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Dutchess_III's avatar

Do "white" people tolerate the cold weather better than "black" people?

Asked by Dutchess_III (28316 points ) November 10th, 2011

My students! One of them said someone told him that white people tolerated the cold better. My first response was “Not this one!” I hate the cold!

But it started a pretty lively discussion..which I love!

Apparently the original logic is the Caucasian race originated in cooler climes (like Sweden, whatever,) so our skin is fairer for some reason relating to that.

I said that seemed counter intuitive to me, as darker skin would absorb warming sun light, whereas lighter skin would tend to reflect it.

I ended with the thought that it was probably just a genetic mutation of some kind that happened to work.

Which led to a discussion of albinism.

Anyway, they asked me to ask you what your thoughts are.

So, what are your thoughts?

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70 Answers

poisonedantidote's avatar

I doubt that white people evolved from black people to help deal with the cold. It is more likely that we turned white in cooler climates, because sun stroke and heat related health problems had been removed, and so natural selection was no longer favoring high amounts of melanin.

If we had evolved to deal with cold, we would probably have wider nostrils more similar to that of a neandarthal, to help us prevent sweating when we run, as sweat would freeze on us and cause us to die from cold more often

We would probably also all be fat, or if not fat, at least capable of remaining healthy while fat, as fat and hair are often natures first choice for insulation.

Life did start in Africa, and the first humans most probably were black, and whites probably did evolve in cooler climates, but the color of the skin is probably more to do with mother nature saving time by cutting corners, I doubt the color of the skin would have much effect on insulation.

Then again, its just an educated guess.

EDIT: I ruled out turning white for camuflage purposes, due to our predatorial nature, however it could have some minor significance, probably a bigger influence that the cold.

EmptyNest's avatar

Good question… I think I’d have to agree. Maybe the answer is that Black’s can handle more heat than White people can.

Blackberry's avatar

I’m not sure, but if one looks at how people with certain phenotypical traits are generally distributed throughout the world, there’s is definitely a latitudinal adjustment.

rojo's avatar

@poisonedantidote From what I have read, actually, lighter skin is a genetic adaptation to less sun (rickets, vitamin D absorbsion, etc) and a narrower nasal passage assists in warming cold air prior to it hitting the lungs.

ANef_is_Enuf's avatar

I didn’t know we could. I know lots of people that hate the cold, and I’ve never noticed any patterns related to skin color over the last 29 winters.

cockswain's avatar

I can tell you that I don’t see a lot of them snowboarding or playing hockey.

boxer3's avatar

Not this one either….
I don’t like being cold.

poisonedantidote's avatar

@rojo Very interesting, the part about vitamin D makes a massive amount of sense.

However, regarding nasal passage, neandarthals did have wide noses, and I’m sure it’s generally agreed that this comdined with their reduced height, helped them stay cool. A bad thing in a cold place, but so was sweating bad, and if I’m not mistaken, the main goal was to prevent sweat when running, e.g. chasing food.

Now, I know that neandarthals and homo sapien are two very different things, but could this perhaps have anything to do, with homo saipiens increased brain size? If we are smarter, and can farm better, we don’t need to run for food, and therefore we favor a thinner nasal passage, or are the two totally unrelated. It sure is an interesting puzzle to ponder.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I’m with @rojo on narrowing nostrils thought. And maybe turning white is a result, in part, of less sun exposure like @rojo said. However, to point out, the Inuit are short, chubby, semi-dark people.

@boxer3 I don’t know of anyone who actually LIKES being cold. The question is whether or not one race has the ability to handle cold better than another, whether they like it or not.

Neanderthals were found in France…does it snow in France?

@poisonedantidote…Africans and Caucasians are both homo sapiens.

poisonedantidote's avatar

@Dutchess_III I know they are. I know black people also tend to have a wide nasal pasage, again to help keep them cool, but I’m talking about neandarthals, a now extinct/vanished branch of our family.

Edit:

(neandarthals used to live in the cold around about the time that homo sapien migrated in to their area from africa. So that was the basis of my speculation for comparison)

rojo's avatar

@cockswain I thing a lot of that is cultural.
@poisonedantidote I wondered the same thing because the innuit have a flatter, wider nose but then the scandinavian have the narrower nasal structure.

poisonedantidote's avatar

@rojo I believe Innuit people still do a fair bit of hunting, rough living, and are very active. Perhaps the scandinavian way of life is a factor.

boxer3's avatar

@Dutchess_III, sorry then. I’ve got nothing.

