the racism instinct

June 16th, 2012

(read the book free online - get a copy for your Kindle - read the Reddit AMA)

10,000 years ago something funny began to happen within the human genome.  We didn’t know it at the time, but minute changes that would haunt every generation to come were slowly and imperceptibly unfolding inside each and every one of our ancestors.

Almost like flipping a switch, what had once been a steady rate of mutation  suddenly increased, and “the pace of change accelerated to 10 to 100 times the average long-term rate.” These changes were driven at least in part by the development of agriculture, the domestication of both plants and animals.  Some human guts retained the ability to digest lactose as adults, others adapted to deal with a grain-heavy diet. Although agriculture wasn’t the only factor and there were certainly other forces at play, we do know, without question, that 10,000 years ago mutations in our genome began to accumulate at a pace never before seen in human prehistory.

Life as we’d known it would never be the same.

The proliferation of agriculture, both domesticating animals and growing crops, brought massive changes to early human societies. One impact was that that populations suddenly became much more dense, another was that humans began to interact much more frequently and closely with domesticated animals.  These two factors – population density and our cohabitation with the creatures that would become our beef, pork, and poultry – allowed contagious diseases to kick a firm foothold into human societies.

“Diseases such as malaria, smallpox and tuberculosis, among others, became more virulent,” and we’ve since traced the flu back to ducks, pigs, and geese as its original hosts.  Additionally, barnyard animals like cats, rats, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, and birds have all played roles in transmitting – in no particular order – anthrax, rabies, tapeworms, plague, chlamydia, and salmonella.

Empowered by their new mastery of their food supply our ancestors once again made their way out of Africa and into the surrounding regions, and this time they were able to establish permanent settlements well north of their previous wanderings.  Along the way, the most noticeable change of all occurred. Somewhere along the Black Seas coast, a baby popped out and looked up at its parents with blue eyes.  This novel mutation along the OCA2 gene has since propagated itself across human society, hand in hand with another subtler series of mutations.

As humans made their way out of Africa and into Eurasian and other norther latitudes, their pigmentation changed markedly and we began to differentiate into a racial spectrum:

This reduction in pigmentation had an obvious biological trigger: we’ve known for awhile that the fairer your skin, the more vitamin D you’ll produce when it’s hit with sunlight.

In the past few years new information has emerged, in turns out that “vitamin D is crucial to activating our immune defenses and that without sufficient intake of the vitamin, the killer cells of the immune system – T cells – will not be able to react to and fight off serious infections in the body.”  Without enough vitamin D in our bodies, our immune systems simply cannot function.  Labeling it a “vitamin” is actually a bit of a misnomer, it’s actually a hormone that functions as:

 ”…a potent antibiotic. Instead of directly killing bacteria and viruses, [vitamin D] increases the body’s production of a remarkable class of proteins, called antimicrobial peptides. The 200 known antimicrobial peptides directly and rapidly destroy the cell walls of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, including the influenza virus, and play a key role in keeping the lungs free of infection.”

Additionally it turns out vitamin D “seems important for preventing and even treating many types of cancer… Four separate studies found it helped protect against lymphoma and cancers of the prostate, [colon], lung and, ironically, the skin.”

And vitamin D isn’t just another hormone, in fact it’s tied in to our very humanity. Or at least our very simian-anity, as vitamin D’s vital role in primate immunology emerged within our genome over 60 million years ago, and carries a functionality that is unique to us and our furrier brethren - no other animal on earth except primates shares the DNA which ties vitamin D to antibacterial peptide synthesis. Besides just helping fight off infection, it prevents the autoimmune overreaction of the body fighting itself, and so it “may enable suppression of inflammation while potentiating innate immunity, thus maximizing the overall immune response to a pathogen and minimizing damage to the host.”

The conventionally accepted theory has been that children with lighter skin tended to survive more in northern latitudes because children with darker skin fell victim to rickets and other prenatal conditions that occur when pregnant mothers don’t get enough vitamin D. But both preventing and treating rickets requires only 400 IU’s of vitamin D a day.

And so when you consider that  “a fair skinned person, sitting on a New York beach in June for about 10-15 minutes… is producing the equivalent of 15,000-20,000 IU’s of Vitamin D” and that “African-Americans with very dark skin have an SPF of 15, and, thus, their ability to make vitamin D in their skin is reduced by as much as 99%” it becomes readily apparent that racial differentiation emerged to drastically ramp up vitamin D production to fight disease, not merely to prevent a mild deficiency.

Lighter skin didn’t develop just to prevent Rickets, but was in fact a vital adaptation to fight back against the growing array of diseases that were beginning to proliferate throughout early crowded agriculture communities.  And it wasn’t that agriculture removed vitamin D from the diets of early societies, because the amount of vitamin D in food is negligible - especially compared to the thousands and thousands of IU’s created by sunlight in fair-skinned individuals.  Unless you want to argue that giant 400-pound cod were roaming the African veld, any argument that centers around diet is spurious at best. Indeed,  “it is almost impossible to get your vitamin D needs met by food alone.”

If anything agriculture may have actually reduced the vitamin D levels of early societies, since a growing body of evidence is pointing towards the idea that much of the cereal that was grown would’ve been used to brew beer instead of bake bread: “the first thing [early societies] did with grain… was make it into beer.”

