Variations in skin color provide one of the best examples of evolution by natural selection acting on the human body and should be used to teach evolution in schools, according to a Penn State anthropologist.
"There is an inherent level of interest in skin color and for teachers, that is a great bonus -- kids want to know," said Nina Jablonski, professor and head, Department of Anthropology, Penn State. "The mechanism of evolution can be completely understood from skin color."
Scientists have understood for years that evolutionary selection of skin pigmentation was caused by the sun. As human ancestors gradually lost their pelts to allow evaporative cooling through sweating, their naked skin was directly exposed to sunlight. In the tropics, natural selection created darkly pigmented individuals to protect against the sun.
Ultraviolet B radiation produces vitamin D in human skin, but can destroy folate. Folate is important for the rapid growth of cells, especially during pregnancy, when its deficiency can cause neural tube defects. Destruction of folate and deficiencies in vitamin D are evolutionary factors because folate-deficient mothers produce fewer children who survive, and vitamin D-deficient women are less fertile than healthy women.
Dark skin pigmentation in the tropics protects people from folate destruction, allowing normal reproduction. However, because levels of ultraviolet B are high year round, the body can still produce sufficient vitamin D. As humans moved out of Africa, they moved into the subtropics and eventually inhabited areas up to the Arctic Circle. North or south of 46 degrees latitude -- Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, Western Europe and Mongolia -- dark-skinned people could not produce enough vitamin D, while lighter-skinned people could and thrived. Natural selection of light skin occurred.
The differences between light-skinned and dark-skinned people are more interesting than studying changes in the wing color o
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