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Skin: A Natural History

Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 281
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    We expose it, cover it, paint it, tattoo it, scar it, and pierce it. Our intimate connection with the world, skin protects us while advertising our health, our identity, and our individuality. This dazzling synthetic overview, written with a poetic touch and taking many intriguing side excursions, is a complete guidebook to the pliable covering that makes us who we are.Skin: A Natural Historycelebrates the evolution of three unique attributes of human skin: its naked sweatiness, its distinctive sepia rainbow of colors, and its remarkable range of decorations. Jablonski begins with a look at skin's structure and functions and then tours its three-hundred-million-year evolution, delving into such topics as the importance of touch and how the skin reflects and affects emotions. She examines the modern human obsession with age-related changes in skin, especially wrinkles. She then turns to skin as a canvas for self-expression, exploring our use of cosmetics, body paint, tattooing, and scarification.Skin: A Natural Historyplaces the rich cultural canvas of skin within its broader biological context for the first time, and the result is a tremendously engaging look at ourselves.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94170-0
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. 1-8)

    Our skin mediates the most important transactions of our lives. Skin is key to our biology, our sensory experiences, our information gathering, and our relationships with others. Although the many roles it plays are rarely appreciated, it is one of the most remarkable and highly versatile parts of the human body.

    Simply put, skin is the flexible, continuous covering of the body that safeguards our internal organs from the external environment. It protects us from attack by physical, chemical, and microbial agents and shields us from most of the harmful rays of the sun, while it works hard to regulate...

  6. 1 skin laid bare
    (pp. 9-20)

    It isn’t good to take for granted something as important as skin. Take a moment and imagine the following scene. You’re standing in the moist, shadowy heat of an orchard in the late afternoon of a summer’s day. You are able to stand outside in comfort without overheating, thanks to your skin’s ability to regulate your body temperature and shield you from ultraviolet radiation. Only a few beads of sweat on your brow and upper lip betray the fact that your skin is working to keep you cool. As you flick away the fly that tried to settle on your...

  7. 2 history
    (pp. 21-38)

    Given the importance of our skin and the functions it performs, it is striking that relatively few scientists study its evolution. Until about thirty years ago, most scientific studies of skin were confined to describing the anatomical details of modern human skin and discussing various skin diseases and conditions. In recent decades, as life expectancies have increased in industrialized nations, with a concomitant emphasis on looking youthful, more research has been concerned with improving the appearance of skin and the effects of topical preparations, injections, and surgery. Only in the past decade have researchers focused on some of the most...

  8. 3 sweat
    (pp. 39-55)

    Explanations for the nearly hairless state of the human body abound. Without direct fossil evidence that could document the timing and context of hair loss in humans, scientists have proposed likely evolutionary scenarios using comparative anatomical, physiological, and behavioral information, as well as varying amounts of imagination. The resulting hypotheses range from the well-founded to the wacky, with hairlessness being attributed to everything from a heritage of swimming to nit-picking. The best-supported theories involve the importance of sweat in human evolution—the topic of this chapter. It might be useful, however, to take a look at some of the other...

  9. 4 skin and sun
    (pp. 56-64)

    As we go about our daily lives, our skin is always active, and its complex chemistry is constantly changing. Skin cells are dividing, important molecules are being broken down, others are being repaired, and yet others are being created on the spot. Because the human lineage originated in the tropics and spent most of its six million or so years of existence in tropical areas, part of the skin’s activity has involved a series of anatomical and biochemical adaptations to heat and sunlight. Sweating is only part of the story. Our skin has also evolved other ways to mediate vital...

  10. 5 skin′s dark secret
    (pp. 65-75)

    Human skin is inherently colorful. Within our single, recently evolved species,Homo sapiens, skin colors make up an exquisite palette, varying in almost imperceptible degrees from the palest ivories to the darkest browns. This array exists because people differ in the amount of melanin pigment their skin contains and the ways in which it is packaged. Melanin, from which human skin derives most of its pigmentation, is a remarkable molecule that has had literally thousands of uses in the evolution of life. Its role in protecting human skin is only one of its more recent.

    Melanin is the name given...

  11. 6 color
    (pp. 76-96)

    As we look across the globe, humans display an astonishing variety of skin colors. In no other species do we find such a broad range. The reasons for this diversity are rooted in human evolutionary history and offer some of the most compelling examples of natural selection at work in the human lineage.

    We can understand skin color in modern humans only by looking back at our evolutionary past. Earlier chapters have presented some of the key information, but it is worth reviewing a few points. Most species of our close primate relatives, the Old World monkeys and apes, have...

  12. 7 touch
    (pp. 97-111)

    The skin houses the body’s most ancient sense, touch. Sometimes referred to as the “mother of the senses,” touch has not garnered the scientific or public attention it deserves, possibly because its influences on human well-being are more subtle than those of the so-called distant senses of sight and hearing. Likewise, the role of skin as the medium of touch in primate and human evolution has gone largely unrecognized. For those endowed with all five senses, touch certainly is underrated.¹ And yet touch is central to primate experience, and has been for tens of millions of years. It has influenced...

  13. 8 emotions, sex, and skin
    (pp. 112-120)

    Some of the day-to-day changes in our skin are slow and invisible: old skin is replaced, melanin is produced, vitamin D is formed. Other changes, however, particularly those that reflect our emotional state, are sudden, highly visible, and palpable. Our skin often “thinks” before we do. It can react to a stimulus, leaving us with goosebumps, sweaty palms, or red faces, even before we can identify the cause.

    Human skin contains a vast network of nerves, including sympathetic nerve fibers, which belong to the autonomic nervous system.¹ The job of this system is to maintain the body’s internal environment by...

  14. 9 wear and tear
    (pp. 121-140)

    As the body’s protective covering and screen, and its first line of defense against the environment, the skin has evolved to withstand a barrage of sharp, nasty, biting, and corrosive insults. But it is not perfect: it ages, scars, and suffers the ravages of disease and environmental assaults. Most of the ills that befall the skin are temporary and reversible, but some are lasting and cumulative and eventually take a toll on both its appearance and its functioning.

    Since antiquity, people have documented and contemplated the various conditions and problems that affect the skin. For thousands of years before the...

  15. 10 statements
    (pp. 141-163)

    As we stand naked before a mirror, our skin tells volumes about us: how old we are, the kind of life we’ve led, our general health, the environment our ancestors experienced. But our skin conveys much more than just the bare biological facts of our lives. Because of our unique human ability to deliberately alter its appearance, our skin proclaims our identity and individuality as we wish them to be known. For millennia, skin has served as a statement affirming an affinity to a group or a belief, as a shorthand message of how we view the world and how...

  16. 11 future skin
    (pp. 164-174)

    Much of what this book conveys can be distilled to two essential observations. The first is that human skin shares most of its biological properties with the skin of our primate and mammalian relatives. It differs little from that of monkeys and apes, and the ways in which it is different—its sweating ability and its coloration—have evolved since we last shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees, some six million years ago. The second observation is that human skin is unique because of what people do with it. Among other animals, the skin and its appendages, including scales, feathers,...

    (pp. 175-180)
  18. NOTES
    (pp. 181-216)
    (pp. 217-242)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 243-266)