CWOTUS's avatar

Oh come on, it should be obvious. The ‘white’ coloration was an aid to survival in snowy climates (before we got smart enough to dress for the weather), because we could hide in the snow and hunt better in the winter.

And since our successful ancestors were those who were both whitest and best able to hide in the snow, the answer is “yes”.

Also, apparently, black people were smart enough to stay where the weather was nicer more often.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@CWOTUS Come on! No way we could have begun to survive in -0 temps without clothes, any better than we can today, black or white! Clothes were invented long before we moved into those climes and then modified along the way!

poisonedantidote's avatar

@CWOTUS That’s probably unlikely, we are talking about a very short time period in terms of evolution. By the time homo sapiens reached far enough north we had very large brains, as big as yours or mine. (Big enough to know to put clothes on)

Dutchess_III's avatar

@poisonedantidote Bains? What does that mean? And don’t make me Google it! Oh shit! You forgetted your R. Edit! Quick!

Our brains were the developed to the size they are now long before we moved out of Africa.

poisonedantidote's avatar

@Dutchess_III It means I should stop eating cookies over my keyboard and jamming it up with crums.

cockswain's avatar

The actual theory has to do with Rickets disease. In warmer climates, the darker skinned people had a beneficial adaptation by having a natural sunscreen. White people got skin cancer. In cooler climates, white people could absorb more vitamin E from less sunlight. Thus Rickets bred out black people. That’s loosely it.

poisonedantidote's avatar

@cockswain Rickets does sound like such a massive factor, that it could just be that. It is a very convincing theory, the only hole I can attempt to poke in it probably comes from ignorance. The hole being heat vs sunlight, I know hot places do tend to get more sun light, but I have been in snow covered places where you could hardly see from the amount of light, not a cloud in the sky, and light shining off all the snow.

What I’m getting at, is I have seen black people live in cold places, and it does not kill them. Sure, they have access to milti vitamin pills and such things, but still… How many black people would die from rickets if they tried to live in the snow without eating imported fruits or aiding their vitamin intake. Would they die off at a fast enough rate, to see a change in the 200.000 year long or so time frame.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@poisonedantidote No human is going to die in this day and age in any place that they live. We’re talking about benefits developed over tens of thousands of years.

Rickets. Hm. I googled it. They don’t have anything to do with vitamin E, but everything to do with vitamin D, which is absorbed through the skin via sunlight/ultraviolet rays. It would seem that dark skin would absorb it faster but apparently not. From wiki “Darker-skinned babies need to be exposed longer to the ultraviolet rays.” Rickets. So my premise is wrong. Rethinking. Has to do with the amount of melanin in the skin….going to see if the Dr. will make a house call. brb!

Dutchess_III's avatar

Eureka! I was getting ready to wash my face and I got it! Higher amounts of melanin actually block the absorption of sunlight / vitamin D! Lighter skin turns dark as a result of sun exposure as a protective response to avoid…sunburn? It makes sense…but sort of doesn’t. Why do dark clothes make us hotter in the summer, and white clothes help us stay cooler? Why doesn’t dark actually absorb MORE heat? Because it’s not about heat. It’s about something else.
O, where is a doctor when you need one.

Dutchess_III's avatar

So, until we get the medical response, the answer is, it isn’t about “tolerating the cold.” It’s about who had the best chance of surviving rickets over hundreds of generations.

O, and scurvy, not rickets, was the ancient sailor’s disease I was thinking of, which is caused by a lack of vitamin C. Wrong disease. As Rick Perry would say, “Ooops!”

bkcunningham's avatar

Why are there dark-skinned Eskimo-Aleut people?

Dutchess_III's avatar

We’re getting there, I think, @bkcunningham. I was wondering the same thing. It could have something to do with there their diet. A lack of calcium is another cause of rickets. Do the Inuits have a diet high in calcium?

Blackberry's avatar

@Dutchess_III I’m not sure, either. I was under the impression dark absorbs more and lighter reflects depending on its albedo.

cockswain's avatar

Honestly I was going from memory. I got the vitamin wrong, so yes it is D, not E. There’s plenty of information about this subject on the web so we don’t have to just try and sort it out ourselves. Personally I read it in an anthropology book a few years ago.

cockswain's avatar

From wikipedia. Bear in mind darker skin has more melanin than lighter skin. How dark your skin is is determined by how many melanin producing genes you have in your genome. If I recall correctly, there are something like 6 of these genes that determine skin color. If you have all six, you look like Wesley Snipes. If only 1, you look like Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The photochemical properties of melanin make it an excellent photoprotectant. It absorbs harmful UV-radiation (ultra violet) and transforms the energy into harmless heat through a process called “ultrafast internal conversion”. This property enables melanin to dissipate more than 99.9% of the absorbed UV radiation as heat[3] (see photoprotection). This prevents the indirect DNA damage that is responsible for the formation of malignant melanoma and other skin cancers.

