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Skin colour surprises

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phaeomelanin
This is not Eve! This woman does not produce much eumelanin, the dark-brown pigment found in human skin, hair, and eyes. She is, however, showing much phaeomelanin, hence her reddish colouration. Light colour tones would have been hidden in Adam and Eve, and the early human population, by darker gene variants. Yet, since ‘red’ is not found across the world, there is a possibility that it is caused by a post-Babel mutation.
Published: 23 November 2017 (GMT+10)

Our writers and speakers often get asked questions about race and racism. We have developed some pretty good answers, like the fact that Adam and Eve would have been ‘middle brown’ or that skin colour is, literally, only ‘skin deep’. Biblically, there is but one ‘race’ of people, but can we explain why people look different across the world? Actually, we can.

The question, “Where do the races come from?” has a new and better answer. For several years now, we have known what caused light skin colours in Eurasians.1 Genes with names like OCA2 and SLC24A5 have previously been identified among the main culprits. But what controls dark skin colour? Until recently, this has remained a bit of a puzzle. Europeans are almost all homozygous for the SLC24A5 gene, but the fact that Africans have a lot more diversity in their ‘skin colour’ genes made it difficult to pin down what causes their generally melanin-rich skin tones. This is no longer true, and the answer has nothing to do with evolution.

The first-ever study on the skin colour of Africans has now been published,2,3 and the results are not what most people expected. It turns out that the genes that control both light and dark skin colours are found across the world. In other words, these variants were in the original human population before we spread across the globe. This is exciting news! It means that all people on earth really are descended from a single source population, which we believe was at Babel.

commons.wikimedia.orgmelanin
This is not Adam! This boy with a deep, rich skin tone is expressing the maximum amount of melanin. It is unlikely that Adam and Eve would have been this dark, and as in the case with red hair, it is possible that the particular variant that causes this much melanin production was not in Adam and Eve.

And we now know why the skin of some people is much darker than others. A new variant of the MFSD12 gene has been identified in the most dark-skinned people from across the world. It acts to increase eumelanin and decrease phaeomelanin, the main pigments in human skin, hair, and eyes. Since eumelanain is darker than phaeomelanin, this explains the intense dark skin colour of the darkest people. The beautiful, melanin-rich skin of Central Africans, many people from Southern India, native Australians, and people from Island Melanesia is the same.

And the light skin seen, for example, in the Khoisan people of southern Africa is caused by the same genes that causes lighter skin tones in North Africa and other places. It turns out that the ‘light’ skin colour variants are found across Africa, but they are overwhelmed by the presence of the ‘dark’ skin colour variants, so they were not noticed until geneticists sampled the genes of many people.

Barrack-Obama
People of mixed-ethnic origin like the former US President Barack Obama are often quite light-skinned compared to most people’s (mistaken) idea of the typical person of African descent.

But we have to be careful when discussing Africa. First of all, the genetics of the people of North Africa is very similar to other Mediterranean peoples and very different from the people of sub-Saharan Africa. This was even more true in ancient times.4 North African peoples are not usually dark skinned. Second, there were probably many more light-skinned Africans in East and South Africa in the past than exist today. They were displaced during what is called the ‘Bantu Expansion’.5 Bantu-speaking peoples (like the Zulus and the Lemba6) are the dominant people group across most of sub-Saharan Africa today, but they were not the first people there. Instead, as they expanded they apparently pushed out or killed off the original inhabitants.7 When one people group invades the territory of another, this usually results in a lot of genetic mixing. We have seen in the Americas, for example, the presence of many European Y chromosomes and many Native American mitochondrial DNAs among the modern, mixed population.8 The same is not true of the Bantu lands. There are vast swaths of territory with no evidence that the original people mixed with the Bantu conquerors. In other words, the first people were exterminated. Putting two-and-two together, this would have resulted in the spread of dark-skinned variants across a greater geographic area, and it happened less than 2,000 years ago.

commons.wikimedia.orghuman-skin-colour-distribution
A rough map of skin colour across the world, based on older data. Several maps like this can be found online, and all are imperfect. However, this does give us a good idea of the historical distribution of the various skin colours. The surprising new finding is that the darker and lighter colours found in different places are caused by the same genetic variants, meaning they existed before people spread out on the earth. Alternative map and source: Barsh, G.S., What controls variation in human skin colour? PLoS Biology 1(1):e27, 2003.

What would Adam and Eve have looked like?

Adam-Eve
Adam and Eve would almost certainly have had a middle-brown colour in their skin and hair and they would have had brown eyes.

For many years, biblical creationists have been saying that Adam and Eve would be ‘middle brown’. Even though this was based on a lack of genetic knowledge, it turned out to be correct. Since most of the variants that affect skin, hair, and eye colour are found across the world, these must have been in the population prior to when we spread out around the world (after Babel), thus they must have been on the Ark, thus they were probably in Adam and Eve. But if you mix all these genes into one person, they would indeed have middle-brown skin and hair and brown eyes.

The one caveat that we must add is that mutations have certainly happened within the human genome since creation. And, ‘colour’ genes are an easy target for mutation because colouration can be changed without killing or harming the animal or person. This is the reason why we see white polar bears, brown grizzly bears, and black bears. It is also why we see black, chocolate, and yellow Labrador retrievers. These coat-colour variations are caused by changes in the hair-colour genes of these animals—and humans have very similar genes that control skin, hair, and eye colour.

commons.wikimedia.orgSan-ttribesman
Many native Africans are not nearly as dark skinned as most Westerners think, as in the case of this smiling Khoisan man. It is time we removed some of our stereotypes!

