Nina Jablonski on Darwin’s Birthday Suit

I’m standing in for Ethan Zuckerman, blogging from TED today. This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as on Technorati.


Nina Jablonski is author of Skin: A Natural History, a close look at human skin’s many remarkable traits: its colors, its sweatiness, the fact that we decorate it.

She dives into the life of Darwin. Specifically, she is talking about human skin pigmentation. Darwin rejected the idea that skin color was determined by the sun, the environment. Nina states: “if only he lived today, If only Darwin had NASA.”

What Darwin didn’t appreciate, was that there was a fundamental relationship between ultraviolet radiation from the sun and people’s skin color. She shows a map of the predicted skin color derived from multiple regression analysis.

Map of skin color

Darkly pigmented skin is highly protective under intense UVR areas, melanin is a natural sunscreen. She states that as people moved around the world, from high UV to low UV areas, there were skin color repercussions.

On how the globalization of travel (example: a white African’s like me, living in Sudan as a kid) : “We are living in environments where our skin pigmentation is not properly adapted.” There are both health and social consequences.

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One Response to Nina Jablonski on Darwin’s Birthday Suit

  1. Tod says:

    “Darwin rejected the idea that skin color was determined by the sun, the environment”

    Despite living in the high UV Kalahari, Bushmen (who may be older than other African populatiions) are light brown like most of humanity.

    Nina Jablonski’s explanation hold fails at the extremes of pigmentation: North Europeans and West Africans. People who live at similar latitudes to them do not share their pigmentation.

    Here is a hypothesis that suggests Darwin was not so wrong afer all.

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