And even in the New World, analysis of the atomic variations of human skeletal remains indicate that Native Americans were probably brewing their maize into wine rather than baking with it. Much of the early pottery – now broken bits of jugs and amphora – may have in fact been used to store alcoholic beverages. Primitive brewing likely just started off as trying to mimic natural processes that created ethanol such as fermenting fruits and rainwater pooling with honey that animals were observed getting crunk off of, comparatively simple to imitate or invent by accident compared to baking.

But why beer instead of bread? It’s all about the calories, and public health.

Drinking weak alcoholic beverages would’ve actually been safer than drinking water since beer is generally sterile and even has antiseptic properties, and it’s certainly more healthful since beer contains a wide range of important micronutriets such as folic acid, silicon, and B vitamins. Brewing cereal into beer instead of baking it into bread would’ve been a primitive form of preservation as well, since without refrigeration bread starts to spoil inside a week, whereas the alcohol and yeasts in beer act as preservatives and greatly extend its shelf-life.

Social interaction is what gave birth to our first primate civilizations, so the importance of feasts and celebrations in early societies would’ve made beer a vital social lubricant – or to flip the metaphor on its head, the very glue that first began to hold civilization together. And so, since alcohol has the unique effect of blocking the synthesis of vitamin D, agriculture and beer consumption would’ve contributed to deficiencies and further increased the need to get more exposure to sunlight.

Native peoples at northern latitudes whose skin didn’t lighten as much stayed darker because agriculture never caused their societies to become crowded or involved with animals enough for disease to become a significant pressure.  After all, it was “the strength of selection as people became agriculturalists—a major ecological change—and a vast increase in the number of favorable mutations as agriculture led to increased population size” which, in turn, led to the mutations which lightened northern agriculturalists’ skin.

The racial groups we have now emerged as as a direct consequence of migrating into more northern latitudes, lightened skin gave dense agricultural communities the strengthened immune system they needed to fight off the lethal pathogens and parasites that became an increasing threat to crowded early human societies. And as Guns, Germs, and Steel outlined, as different racial groups domesticated and interacted with different animals, they developed communal immunities to discrete sets of diseases: 

“Disease-causing pathogens—viruses, bacteria and protists—have geographies, both in terms of where they can be found and how common they are within those regions. The consequent map of malaise and death affects many aspects of the human story”

Racial groups in Eurasian, Africa, the Americas, and Southeast Asia were each exposed to unique biological threats, depending on the region they inhabited and the animals they domesticated. Although there was some overlap, their exposures were still discrete enough so that when one community did come into contact with the other, widespread pandemics of the strangers’ diseases often occured.

Living shoulder-to-shoulder with each other and with their newly domesticated livestock, disease became a much bigger threat than it’d ever been to early hunter-gatherer communities. This immunological legacy is still with us, as different racial groups express different rates of a vast array of common diseases to this day.

So why is any of this a bad thing?

Within the past few years everyone from Cosmo to Nature has reported on the results of a surprising study: women can, it would seem, smell who they’re attracted to.  Bags containing t-shirts that various men had worn while exercising served as sweaty glass slippers, women were asked to rate the attractiveness of the scent contained in each bag - every white t-shirt was exactly the same except for the odor of the man who’d worn it.  Women rated each bag and went on their way, never to learn anything more about the prospective mates than what their used laundry smelled like.  And when researchers went to work trying to figure out why women made the choices they did, a surprising and consistent link was found: women are attracted to men whose major-histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes most complimented theirs:

Women’s preference for MHC-distinct mates makes perfect sense from a biological point of view. Ever since ancestral times, partners whose immune systems are different have produced offspring who are more disease-resistant. With more immune genes expressed, kids are buffered against a wider variety of pathogens and toxins.

MHC genes are the gatekeepers of our immune systems, they determine white blood cell function and decide whether or not organs will be accepted for donation – regulating whether or not a new host will accept a donor organ as its own or attack it as an outside contagion. The better suited your MHC genes are to fighting the pathogens present in your environment, the healthier you’ll be.

And not only healthier, but more intelligent too.  A study of IQ scores and infectious disease found that both internationally between nations and nationally between states, IQ levels correlate more closely with the rate of infectious disease than any other factor. Given how biologically taxing it is for children to fight off disease, and the fact that our brains suck up 90% of our energy as newborns and one-quarter of our energy as adults, it stands to reason that healthier societies end up more intelligent on the whole and that instincts which select for healthy progeny would emerge.

So when it comes to picking a mate who will pass half of their MHC genes onto your child and largely decide the suitably of their immune system to the environment, the trick is determining exactly what “compliment” means, as researchers found that “women are not attracted to the smell of men with whom they had no MHC genes in common. ‘This might be a case where you’re protecting yourself against a mate who’s too similar or too dissimilar, but there’s a middle range where you’re okay.’”

Category: Africa, anthropology, biological racism, genetic compatibility, genetics, human genome, human migration, immunology, impact of agriculture, MHC genes, racial tension, racism, smell a mate, war on drugs | Tags: , , , Comment »

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