The Mystery Surrounding Our Layers of Skin

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The Mystery Surrounding Our Layers of Skin

Our skin is a reflection of our biological, cultural and personal history all wrapped into one. That time you fell down a flight of stairs resulting in a large gash on your thigh? Recorded. What about that stressful finals week when your face started to break out in dark red pimples? Check, check check. In some sense, our largest organ to ever exist on our bodies, our skin has provided us with not only a physical embodiment of our latest mishaps and missteps, but provides us with much more than what meets the eye. Through further analysis and understanding of the enigmatic aspects of the various layers of Skin, written by Nina Jablonski, a Bryn Mawr Alum (Biology major!) and departmental head of Penn State University’s Anthropology Department, we will be able to chronicle what exactly makes our protective outer shell so unique.

Our skin is often underestimated in its role as a protector of organs against outside elements and holds one of the most intriguing and deep histories that I never believed to be imaginable prior to beginning to unfold each layer of the mysteries underneath the Skin. Throughout the novel, Jablonski offers insight into the various unique attributes and qualities of skin that ranges from a closer look into the scars and tears left on our skin’s surface to the evolutionary history of the social concept of race.

So what causes our skin to leave these physical remnants of our past accidents behind?

Wherever we look on our skin, there is a constant scar that are left behind as a reminder of our past-whether it be chicken pox that we got in 3rd grade or the acne marks on our faces. What is the main difference between those which leave no mark and those which leave solid imprints on our skin? Although the formation of scars is a rather random occurrence, the over-growth of collagen in the infected area can lead to those prominent and deep scars. When there is an over-growth of the collagen and the boundaries between the wound and scar tissue begin to form a raised scar, which eventually results in a scar. Through further understanding of our largest organ, our skin, we can begin to realize who we are biologically and anthropologically as humans.

Throughout this intriguing novel written in both from anthropological and biological interpretations, since Dr. Jablonski is an expert in both fields, it became increasingly evident how related these two fields are. In my previous web paper, Race as an Illusion: What Determines Race? I discussed the problems associated with using racial profiling as a form of justification for feeling superiority over another and cited Dr. Watson (of the Watson-Crick models used in Biology classes) in which he stated that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”[1]. Aside from the obvious facts that Dr. Watson had made these racist generalizations about a particular group without any genetic evidence or facts, one of the most intriguing arguments that can be made against those who paint these broad brushstrokes about certain groups of people is made within Jablonski’s chapter on Color.

In current human society, we often struggle to define ourselves and others in terms of this imaginary socially-constructed scale that we call “race”. As a direct result, we often find ourselves using race as a scapegoat in order to explain the differences that exists in human society and we more often than not overlook the concept of gene flow and genetic diversity. The deep-rooted concept of human evolution in skin pigmentation in fact provides one of the most compelling examples of natural selection at work in the human lineage. As modern humans began to leave tropical Africa for far and environmentally-diverse places, they began to adapt to these new habitats. One such important adaptation was in fact their skin pigmentation.

This is where one of the main components of skin pigmentation, melanin, which is the “name given to a family of complex polymeric pigments” and some components of Vitamin D comes into play. Jablonski states that in some sense, the “melanin levels in the skin represent a compromise” and therefore results in the changes in skin pigment over some period of time. Thus, the evolution of skin color in relation to the melanin levels present in the skin and the high/low levels of UVR in the environment presented important factors which influenced the pigmentation of the skin in various regions of the world. In other words, if there is very high levels of UVR (such as in African nations), it becomes important and advantageous to adapt and adjust to include more melanin in your skin. Therefore, those who have darker skin colors that live near the equator in Africa have over time adjusted in levels of melanin in their skin, resulting in the variation in skin pigmentation.

Even though it is often generalized that human skin pigmentation is simply a direct result of genes and traits passed on from parents, this proves that in fact our skin is more than skin deep. It isn’t just simply influenced by one gene or trait, but is instead a synchronized effort by various roles of genes and external environmental factors.[2] Although there is clear scientific evidence to prove human adaptation caused major differences in skin pigmentation, many still abuse the term race in order to imply innate racial inferiority of some races.

Through further analyzing Nina Jablonski’s perspectives on the fascinating and versatile organ that is our skin, we can begin to realize how much we rely on it as a biological, physical and cultural record of who we are as humans. Our skin is constantly evolving both physically and biologically, adjusting to high/low levels of UVR through the secretion of melanin and healing open wounds. Perhaps it is time for us to evolve and redefine our racial categories by accepting each other for more than skin deep.



[1] Syal, Rajeev. “Scientist James Watson Flies Home After Employers Suspend Him”.
The Times.
20 October 2007. Times Newspaper Co. Ltd. 10 November 2007. <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article2697559.ece>

[2]Jablonski, Nina. Skin: A Natural History. London: University of California Press, 2006.

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