Sunburn…. and thoughts on the dynamic nature of genetics, disease and politics

Not a tree to stand under.

Not a tree to stand under.

I just got back from meeting with our field teams on Lake Victoria in Mbita Point in western Kenya. Normally, I wear up to three layers of clothing, but for some reason, I only wore a single shirt so that an 3cm square area of skin, which would have normally been covered, was exposed to the sun.

Over the course of the day it went from white to brown to red to black. I’m thanking Columbia clothing that the rest of my isn’t black as well.

It sounds really trivial; I got a sunburn. But I’m a really pale guy, and there’s a reason for that. The bulk of my genetics come from northern Europe, an area which is mostly dark, and even when it’s not dark, the sun is filtered through a thick wall of air and moisture.

My skin is not suited to Kenya’s blistering sunlight. My Japanese colleagues inexplicably do their best to keep themselves from tanning. Honestly, I’m jealous of their ability to brown in the sun and don’t really understand why they don’t take full advantage of their innate ability to protect themselves.

In short, I was born pale white, but wish I were black or at least able to brown. It would make field work easier.

Which brings me to this. I often hear people engaging in common conversations about what humans “were meant to do,” as if we were created as complete biological entities designed to perfectly perform specific assigned tasks within the narrow confines of specific environments.

This is a creationist view, but it’s interesting that even non-Christians in the West readily use the same assumptions and terms that are common to religious fundamentalists. The idea is that everything that came after we were kicked out of Eden, in this case East Africa, the birthplace of humanity, is an abomination. Whatever health or social problems we suffer is payback for violating the terms of our initially assigned roles as living beings.

For example, arguments (incorrect ones, by the way) are often made that humans are “meant to be” vegetarians since we don’t have developed canines, an argument of course made preposterous when one runs through the list of mammalian omnivores which also do not have canines. Worse yet, the argument fails to recognize one of humanities greatest adaptations, which is that we can eat just about anything and survive on little for extended periods of time, a skill that allowed us to rapidly move out of East Africa into every corner of the globe.

More salient, however, is that humans were not “meant to be” anything. Like all living beings, we move in response to environment pressures and then adapt while suffering the devastating loss of infants who will not live to pass on traits unsuited to the current environment. Those babies better suited to make it to reproductive age pass on whatever it is that got them there to their children, who then pass it on to their own and mix with others in a sort of genetic democracy.

Babies of my ancestors in northern Europe were more likely to survive with lighter skin, while light skinned babies in Kenya were more likely to not. Neither is “better” than another, but both are suited to their respective environments as they are at that time and neither represent a terminus of genetics.

I take issue with a static view of the world, be it from fundamentalist Christians, who claim that humanity was created fully whole in God’s image or from well meaning secularists, who claim that the world was a biologically static place before the Egyptians, the Romans, the Europeans, the Capitalists and whoever else came in and fucked it all up. Really, it’s interesting how the Biblical creation story persists, even in secular debates.

In my own field, a great failing of research has been to ignore the dynamic nature or disease and human health, assuming that each cross sectionally measured point in time represents a final culmination of set of repeatable events akin to billiard balls on a table. Diseases aren’t that simple. They change in response to the challenges we present to them, which in turn feed back into our own behaviors.

I certainly don’t defend environmental degradation or would I ever minimize calls for developing more sustainable energy and food production systems. However, I would offer that the world, like human genetics is not static, but rather, incredibly dynamic and that a static (and somewhat falsely nostalgic) view of the world is destructive in itself because it keeps us from recognizing the challenges of the present day. Only by thoughtfully examining current conditions and recognizing that things can change can we develop solutions to present and potential future problems.

Alright, I’m done.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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