Like many highly variable human traits, more than a dozen genes are known to contribute to the full range of skin color. However, the historical bias in favor of genetic studies in European and European-derived populations has blinded us to the …
Estimated reading time: 9 mins (1906 words)
So, you may have heard that a paper was recently published on the genome of a girl who lived around 90,000 years ago and was half-Neanderthal and half-Denisovan.
Cohen, Cohen, Cohen, Cohen, Cohen, Cohen, MY MOM WAS A NEANDERTHAL AND MY DAD WAS A DENISOVAN pic.twitter.com/rBsuFBQEBJ — Carl Zimmer (@carlzimmer) August 22, 2018 It kinda made the news…
Lots of people were excited, not just geneticists and researchers working with human fossils. And my favorite thing about a science story going viral is that it brings out the comedy gold:
I'm picturing a 13 year old starting secondary school and telling her new friends: "me mam's a neanderthal, dad's a denisovan, bit of a nasty shock for him when he found out." https://t.co/I4fGRZEmO2 — Aoife Hardesty (@aoife_hardesty) August 27, 2018 Do me like you're a neanderthal woman and I'm a denisovan man. — Bʀɪᴀɴɪᴀᴄ® (@BGH70) August 24, 2018 To be fair, even Nature’s story on this publication was feeling cheeky:
But the ultimate tweets were without a doubt the Monty Python references:
This is actually fascinating stuff, but I can't read "Her mother was a Neanderthal, and her father was a Denisovan" without hearing John Cleese's French taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. https://t.co/AfthERMhSD — Jon Hancock (@BigJackBrass) August 23, 2018 The Neanderthal-Denisovan ancient mashup makes me think of this. pic.twitter.com/iGTqFFCCWZ — Sarah Parcak (@indyfromspace) August 22, 2018 And while the news articles that ran on this story gave a good overview of why researchers were excited about it, without the historical context of how we’ve understood human evolution until now, it can be really hard to understand just how incredible this discovery is.
So let’s back up a little bit…
Estimated reading time: 3 mins (610 words)
I’ve watched enough American TV to know that summer camp is a thing in the USA. I was introduced to it through the classic twin movies: It Takes Two and The Parent Trap. These movies have given me the false expectation that you always meet your twin at summer camp, though… And the wondrous thing about American summer camps is that they don’t just come in one flavor! There’s band camp, sports camp, adventure camp, space camp, science camp, anything-you-can-come-up-with-camp! And this summer, I got to see kids doing a very special type of science camp – one that was about genetics and genealogy.
Estimated reading time: 12 mins (2250 words) (Edit: Link to an article I wrote with my advisor about African skin pigmentation genetics in Genome Biology)
Last week, a research article was published on skin color variation within Africa. Last week’s article on African skin color in _Science_ READ IT! It is great, well-written, and has amazing figures! I would actually show you some of those figures if I wasn’t terrified of publishers coming after me for copyright infringement (look, I’m trying to finish a Ph.D., here, so I don’t have time to get sued by journal publishers…). If you don’t have access to these journals, hit up your nearest scholar and ask them for a copy (you can email me!). And one of the things I really appreciate in this article is that it’s a study on variation in Africa that actually includes African authors from African institutions. This research is important. That’s why it was picked up by The New York Times and The Atlantic. These articles are all full of people emphasizing that African diversity is an amazing thing that we need to pay attention to! Read both of those articles too because they are full of quotes that got me feeling some type of way: “We knew quite a lot about why people have pale skin if they had European ancestry,” said Nicholas G. Crawford, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the new study. “But there was very little known about why people have dark skin.” – New York Times
Few human traits are more variable, more obvious, and more historically divisive than the color of our skin. And yet, for all its social and scientific importance, we know very little about how our genes influence its pigment. **What we do know comes almost entirely from studying people of European descent. **– Ed Yong via The Atlantic
And there you have it, in bold, the reason I ended up doing a Ph.D. in biological anthropology. I wanted to know more about human biological variation, and I specifically wanted to focus on African diversity. Why is so much of the research on human trait variation focused on Europeans?