The Lottery Of Life

Seventh instalment - highly heritable traits (continued)

I look all white, but my Dad was black.’ Substitute, by The Who.

The colour of a person’s skin depends on the amounts and types of melanin the person produces; this in turn is dictated by the person’s genes. There is no trait more dependent on genetics for its manifestation.

For most of the million or so years that human species have existed all individuals were dark skinned. It is thought that production of melanin to produce dark skin would have provided an evolutionary advantage once humans had lost most of their body hair and were living in a part of the world (Africa) with high levels of UV radiation. When groups of Homo Sapiens moved out of Africa to less sunlit parts of the world the evolutionary advantage shifted to those with less melanin, who were better able to produce vitamin D from the limited amount of sunlight. It has been suggested that it can take as few as 100 generations for a dark-skinned population to become light skinned; also that this process has taken place relatively recently – within the last 20,000 years – on several occasions in different places.

All of the foregoing is interesting, but not relevant to the question of the lottery of life. The reason why skin colour affects one’s luck is that in general those born with pale skin have advantages; those with dark skin are disadvantaged.

The disadvantage of dark skin comes in several guises. A person can be born with dark skin in a country where everyone has dark skin; or in a country where the majority of people have pale skin; or in a country in which most are dark skinned but some are darker than others. In each situation being dark is bad luck. I will take a brief look at each case.

At first sight it might seem that there is nothing unlucky about being born dark skinned in a country where everyone is dark skinned. The bad luck in this situation arises from the fact that just about all the inhabitants of such countries are disadvantaged.

The Group of Seven (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus the European Union) comprises 10% of the world’s population but according to Credit Suisse in 2021 accounted for over half of global net wealth. What’s that got to do with skin colour? Well, none of those countries has a population that is all or even mainly dark skinned. Those few pale people own more than half of the world.

The G20 is, as its name suggests, a large group; its members comprise about two-thirds of the world’s population and create about 80% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product. It is more diverse than the G7: it includes India, Saudi Arabia, and other countries where the population’s skin tone is markedly darker than is general in the G7 countries. But it does not include a single country where the majority of the population might be termed Black.

If you’re born dark skinned, and most of your fellow citizens are dark skinned, you’re in one of those countries that didn’t make it even into the G20. Bad luck.

You’d have been better off born dark in a pale country, right? Wrong.

In the United States, the Federal Reserve reported in 2021 that: In the United States, the average Black and Hispanic or Latino households earn about half as much as the average White household and own only about 15 to 20 percent as much net wealth.

Of course, things must be better in the UK. But no. They’re not. This from a report by the London School of Economics: The average wealth of households with a head identifying as Bangladeshi and Black African was £30,000, while the corresponding level for white-headed households was £282,000, nearly 9.5 times greater.

I can find similar examples from other majority white countries, but they all paint the same picture. If you’re born dark skinned in a country where most of the people are pale: bad luck.

The third possible situation is to be born dark skinned in a country in which the population displays a spectrum of skin tones. And in such a country – for instance India, or Brazil, or Indonesia – the darker the skin, the less opportunity, the less wealth, the less marriageability. These are the societies in which beauty products include skin lighteners; in which mothers presented in laboratory tests with potential spouses for their sons and daughters showed a marked preference for those with lighter skin.

In essence, then, the darker your skin, the worse your luck in the lottery of life.

Conversely, of course, to be born pale is to enter the world with a considerable advantage – whether it’s from being born in one of those wealthy G7 countries or from being one of the few pale people in a darker-skinned population. The melanin-suppressors have got it made.

As with sex, I must stress that the one factor of skin tone does not determine a person’s fate. It is just one of the cards a person is dealt by genetics. There are many examples of dark-skinned people achieving fame, wealth, and the highest offices in politics and business. It’s possible to obtain a winning hand in poker even if you’re dealt one or even two bad cards. But the other cards have to be particularly good.

A brief detour into environmental history and social evolution.

Why and how have the pale-skinned countries of the G7 (only 10% of the world’s population, remember) accumulated half of the world’s wealth? It’s a good question, and a convincing set of answers can be found in the book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. The basic thesis, boiled down to one grotesquely compressed sentence, is that peoples in Eurasia, unlike those in Africa, Australasia and the Americas, had access to several wild grasses that could be cultivated to produce highly nutritious staple foods and many species of animals that could be domesticated for food and transport; also Eurasia’s east-west alignment, with similar temperate conditions and no impassible barriers, encouraged trade and the dissemination of technology; by contrast Africa, the Americas and Australasia had north-south alignments and therefore environmental as well as physical barriers.

Our dark-skinned ancestors who ventured out of Africa into the cold, sun-deprived steppes and forests of Europe and Asia must have considered themselves cursed. Natural selection pushed their dwindling numbers to ever paler skins to cope with the inclement conditions. But then they found barley, wheat, rye, flax; horses, cattle, goats, sheep; they became numerous, wealthy; they founded cities, they traded good and ideas, they invested and invented, and conquered the world. They were lucky, that’s all.  

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.