Science and Race
16 December, 2005
The work suggests that the skin-whitening mutation occurred by chance in a single individual after the first human exodus from Africa, when all people were brown-skinned. That person’s offspring apparently thrived as humans moved northward into what is now Europe, helping to give rise to the lightest of the world’s races.
Leaders of the study, at Penn State University, warned against interpreting the finding as a discovery of “the race gene.” Race is a vaguely defined biological, social and political concept, they noted, and skin color is only part of what race is — and is not.
In fact, several scientists said, the new work shows just how small a biological difference is reflected by skin color. The newly found mutation involves a change of just one letter of DNA code out of the 3.1 billion letters in the human genome — the complete instructions for making a human being.
“It’s a major finding in a very sensitive area,” said Stephen Oppenheimer, an expert in anthropological genetics at Oxford University, who was not involved in the work. “Almost all the differences used to differentiate populations from around the world really are skin deep.”
Race is such a touchy issue – even to scientists.