No genetic basis for racism

Despite what Charles Darwin and his disciples taught about human races, modern science has proven clearly that there is but one race. In fact, biblical creationists have been saying it for years, so it is nice that secular scientists have finally caught up. We can demonstrate this with a quote from a modern geneticist, Lluis Quintana-Murci:

“But the genes that explain the phenotypic differences between populations only represent a tiny part of our genome, confirming once again that the concept of ‘race’ from a genetic standpoint has been abolished.”9

That quote is nearly a decade old. Here is a more recent quote from another geneticist, Sarah Tishkoff:

“There is so much diversity in Africans that there is no such thing as an African race.”10

Clearly, science has come full circle. The Bible always claimed that all people were descended from Adam and Eve, and then from Noah and his family, in the recent past. Thus, the Bible clearly teaches that there is but one race of people. Modern genetics has shown this to be true.

No biblical basis for racism

We now know there no scientific basis for racism, but the Bible has always been clear on the subject.

“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Colossians 3:11)

If all people have equal standing before Christ, and if people from any culture or racial background can be saved, clearly there are no racial distinctions in God’s eyes.

“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord. (Isaiah 59:20)

That word “redeemer” is the same word used to describe Boaz in the book of Ruth. The Bible provided a way for people to have their debts paid off—a close relative could pay it in their stead. Hence, the Redeemer must be related to the people He is redeeming. It is important, then, that all people are descended from Adam!

“Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45)

How did the ‘last Adam’ (Jesus) become a life-giving spirit? By redeeming His people and saving them from the second death (Revelation 21:8).

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2:13-14)

I don’t know about you, but this descendant of Viking and Celtic pagans is overjoyed by the fact that someone like me, who once did not know God and whose ancestors were as wicked and rebellious against Him as possible, could have that “dividing wall of hostility” taken down. I am not a descendant of Jacob. I am not closely related to David. I am not anything like close kin to Jesus. Yet, because Jesus is a descendant of Adam, he could take on the debts of another descendant of Adam, me!

Where do the ‘races’ come from?

genealogy
The family tree of the 12 Tribes of Israel involves a strong genetic bottleneck. After many generations of inbreeding within the family, individuals in the final generation would have lost a great deal of genetic diversity. At the same time, some genetic variants would be found in two identical copies in all the brothers (i.e. the variant would become ‘fixed’). If that variant affected the way they looked (e.g., a height gene or a hair colour gene) a ‘race’ might appear quickly. Inbreeding like this would have happened in all human groups in the early years after Babel. See also Inbreeding and the Origin of Races.
Click for larger view.

So how do we explain the different people across the world? If we started with Adam and Eve, why do we not all look the same? If we all came from Noah’s family, and then out of Babel, why do we not share our looks?

The answer is not all that complicated. First, we do share nearly everything. There are millions of genetic variants found across the world in all populations. Second, we do share most of the genes that affect the way we look. This is clear from this new study on African skin-colour genes.

But, as people spread out from Babel, they would have done so in small groups. Large populations can hold a lot more genetic diversity than small populations. As people spread out, multiple independent genetic bottlenecks would have occurred. High levels of inbreeding would have happened in each of the resulting groups, and this would have continued for generations. This would serve to remove different genetic variants, at random, from within each of the post-Babel populations, and so each little group would be genetically different from the others. But the degree of difference depends on how small the population was, how long it stayed small, and how much they ‘interacted’ with their neighbors.

All you have to do is add a little bit of mutation (to account for things like sickle cell anemia and blue eyes) to this scenario and we have a way to explain the races with no need for millions of years or common ancestry with chimpanzees.

It is good science and it is good Bible. Thus, it is time to let go of old ideas of ‘race’.

References and notes

  1. Mallick, C.B. et al., The light skin allele of SLC24A5 in South Asians and Europeans shares identity by descent, PLoS Genetics 9(11):e1003912, 2013. Return to text.
  2. Hernandez-Pacheco, N. et al., Identification of a novel locus associated with skin colour in African-admixed populations, Nature: Scientific Reports 7:44548, 2017 | doi:10.1038/srep44548. Return to text.
  3. Gibbons, A., How Africans evolved a palette of skin tones, Science 358(6360):157–158, 2017. Return to text.
  4. Schuenemann, V.J. et al., Ancient Egyptian mummy genomes suggest an increase of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in post-Roman periods, Nat. Comm. 8:15694, 2017. Return to text.
  5. Tishkoff, S.A. et al., The genetic structure and history of Africans and African Americans, Science 324(5930):1035–1044, 2009. Return to text.
  6. Wilson, J.F. and Goldstein, D.B., Consistent long-range linkage disequilibrium generated by admixture in a Bantu-Semitic hybrid population, Am. J. Human Genetics 67:926–935, 2000. Return to text.
  7. Skoglund, P. et al., Reconstructing prehistoric African population structure, Cell 171:59–71, 2017. This was the first-ever study on ancient DNA in Africa, and the results are, therefore, a milestone in our understanding of the history of the continent. However, I thought it was more than a little insulting to call a 500-year-old African ‘iron age’ when the Europeans at the time were beginning their time of exploration and scientific discovery, or a 3,000-year old African ‘stone age’ when that was the time of King Solomon in Israel. Would anyone dare to say that the Native Americans belonged in the ‘Stone Age’ prior to 1492? Even if these terms are accepted in the academic community, it is time they were retired! Indeed, we have been advocating this for some time. Return to text.
  8. Wang, S. et al., Geographic patterns of genetic admixture in Latin America, PLoS Genetics 4(3):e1000037, 2008. Return to text.
  9. Quintana-Murci, L., National Centre for Scientific Research (France), “Human variation chalked up to natural selection: study”, PhysOrg.com, 4 Feb 2008. Return to text.
  10. Quoted in Gibbons, 2017, ref 3. Return to text.

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