One of the most important findings from recent genetic work, she says, is that the same skin colors have evolved multiple times in human history. In South America and Polynesia and the Mediterranean, for example, people have evolved highly tannable skin, and they’ve done so independently, in each instance involving different genes. Similarly, lightly pigmented, or what Jablonski calls de-pigmented, skin has evolved not just once or twice, but probably at least three times. “For an evolutionary biologist, any time you find evidence of this kind of convergent evolution it’s very exciting,” she says. “The same mechanisms are operating in a repeatable and predictable fashion. You may have two people of identical skin color whose pigmentation genes are very different.”
Other studies have shown that the genes that determine pigmentation are different from those that code for things like facial features. “That means there’s no such thing as a racial complex of color, hair, eyes, nose shape, or whatever,” Jablonski says. “These things travel independently of one another in human evolution.”
Biologically, in fact, there is no such thing as race at all. Which is not to say, she hastens to add, that race isn’t a real and enduring force in people’s lives—a matter, too often literally, of life and death. What’s left to understand, she argues, is the social construct. And for Jablonski, the initial question to be answered was how that construct arose in the first place. Her 2012 book, Living Color, documents her exploration.
“There’s no such thing as a racial complex of color, hair, eyes, nose shape, or whatever,” Jablonski says. Biologically, in fact, there is no such thing as race at all.
Jablonski traces the class meaning of skin color in traditional agrarian societies, where light skin was the privilege of those not forced to work in the sun. She recounts the first meetings between European explorers and the native peoples they encountered—the astonishment at seeing human beings who looked so different, which soon gave way to disapproval and condemnation of the Other. “The negativity of the explorers’ written accounts had a disproportionate effect on how Europeans framed their ideas of dark-pigmented people,” she says.
More disturbing, in her eyes, is the history of scientific racism. By the mid-18th century philosophers like Immanuel Kant were pondering the origins of human diversity. “Kant defined four races and grouped them hierarchically, with the European race at the top,” Jablonski says. “His ideas have no basis in experimental observation—they reflect his own, emotionally-based agenda.” But Kant’s prominence gave his writings extraordinary influence on other Enlightenment thinkers, some of whom in turn reinterpreted Biblical allusions regarding light and dark in order to justify their views.
“So you have this whole set of cultural memes that begin to take on a life of their own,” Jablonski says. “Not coincidentally, these were really crystallized at the height of the transatlantic slave trade. What you have is a nexus of unfavorable forces that promoted the rigid definition and hierarchical installment of races based on imperfect and emotionally based data and commercial gain.”
De-Installing RaceJablonski calls the historical linking of skin color with character “humanity’s greatest intellectual fallacy.” The question now, she says, is “How can we retrieve this? How do we begin the long-term process of de-installing race from our national and, indeed, global consciousness?”
The answer, she firmly believes, is to make race education prominent in the classroom. In a recent interview on NPR she talked about introducing discussions of race into primary schools—not bogging down in details of evolutionary biology, but teaching the basics of how human diversity came about, and how people have thought about race through the centuries.
“It’s taken us over two hundred years to get into this mess, and it’s going to take us a long time to get out of it. But we have to start.”
“It needs to be part of the educational landscape,” she says. “And it has to begin early. Often by the time we talk about these things, when kids come to college, the horse is out of the barn. We’re trying to reverse years of prejudice. We need to try to prevent many of these misconceptions and racial biases from being installed in the first place.”
She is currently working with historian and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. to develop a national curriculum focused on human diversity, with the dual purpose of getting kids thinking about race and sparking their interest in science. The three-year program recently received funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and will be piloted in summer camps including Penn State’s popular “Science U.”
In South Africa, where she has worked for over a decade, Jablonski is collaborating with a writer and an illustrator to produce a graphic novel on the evolution of skin color. The target audience is middle-school students. She has already landed a South African publisher, and hopes eventually to bring out an edition in the U.S.
Jablonski has also convened the “Effects of Race” initiative, bringing together an international cast of scholars and artists at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town, to look for fresh insights into issues of race. One current project hopes to inform the South African government’s efforts to update its categories for the classification of its people, which persist from the apartheid era.
Back home, she is proud to be talking and working with colleagues across Penn State. “With Paul Taylor and Robert Berlusconi in philosophy, Sam Richards in sociology, Gary King in biobehavioral health—among others—we have quietly built up a group of really influential scholars here who are working on complementary projects, coming from different perspectives to look at racial inequality, how it came about, and what can be done to change it. They are also expert public communicators.”
Jablonski herself feels a strong responsibility to continue with her busy public schedule. “The buck has been passed on this topic for generations,” she says. “I think everyone who has the ability to speak outside the academy should do so.
“I’m under no illusions,” she quickly adds. “It’s taken us over two hundred years to get into this mess, and it’s going to take us a long time to get out of it. But we have to start. This has to be a national priority. If we don’t begin to grasp this nettle now, I’m afraid we’re doomed.”
This story first appeared in the October 2015 issue of Research|Penn State magazine.