Outreach

#WakandanSTEM: Teaching the evolution of skin color

Estimated reading time: 3 mins  (608 words)

February has been a good month.

I got featured on my friend Alexis’ blog for her: ‘Sully Asks A Scientist’ series.

My birthday brought me some major wardrobe upgrades (thanks to my partner’s great taste):

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This jacket ❤

And, most importantly, I went to see Black Panther. TWICE. And it may have resulted in me acting a little extra since…

 

Plenty of people have talked about how amazing this movie is and there’s a lot of great analysis on the story and aesthetics.

But what I want to talk about is the impact it’s had.

The memes, the outfits, the pure joy!

Black Panther has gotten so many of us to dream about a glorious Afrofuturistic world and I think that’s just magical.

I for one, want to see #WakandanSTEM happen.

I want Shuri to be our patron saint.

 

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Nothing but respect for MY princess

 

Next time someone asks me what I’m doing after this PhD, I’m gonna say I’m applying to be a professor at the University of Wakanda.

If I were a professor at U of Wakanda, I would, of course, be teaching Biological Anthropology and about 60% of my curriculum on Human Variation would be African Diversity (instead of the traditional 0%).

My favorite part would undoubtedly be teaching about the evolution of African hair diversity (but that’s going to have to wait until I actually have some results from this PhD).

A close second would be teaching about the evolution of skin color and African skin color diversity (which I’ve talked about before).

Even outside of the fictional realm of Wakanda, I love teaching about the evolution of skin color.

It’s one of the most amazingly diverse human traits and it has such a cool evolutionary history.

This summer, when I was teaching at the Genetics & Genealogy summer camp, I had the opportunity to teach the kids about the evolution of skin color.

It’s the most fun I’ve ever had teaching!

I loved watching these kids be amazed and excited at how evolution had generated all of the diversity that they see around them today.

 

And on a more personal level, I was really happy to be able to tell all the children of color in that room a story about skin color that was happy…

When I was growing up, the only time I was made aware of my skin color was when we were reading books discussing racism and the history of slavery.

Don’t get me wrong, these things are very important, and they should be taught.

But these were the only times I ever heard about and saw dark skin.

This means that throughout my time at school, kids (of all backgrounds) only learnt about dark skin in negative contexts.

Can you imagine how hard it is to think about your skin and only associate it with pain, injustice, and shame?

So, I’m really happy that after teaching them about the evolution of skin color, these kids will be able to associate dark skin with the wonders of natural selection.

They’ll know that dark skin is excellent at protecting you and your folate from the sun!

They’ll know that this is a trait that evolved in many different groups after generations of living in a sunny environment.

They will be able to look at dark skin and think about how amazing melanin is!

And I hope that knowing all these things will bring them joy and make them smile.

 

If you want to have a look at me teaching this lesson here is the video and I have links to the teaching resources below.

 

Link to the teaching resources on fyrclassroom.org

 

4 thoughts on “#WakandanSTEM: Teaching the evolution of skin color”

  1. I think, if we’re really trying to represent the subject well, then any conversation about genetic diversity should be around 80% about sub-Saharan Africa, given that that’s where about 80% of human genetic diversity is to be found (iirc).

    Also, I loved the recent paper that said Cheddar Man (one of the earliest humans in the UK) almost certainly had dark (“black”) skin: one in the eye for all the idiot “nativists” in the UK.

    The effects of colonialism and the Anglo-American hegemony of scientific/politic conversations even today is evident in the fact that very few people come right out and point out that, demographically, white skin and blond/brunet/ginger hair is actually a minority aberration for the human species, even today contributing to probably less than 10% of the earth’s population.

    Thank you for fighting the good fight (although I have qualms about Wakanda being a hereditary monarchy, but that’s a different matter).

    Like

    1. I would not call any of those traits “aberrations” – that implies that there is a static human norm and that one can deviate from it. But evolution means that humans, like all other organisms, are always changing and no one human phenotype is any more essentially representative of ‘humanity’ than another.

      Also, these aren’t categorical traits that are present/absent in entire populations, but continuous traits that are seen in spectrums of pigmentation around the world (not just Europeans).

      There are very light skinned Africans in South African (I talked about this in the blog post on African skin color diversity). There are also very light skinned indigenous Americans and East Asian populations. Blond hair is seen in dark-skinned Melanesians and Australian Aborigines and there’s red hair in Middle Eastern and West Asian populations. Not to mention the many people in various populations with albinisms that cause depigmentation.

      More importantly, I don’t think we should be going down the majority/minority line of argumentation in terms of assigning importance to particular phenotypes. A lot of white supremacists, in fact, argue that precisely because blond hair, blue eyes, and light skin are rare (and everyone else is this blur of black and brown, in their eyes), these phenotypes are more precious and need to be “protected” from extinction.

      Although I agree with rectifying the status quo by giving more attention to dark pigmentation and African phenotypes, I think it’s important and possible to do so without deprecating other phenotypes (not least because a lot of non-Europeans become collateral damage in those insults).

      Re: Cheddar Man, I also enjoyed the reminder that current populations are not always representative of previous populations that lived somewhere (evolution is a thing). Although, I’m always wary of forensic reconstructions for many reasons…

      Re: Monarchy, I’m with you on this one – power shouldn’t be unequally distributed and it most definitely shouldn’t be hereditary.

      Sorry for the long reply, but I felt it was important to clarify my position on this.

      Liked by 1 person

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