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Thread: Scientists Find Genetic Mutation for White Skin

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    Scientists Find Genetic Mutation for White Skin

    Scientists Find A DNA Change That Accounts For White Skin

    By Rick Weiss
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 16, 2005; Page A01



    Scientists said yesterday that they have discovered a tiny genetic mutation that largely explains the first appearance of white skin in humans tens of thousands of years ago, a finding that helps solve one of biology's most enduring mysteries and illuminates one of humanity's greatest sources of strife.

    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.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn...121501728.html


    Perhaps nothing new here, but interesting. I personally find their theory about white skin becoming a dominant genetic trait simply because it was perceived as being exotic or unusual is somewhat ridiculous. The theory that it became dominant because it was perceived as more beautiful is, I think, more plausible.


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    Re: Scientists Find Genetic Mutation for White Skin

    A single human was suddenly born with white skin, made an exodus from Africa, and thus started the Germanic race?

    What a discovery...

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    Re: Scientists Find Genetic Mutation for White Skin

    Obviously the skin pigmentation - vitamin D production correlation seems to be crucial. Another point is that no matter if it was seen more beautiful or not, it could only become dominant in a area with less UV-exposure or at least better means of protection (clothes).
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    Re: Scientists Find Genetic Mutation for White Skin

    I just want to point out some of the more problematic elements of this article, which I think have the tendency to be dangerously misinterpreted (though probably not by anyone here).

    From the article:
    Skin color is a reflection of the amount and distribution of the pigment melanin, which in humans protects against damaging ultraviolet rays but in other species is also used for camouflage or other purposes. The mutation that deprives zebra fish of their stripes blocks the creation of a protein whose job is to move charged atoms across cell membranes, an obscure process that is crucial to the accumulation of melanin inside cells.

    Humans of European descent, Cheng's team found, bear a slightly different mutation that hobbles the same protein with similar effect. The defect does not affect melanin deposition in other parts of the body, including the hair and eyes, whose tints are under the control of other genes. [emphasis added]
    Just so we're all clear on what defect means, see this from the OED:
    1. The fact of being wanting or falling short; lack or absence of something essential to completeness (opposed to excess); deficiency. 2. A shortcoming or failing; a fault, blemish, flaw, imperfection (in a person or thing).
    But then see what they say about the effects of this gene:
    Unlike most mutations, this one quickly overwhelmed its ancestral version, at least in Europe, suggesting it had a real benefit. Many scientists suspect that benefit has to do with vitamin D, made in the body with the help of sunlight and critical to proper bone development.

    Sun intensity is great enough in equatorial regions that the vitamin can still be made in dark-skinned people despite the ultraviolet shielding effects of melanin. In the north, where sunlight is less intense and cold weather demands that more clothing be worn, melanin's ultraviolet shielding became a liability, the thinking goes.
    It sounds to me like the real defect (or in other words the deficiency or lack of something essential) — according to this very same article — is in the amount of sunlight dark-skinned folk get.

    But it gets even better:
    Cheng and co-worker Victor A. Canfield said their discovery could have practical spinoffs. A gene so crucial to the buildup of melanin in the skin might be a good target for new drugs against melanoma, for example, a cancer of melanin cells in which slc24a5 works overtime.
    So apparently this so-called defect could end up being a cure for cancer. In what way, exactly, is this mutation a lack or absence of something essential to completion? If anything, it seems like this mutation would be the spontaneous creation of a new kind of superhuman. And still they associate the word defect with white skin — talk about a cheap smear tactic.

    But this is not the only problem:
    Recent revelations that all people are more than 99.9 percent genetically identical has proved that race has almost no biological validity.
    Now I'm not talking about their difficulty with managing subject-verb agreement, but rather their claim that 0.1% variation in the population is insignificant. Sure, 0.1% sounds like a tiny number, but because it is a percentage, to understand it, it must be put into proper perspective:
    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.
    Okay, so the variation among humans in the human genome is 0.1% of 3.1 billion letters. Since this article is in the Washington Post, I will assume that billion here means 1,000,000,000. That means that the variation in human genes occurs over roughly 3,100,000 letters in the genome. And just one of those 3.1 million is sufficient to alter skin color from black to white. What differences might the other 3,099,999 letters account for? Perhaps sharing 99.9% of our genes doesn't disprove the concept of race in the least. After all, it only takes 0.00000003% of our genes to change skin from black to white.

    They underscore their own stupidity with this concept here:
    Yet geneticists' claims that race is a phony construct have not rung true to many nonscientists -- and understandably so, said Vivian Ota Wang of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda. "You may tell people that race isn't real and doesn't matter, but they can't catch a cab," Ota Wang said. "So unless we take that into account it makes us sound crazy."
    Now notice that Vivian Ota Wang was not part of the team that claimed to find this mutation — this is her first appearance in the article and it comes at the very end. But look at what she's saying: simple cab drivers can tell if a person is Negroid with sufficient consistency that the Negroid cannot hire their services.