Blackberry's avatar

@cockswain That’s pretty amazing. So what you’re saying is I have super powers? Ultrafast internal conversion…Activate!

cockswain's avatar

Yes, but if you camped in Greenland long enough, you could have trouble.

cockswain's avatar

By the way, @bkcunningham, that is an excellent question. There must be something else in their DNA that helps. Perhaps a natural resistance to Rickets? I don’t know, someone should look it up or start a research project.

Dutchess_III's avatar

No @Blackberry! He’s not saying you have super powers or ultra-fast internal conversations! He’s saying you’re gonna get rickets! And stay out of Greenland!

There must be something in the Inuit diet, not genes….lots of seafood?

cockswain's avatar

It could be diet, but why are you ruling out genes?

Dutchess_III's avatar

Because it has to do with a vitamin…Our bodies can’t produce their own vitamins, just like we can’t produce salt. Salt is essential for neurological processes, but we have to get salt from an outside source. There is no gene that will allow for salt, or vitamin production, in the human body.

Dutchess_III's avatar

OK. From this link. Herring and dark leafy vegetables (including seaweed?) are high in vitamin D….

cockswain's avatar

You make a fine point. Unless they have a gene that codes for an enzyme that somehow helps them use what little vitamin D they do get more efficiently.

Ah, but you just posted about herring. Perhaps you’re onto something.

What if this hasn’t been researched? You could get the honors.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Ooops again. That link was for foods high in calcium…but lack of calcium is another cause of rickets. Going back in to find food high in vitamin D, the biggest cause of rickets..holy crap! Check it out! The food highest in vitamin D are (ahem, drum roll)
#1 Fish oil, cod liver
#2 Fish, herring, Atlantic, raw
#3 Fish, catfish <Yuck!, channel, wild, raw <yuck, yuck, yuck!
#4 Mollusks, oyster, eastern, wild, raw
#5 Fish, salmon, sockeye, canned, drained solids with bone
And so on…Fish, fish, fish!

Haleth's avatar

@rojo @poisonedantidote I wish I remembered where I read this, but people living in cold, northern regions do have different noses, but it’s nothing you can see on the outside. The nasal passage is actually raised and narrow to give the cold, dry air a chance to adjust to body temperature. I think this lets our bodies make the most efficient use of the oxygen in the air.

bkcunningham's avatar

I can’t remember exactly, somebody help me out, but I think the theory with Eskimo-Aleut people having dark skin is 1) migration from a lower-latitude Asian homeland and skin color has not caught up, 2) the difference in the UVA and UVR (I don’t remember what it is called to be honest) light exposure and vitamin-D producing properties in certain regions because of the types of UVA or UVR rays, 3) and diet. Caribou and fish have natural vitamin-D 3 and is stored in the body as fat lessoning the whiter complexion in the Eskimo-Aleut people, 4) they’ve developed darker skin as a result of exposure to the sun and reflection of the sun from snow and ice.

Dutchess_III's avatar

And to keep out the cooling effects of the cold air on the body inside @Haleth

cockswain's avatar

I feel this mystery has been fairly well-solved. Good work, Fluther!

Dutchess_III's avatar

Ah but @bkcunningham that brings us full circle! The Scandinavian peoples have had thousands of years MORE of exposure to ice / snow reflected sunlight than Eskimos! I think it just happens that the diet along that part of the ocean they migrated along side happens to be high in vitamin D!

@cockswain I think so too. You guys ROCK! I can’t wait to take this in to the classroom on Monday!!! Nevermind Rarebear. Your services are no longer needed. Sniff.

Now, who is it has the cookies??!!

bkcunningham's avatar

The theory is a recent (how many millions is “recent” in the evolution theory, I don’t know) migration, @Dutchess_III.

cockswain's avatar

Humans are only about 100,000–200,000 years old.

Dutchess_III's avatar

The Inuits migrated via the Bering land bridge just 20,000 / 10,000 years ago. Our species started in Africa and had to go go clear across Europe, settling in Scandinavia etc. before they ever got anywhere near northern Asia to migrate to North America.

bkcunningham's avatar

And to think sometimes I’m too lazy to go to the bathroom. I wonder if we will evolve with giant bladders because of this laziness? That’s a lot of walking.

cockswain's avatar

We seem to be getting big asses for sure.

