Did Clothing Help Determine Our Shade of Skin?

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Why do people in northern climates tend to have lighter skin while those in southern climates have darker skin? It’s long been thought that darker skin serves as a protection from skin cancer and helps to prevent the breakdown of an important nutrient, folic acid, while lighter skin is better for producing vitamin D in regions that receive less sunlight. But a new study is challenging this long-held idea.1

The authors of this study argue that “the most common form of fatal skin cancer occurs above the age of 70.”2 Since that is past peak reproductive age, they say “natural selection is unlikely to have favored the stronger cancer protection afforded by dark skin.” Additionally, UV rays that destroy folic acid “rarely penetrate the skin down to the blood vessels where it resides.” They also cite research that shows that “darkly pigmented individuals . . . are still quite efficient at producing vitamin D.” So what explains lighter skin in the north and darker skin in the south?

Darker Skin = Stronger Skin

This study offers a new perspective. According to their research, darker skin is stronger and provides a better environmental barrier. Darker skin “has far better function, including a better barrier to water loss, stronger cohesion, and better antimicrobial defense.” They claim that “because deeply pigmented skin requires more energy to produce . . . our ancestors shed some of these pigments through natural selection as they moved north and needed less protection against these threats.”

They theorize that the additional clothing needed for warmth in northern climates meant that northerners no longer needed darker skin. Clothing provided many of the same benefits as darker skin, which takes more energy to produce. So they postulate natural selection selected for lighter skin and against darker skin.

Adam + Eve = All Skin Tones?

According to these evolutionary scientists, certain humans lost their deeply pigmented skin as they moved north out of Africa. How should we look at this new study in a biblical worldview?

Scripture makes it clear that we are all descendants of the first human couple, Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:27, 3:20; 1 Corinthians 15:45). So how did we get all the skin tones from just two people? Skin tone is determined by a pigment called melanin, which is controlled by genetics. A lot of melanin produces a darker shade of brown; a little melanin produces a lighter shade. If Adam and Eve were middle brown, it is possible, within just one generation, that they produced skin tones from very light to very dark. Explaining the variety in skin tones is no problem in a biblical worldview.

Tower of Babel = Unique Genetic Combinations

This new research tells us nothing about the supposed evolutionary history of mankind.

This new research tells us nothing about the supposed evolutionary history of mankind. The researchers have simply interpreted it that way because of their presuppositions. From a biblical perspective, we know that mankind spread out across the world from the Tower of Babel, when God confused the languages just over 4,000 years ago. Different families took unique combinations of genes to separate geographical locations. The language and geographical barriers helped isolate these unique combinations of genes, which is why we have different people groups all over the globe.

If this new research is correct, it may be one of the factors why those who went north tended to have lighter skin, and those who went south tended to have darker skin. It’s not evolution; it’s just variation in skin shade caused by different combinations of genes and possibly humans adapting to diverse environments, a process that occurred in the recent past. No new information has been added to the genome of the type necessary to change one kind of organism into a completely different kind of organism, as evolution requires. All the information needed to produce skin shades from around the world was present from the beginning.

Footnotes

  1. Liz Droge-Young, “Darker Skin is Stronger Skin, Says New View of Human Skin Color,” University of California San Francisco, June 24, 2016, https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2016/06/403401/darker-skin-stronger-skin-says-new-view-human-skin-color.
  2. However, recall that the first four generations after the Flood had lifespans of over 400 years (assuming that Shem's descendants are average representatives), and therefore the reproductive age almost certainly exceeded 70 years.

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