What can we learn from skin colour?

Humans have been adapting to different environments and changing conditions   since the beginning and this is a never stopping process. We are pretty good at that as species, but tend to forget it in our daily dealings and when faced with changes in our lives – both personal and work. 

Could our journey as human species inspire us to be more nimble and change resilient? One of the most visible evolutionary adaptions that humans have is skin colour.  

Different skin colours are a consequence of evolutionary adaptations which occur in different environments and how these adaptations prevail through natural selection.

Natural selection is an interaction between environment and organism. The organism has certain traits that are either beneficial or neutral or negative and work for or against the success of that organism in that environment.  

The basis of natural selection is that organisms undergo genetic changes.  The environment selects whether an existing or new trait will be beneficial in the new environment. Those organisms that have beneficial adaptations thrive in the new environment, whilst those that have destructive adaptations, cease to exist.  

Humans, just like other organisms go through adaptations, sometimes over millennia, which are neutral, beneficial or destructive.   

An example of the evolutionary adaptions in humans is skin colour. This adaption is driven by latitude or by where your ancestors came from in the world in terms of being further north or south of the equator.  The further from the equator you are, the more beneficial it is to have a lighter skin colour and vice versa. 

The skin has two elements that are critical in skin colour adaption process; Folic Acid and Melanin.  Melanin is a chemical which causes our skin to look darker or lighter - the more Melanin, the darker the skin. Melanin has also a more practical function, it blocks out Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays which can destroy Folic Acid in human cells.  Folic Acid, on the other hand is the fuel that drives cell replication, in other words, when cells die off and new cells are created, this means that a healthy level of Folic Acid is critical for a child bearing woman. This is why Folic Acid is often a supplement to pregnant women. 

People at the equator have lots of exposure to the sun, including Ultraviolet B rays, so having more Melanin in their skin helps to deal with the harmful effects of this exposure. In other words, the darker skin colour protects the Folic Acid in high UVB environments.  

Now UVB is not all bad for humans, it does stimulate the production of Vitamin D in the skin, which is essential for strong healthy bones.   If not enough UVB is absorbed, then Vitamin D is compromised. Since lighter skin absorbs UVB more easily the Vitamin D production is more efficient, whereas dark skin needs more UVB exposure in order to produce healthy levels of Vitamin D. So in areas with low UVB levels, lighter skinned people will be able to produce sufficient Vitamin D, but dark skinned people will suffer from Vitamin D deficiency.

That’s how skin colour has evolved in different Ultraviolet B environments where the balance between the production of Vitamin D and the protection of Folic Acid is perfect for the individual’s survival and reproduction. 

Today of course things have changed a bit from our forefathers. Nowadays people of different skin colours live in high and low UVB environments often with little effect on their health. This is because we have developed nutritional supplements and sun protection creams and lotions. We even find that we spend a lot more time indoors and have less exposure to the harmful UVB rays. So, again we have learned to adapt to survive in different environments, even if through external measures. 

 

What could this teach us in the world of work?

One way to look at it is that when environments change, we too need to change. Sometimes we make changes that precede new environments, and only once the new environment has arisen, do we see how beneficial the changes are. On other occasions it’s only once the environment has changed that we realise that we too need to change.  

Let’s take Uber for example; we all know that the Uber model has fundamentally shifted the way the taxi industry does business, in South Africa possibly more the metered taxi industry than the traditional mini-bus taxi industry. Uber’s adaptions to a way of operating, using technology as a basis, and has effectively changed the taxi environment. The traditional industry has been reactive or pushed back against these changes, to the extent that drivers/companies have resorted to violence to try and stop Uber operating in certain areas, but consumers have been embracing what Uber has brought to the market, so it would be very hard for taxi industry to just get rid of Uber and carry on business as usual. The status quo is no longer an option and the bottom line lesson for the traditional industry is - adapt or die! If the traditional metered taxi industry does not adapt the way it does business, it will go extinct. 

We need to be aware of our environments, aware of how we do things, and constantly assess whether adaptations are necessary, or essential. With the impact of technology on the world of work, you can almost be guaranteed your environment will change and the question then is: how able will you be to deal with that and adapt accordingly?

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