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No Matter If You’re Black or White

Race and Skin Color Variation

Co Authors:

Srikripa Chandrasekaran
Department of Biology
Furman University

Linda Niedziela
Biology Department
Elon University


Human populations have adapted to varying intensities of sunlight with varying tones of skin coloration. The balanced interplay between melanin content and UV absorption allowed populations to successfully migrate from sub-Saharan Africa by influencing levels of two key vitamins: vitamin D and folic acid. This case study explores the evolutionary advantage of different skin tones for the human race; it also emphasizes the absence of scientific evidence for the correlation of abilities, talents, and other complex traits to skin color, and exposes certain social misconceptions linking skin color to specific traits. Although the discussion of race is not always a comfortable fit for science and biology courses, this case study uses the topic as an inherently interesting and important subject for applying basic biological concepts of DNA, the central dogma, and mutations to real world questions of physical difference and skin color. This case has been used in biology courses for non-science majors but would also be appropriate for advanced high school students.

  • Apply knowledge of genetics to explain skin color variability in human populations and its relationship to the concept of race.
  • Integrate concepts of biology including gene expression, evolution, adaptation, and mutation.
  • Learn that a gene responsible for melanin production in humans is also found in zebrafish, allowing for better understanding of human skin color evolution.
  • Understand how the interplay between melanin content and UV absorption regulates levels of vitamin D and folic acid, thereby facilitating human evolution.
  • Appreciate that variations in skin color do not correlate with other characteristics associated with race, including intelligence, musical talent, and athletic ability.
Keywords: melanin; vitamin D; folic acid; skin color; SLC24A5; UV radiation; race; evolution;
Topical Area: Ethics, Social issues, Social justice issues
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division, General public & informal education
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Analysis (Issues), Discussion, Interrupted
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Cell Biology   Genetics / Heredity   Evolutionary Biology   Biochemistry   Science (General)   Anthropology  
Date Posted: 3/9/2018
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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