    My father is a trained herpetological taxonomist. He counts scales on the heads of lizards to see whether two different populations belong to the same subspecies. The rule is that if a careful observer can identify a given decontextualized specimen as belonging to one of two or several particular mutually fertile groups 75% of the time, then difference between those groups is more than a difference of variety, race, or breed, but is in fact subspecial. And a careful observer is someone who is willing to count the scales on a lizard's head, if need be, to make the identification. But the untrained cab driver — and everyone else frankly — can correctly identify a decontextualized Negroid (meaning, no information about his ancestry or homeland is provided — just the physical appearance) as a Negroid well over 75% of the time. The same is true for Europoids, Mongoloids, and so on. They are not just different races, but different subspecies. These geneticists who work in their little laboratories with their microscopes and call themselves biologists (that is, students of life) try to deny the truth that's so obvious that no training is required to see it. No wonder they sound crazy.

    But an even deeper problem shows up in the article than all of this:
    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.
    Now I'm not talking about the asexual reproduction they attribute to this sole white human, but rather the unproven assumption that all people were once brown-skinned and came from a single African source. The claim for the single African source, as far as I was taught, is based pretty much entirely on the fact that the oldest hominid skeletons have been found in Africa. It sounds like a classic example of post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking to me. And as for all humans once being brown-skinned, I don't think this find is sufficient to prove any such thing.

    This article gives the impression that the only variation between such specimens as these two Evangelical Lutheran bishops is due entirely to issues of pigmentation.
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    I don't buy it.

    And neither do real scientists. Despite the article's quote from Stephen Oppenheimer (another fellow not involved in the study on the gene causing white skin) to the effect that "almost all the differences used to differentiate populations from around the world really are skin deep," many scientists who actually specialize in some much more internal medicine find huge racial differences in subcutaneous matters. See this delightful discussion from the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, for example, of the fact that Caucasians have significantly less lumbar spinal bone mineral density than nonwhites, leading to a higer rate of lumbar vertebral fractures among Caucasians. My guess is that Stephen Oppenheimer has never had to treat broken backs and tell his patients that their pain was only skin deep.

    An interesting sidenote in this article on the gene for white skin is the following:
    The work also reveals for the first time that Asians owe their relatively light skin to different mutations. That means that light skin arose independently at least twice in human evolution, in each case affecting populations with the facial and other traits that today are commonly regarded as the hallmarks of Caucasian and Asian races.
    So white skin evolved independently and has different genetic causes in different populations: the same or similar phenotypical expression of differing genotypes developed independently. If this similarity between the northern Asian and the European is due to independent evolution toward similar phenotypes, then might not the similarity between Africans and Europeans also be due to the same? Maybe we're not mutated Africans just because we've found older skeletons in Africa than we have in Europe — maybe we are the evolution of hominid-level primates in Europe just as Africans are the evolution of hominid-level primates in Africa. Convergent evolution is used to explain a great number of similarities between distant populations — why should it not be a valid explanation for humans as well? This article seems to show that it has happened in the matter of depigmentation at least.

    Like so much scientific reporting (even in formerly respectable journals), this article gives some bits of truth and heaps of fallacy. The truth is, most likely, that they have found a high degree of co-occurrence between this particular genotype and white skin in Europoids. They have also found a high degree of co-occurrence between a different genotype and white skin in Mongoloids. But the truth is kind of boring, so they start speculating about causes for what they've found and ramifications of what they've found.

    Even the claim that the genotype they see co-occurring with Europoid depigmentation is due to some primeval mutation is likely just speculation. I've not read their study, but it seems highly unlikely to me that they could know that this particular genetic code is a mutation of some other — it could just as easily be the other way around — it could even more easily be that both followed different paths to get to where they now are.

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    Re: Scientists Find Genetic Mutation for White Skin

    Great comments Leofric but to question the "Out of Africa" thesis is not necessarily to criticise the article which has its faults as you has shown with excellence and in detail.
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    Re: Scientists Find Genetic Mutation for White Skin

    Quote Originally Posted by Agrippa
    Obviously the skin pigmentation - vitamin D production correlation seems to be crucial. Another point is that no matter if it was seen more beautiful or not, it could only become dominant in a area with less UV-exposure or at least better means of protection (clothes).
    I'm perfectly satisfied with the vitamin D attribution. I think it's all rather silly....that they would go to such great lengths to disprove something that is so perfectly obvious, and something which, as Leofric has pointed out, is accepted with other species without question - subspecies differentiation.


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    Re: Scientists Find Genetic Mutation for White Skin

    I always knew race was only skin deep.

    More here and here (albino Negroes).

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    Re: Scientists Find Genetic Mutation for White Skin

    They look like tried up turds with eyes.

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