Rarebear's avatar

I remember once when I was taking a lot of ski lessons I got to my class and waited for my teacher. He showed up and he was dark as coal. We looked at him curiously and he said, “Yes, I’m black and I ski. Get over it, let’s go!”

Turns out he was the best ski instructor I ever had.

cockswain's avatar

Yeah right. And I once saw a white guy win a sprint.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, ha-lo! I guess you got over it, @Rarebear! But…did you ever learn to ski? Speaking of, have you ever learned to play the banjo?

Dutchess_III's avatar

@cockswain…. aaaaand this could segue into why more sports are predominated by one race over another. Which is interesting too. Why is basketball predominated by blacks, and hockey by whites? And why is football about 50/50?

cockswain's avatar

That is an interesting topic to me, but I’m always hesitant to discuss it because or the sensitive racial interpretations that could result.

But I did once ask and answer this question all by myself.

Rarebear's avatar

@Dutchess_III Well, I can even play banjo and ski at the same time!

zensky's avatar

Blacks can’t swim good either. I think Whites evolved from fish, blacks from lizards. Just a thought.

Facade's avatar

I can’t stand the cold! It makes my back seize up from shivering =/
Not to generalize, but I’ve noticed that a lot of white people still wear shorts and flip flops in 40 and 50 degree weather, especially teenagers. And they seem fine with it!

rojo's avatar

@Dutchess_III @cockswain I think it is more of a cultural thing than an ethnic one.

Blackberry's avatar

@Rarebear Lol! That guy probably said that almost every day.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@Rarebear I would love to see that!!! Send video!

@Facade I think we’ve determined that it isn’t a question of tolerating the cold. It’s about being able to survive over thousands of generations in a particular geographical area, and what advantages skin color and certain body structures have in that.

@rojo In certain sports, like hockey, I agree but I wouldn’t know why. I’ll ask my class. But other sports…like basketball? The coaches and recruiters in that sport and in the others, are out to snag the very best, period. Not so long ago blacks weren’t even allowed in the NBA and there was no shortage of pro white players. Then they got there their act together and quit acting like idiots and now pro basketball is predominately blacks. That isn’t just a coincidence.

mattbrowne's avatar

I think it’s just about UV light tolerance, not temperature.

Dutchess_III's avatar

In what way, @mattbrowne? It’s OK to be more specific specific sometimes. Hey…your next book out??

Dutchess_III's avatar

@cockswain I answered the question you asked that you posted in your link. You’ve been talking to yourself for a year in there, but now you have some company. Me! : )

mattbrowne's avatar

Temperature is controlled by sweating. It’s required in both Africa and further north. I don’t think people who lost the darker skin changed their physiology of temperature regulation. Cold weather affects white and black people in the same way and both use the same defense: warm clothes. Sunlight is different because it affects vitamin D.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Yeah…we got there @mattbrowne. We think it relates predominately to the ability of lighter skin to absorb more vitamin D than dark skin, thereby better able to ward off rickets and whatever else vitamin D wards off.

The question came up about the Inuit…they’re dark skinned. BUT their diet consists of a whole lot of fish and fish oils which are high in vitamin D.

mattbrowne's avatar

@Dutchess_III – The outer layers of skin are just a few mms thick. Some protection comes from the fat under the top layers. No difference between black and white here.

rojo's avatar

@Dutchess_III for some interesting reading you might look up Bergmanns’ rule. It relates to body mass:body size and the relationship of same with regards to climate. It is a good jumping off point if interested. I would say that, based on his rule, the inuit are more adapted for their environment than the Scandinavians. I would surmise that the darker skin color has to do with living in a harsher, more extreme climate and having to stay covered most of the time.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@mattbrowne I guess I don’t understand your point. The skin may only be a few mms thick, but that’s where all the melanin is. It’s the melanin that affects the body’s ability to absorb vitamin D from the sun. I don’t understand what “protection” you’re referring to regarding the fat. What does the fat offer protection from?

@rojo Well, it comes from the fact, mainly, that they’re of Asian descent, as are the American Indians. I’m betting their faces and hands are darker than the rest of their bodies, which are covered, due to sun bouncing off all of the snow and ice. I’m sure they get really dark!

mattbrowne's avatar

@Dutchess_III – I was referring to protection from cold temperatures. The fat below the outer skin layer has this effect. But it works only up to a point. Without clothes we would freeze to death. I think skin color does not matter here.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Yes. We all agreed on that, but we did discover that lighter skin and the Caucasian features have great benefit in cold climates that have nothing to do with tolerating the cold. It has to do with survival of the offspring.

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