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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Book Review | Skin: A Biography

Book Review | Skin: A Biography

The story of human evolution told through the survey of a pervasive yet subtle organ

Skin colour has played a crucial role in history. Photo: ThinkstockPremium
Skin colour has played a crucial role in history. Photo: Thinkstock

Skin: A Biography | Sharad Paul

United colours

Charles Darwin’s revolutionary idea that life evolves primarily through natural selection, preserved and passed on over generations through what were later discovered to be genes, continues to spawn a wide gamut of popular science literature.

Most of these are a defence of Darwin’s essential principles by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett against the sporadic opposition of movements such as Creationism and Intelligent Design that posit some element of divine intervention.

But there’s another view by a galaxy of writer-scientists like Stephen Jay Gould, Neil Shubin and Ernst Mayr, who dwell on the evidence of evolution in life forms. Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, for instance, examines the palaeontological evidence for how our arms are in fact modified versions of the whale’s flippers. Mayr points to a variety of similar evidence, from the commonality of several human systems with ancient bacteria to the essential likeness between the body plans of human babies and sea horses during gestation.

Skin—A Biography: Fourth Estate, 186 pages, Rs499
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Skin—A Biography: Fourth Estate, 186 pages, Rs499

Paul glides across an impressive range of topics, such as how the socially and politically divisive subject of white and dark skin is actually nothing more than the struggle between two vitamins: folic acid and vitamin D.

Dark skin is nothing more than high levels of melanin to preserve folic acid that is critical to preserve neural tube function as well control damage from ultraviolet rays. However, dark skin also means that relatively high levels of sunlight are necessary to produce the required levels of that other vital ingredient called vitamin D.

When the early dark-skinned Africans moved to colder, northern Europe (and fewer hours of sunlight), natural selection lightened their skin to maximize exposure to sunlight (and vitamin D).

From here Paul explains—frequently employing outlandish but effective metaphors likening ribonucleic acid to a promiscuous rake and DNA to a staid, studious gentleman—the mechanism by which a panoply of skin cells are created that inform our sense of touch and response to pain, and how even the minutest error in these processes can either lead to some innocuous freckles or full-blown cancer.

If only Paul had reined in his prose as much as he has let his eclecticism and erudition run free, Skin, as a piece of literature, would surely have made it to the class of books and authors already mentioned.

For instance, most of a chapter that is essentially about explaining how modifications of one gene in several animals lead to a wide variety of skin colours is spent on Paul describing his visit to Iceland, his encounter with chess champion Bobby Fischer’s bench and eating shark. While no doubt interesting, this distracts from the main narrative that is otherwise compelling in itself. There are also loads of hand-drawn diagrams—these may be accurate, but they are eyesores. One wonders why conventional printed diagrams couldn’t have been used instead.

Get through these unnecessary digressions, however, and you’ll still end up wiser for the insights.

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Published: 18 May 2013, 12:30 AM IST
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