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A skin pigmentation researcher who visited Penn Wednesday night said that racist ideas are recent and can be unlearned.

Nina Jablonski , an anthropology professor at Penn State University , spoke at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to discuss skin color as part of the Penn Humanities Forum .

Jablonski is working on developing new approaches to science education with the aim of improving the understanding of evolution and human diversity.

“People have been interested in their own skin and the colors of other people’s skin for a very long time,” Jablonski opened, citing other scholars who have researched the topic. “I became really interested in the evolution of skin pigmentation because in the late 20th century there were new bodies of data that allowed us to gain new insight into why human skin pigmentation may have evolved in the patterns that they did.”

Jablonski explained the physical and biological determinants of skin color variation. Permanently dark pigmentation evolved 1.2 million years ago and, since then, individuals evolving in Africa have been darkly pigmented. When populations entered into far Northern habitats and were not able to get Vitamin D from the sun, skin tones lightened. According to her research, 86 percent of total variation in skin color can be accounted for by ultraviolet radiation, and there are over 120 genes influencing human pigmentation.

“Skin pigmentation is a beautiful example of natural selection on the body,” Jablonski said.

While Jablonski sees skin color variation as beautiful, popular thinkers like Immanuel Kant introduced the idea of skin color as a characteristic indicating inferiority and superiority. Although many of his ideas were hotly debated, they triumphed because of the prevalence of his work.

“All of us can fight racism through the tools of educating our children through formal and informal environments,” Jablonski said.

Students were drawn to the event because of its connection of biology to the human experience.

“I came to the event to hear about race from a biological, as well as a moral, standpoint and was fascinated by Jablonski’s research,” College sophomore Samantha Rahmin said.

“It was an extremely informative and interesting lecture that spanned biology, anthropology and American history,” College senior Jennarose Placitella said. “The most interesting part for me was the idea that genes don’t come in packages.”

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