance—indeed the failure—of the Washington Post to admit that the humans that left Africa were black, or dark if you like, and not “brown”— whatever “brown” means, and that is assuming there is literal truth to the notion that Africa is the birth place of humanity.
However, the work provokes a flurry of new queries—not least of which is why white skin spread so widely in northern climes once it emerged among hitherto dark-skinned people. The research claimed that lighter skin offered a strong survival benefit for people who wandered out of Africa because it heightened the intensity of their bone-strengthening vitamin D in the new sunless clime.
It also conjectured that the “novelty” and “showiness” of the white skin made it more “attractive” to those in search of mates, what the researchers called “sexual selection.”
And how did they arrive at these definitive conclusions? According to the Washington Post, the “discovery” was a fortuitous offshoot of research on inch-long zebra fish! After finding a gene in the fish that, when mutated, impedes its capability to make its distinctive black stripes, the team scanned human DNA databases to see if an analogous gene exists in humans.
To their astonishment, according to the Washington Post, they found practically the same pigment-building genes in humans, chickens, dogs, cows and many other species, a clue of its genetic utility. When they reportedly looked in a new database comparing the DNA sequence of four of the world's main races, they found that whites with northern and western European ancestry have a mutated version of the gene.
This study stretches my credulity to the limit, perhaps because I do not have the scientific sophistication to understand it. (I’m only a journalist/journalism educator—and a numerophobic one at that!) But I not only have issues with the methodological soundness, even propriety, of the study; I also have issues with its implicit assumptions and presumptions—and what it left out.
Let’s begin with what it left out. Why do Arabs, for instance, who live in the hottest hemisphere of the world, have light skins? What of light-skinned aboriginal Africans like the Fulani and the Igbo and several others? How did they come about their relatively light skins?
Why do Papua New Guineans in Polynesia (near Australia and Indonesia) have dark skins even though they have been living in the Northern Hemisphere probably for as long as, if not longer than, the first whites? What of the Aborigines of Australia who are native to Australia? How did they get their dark skin?
Again, one might ask why black people who have been in the United States and Europe for over 400 years still remain black. Well, the research has a tacit answer for that. It said it’s because most of the food people now eat has Vitamin D, so late arrivals to the North have no need for “evolutionary” vitamins!
Remember that it is the search for Vitamin D to adjust to the new Northern clime that supposedly led the black gene to mutate to produce the first white person.
The implicit assumption that effortlessly flows from this is that black people—or brown people, if you will—are less evolved humans than whites, and are only a degree (maybe some degrees) away from monkeys, our so-called evolutionary cousins. This endorses the long-standing racist notion that the purported subnormal human intelligence of blacks in relation to white people is the result of our being stuck in the infancy of the evolutionary process.
Similarly, the claim that the white skin spread in the Northern Hemisphere because of its “attractiveness” subliminally privileges “whiteness” over blackness and reinforces the racist mythology that black is ugly, which unfortunately some self-loathing Africans have internalized.
It is conceivable that these “findings” will redefine discussions about race in America—and the world. The study is particularly noteworthy coming on the heels of recent scientific revelations that all people—black, white, brown, red, yellow or other—are more than 99.9 percent genetically identical, which vitiated the biological validity of the concept of race.
That is why this study strikes me as no more than right-wing pseudo science to intellectualize white supremacy and perpetuate the myth of the innate inferiority of blacks. The Ku Klux Klan (a fringe, white supremacist, racist group whose goal is to eliminate all non-white, particularly black, people from the United States; the white American equivalent of OPC in Nigeria) has been armed with pseudo intellectual armory to justify their advocacy for the mass murder of “less evolved” blacks from the Western Hemisphere.
My intellectual orientation and socialization predispose me to have a skeptical disposition toward the grand cosmological and ontological questions of life. I think the world is too complex to be reduced to a simple set of binaries and conjectures.
An ancient Persian philosopher, whose name I cannot remember for the life of me, once compared the world to an old manuscript of which the first and last pages are irretrievably missing; no one can say with certainty how the first page looked, nor can anyone say with any precision the nature and form of the last page.
I have often been persuaded by this pithy and instructive analogy.