Thursday, December 17, 2009

An article that might inspire your worldbuilding

I'm pushing very hard on finishing a story right now, so I'm going to make this a short post. This morning I was directed to a really interesting article called "Why Are Europeans White?" The article doesn't have anything to do with races as social groups, but discusses why it is that skin pigmentation is so light in the region surrounding Europe. A hint: it has to do with successful pregnancies, UV light, eating cereals, and ocean currents.

For the details, here's the link.

This is interesting to me in part because it looks at planetary environmental factors, and biological factors, in a human characteristic that clearly has enormous influence on social behavior.


  1. Thanks for sharing! The article itself is fascinating, but it decidedly lacks any kind of justification--the story is plausible, but I don't really see any evidence that it's true. It could just as easily be any other factor justifying the white skin.
    Also, using the colour of skin in art as evidence strikes me as distinctively shady; Chinese people have white skin in their own art, and most of them are not white at all.

  2. Aliette,
    Thanks for your comment! I was a bit suspicious about the skin color in art thing as well - I'm guessing it's hard to find evidence of that sort of thing for ages that long ago. I did follow his link to the annotated article, though, and this isn't a speculative essay without references, just a version of the paper intended to make the topic more accessible. I'm not sure if that would provide the precise justification you're looking for, but I did come away feeling that the guy had put a lot of work into his hypothesis. I thought it was worth mentioning because of the way it showed possible links between planetary/biological conditions and later social consequences.

  3. I saw this article today as well and I'm glad you mentioned it, as I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, for some of the same reasons Aliette brings up. Without digging into the annotated article, it does seem more compelling hypothesis than actual fact.

    What I wonder about this (and will probably have to blog on, since it's such a huge topic) is what impact this has on world-building. The article's comments mention a lot of other factors to bear in mind, so I don't think a world would need these precise conditions to have blonde adults, pale skin, etc. What are your thoughts, Juliette? Would an absence of a setting like this utterly throw the credibility of a world out the window if there are unpigmented people and adult blondes running around without the combination of ocean current, etc, to create it?

  4. Good thoughts, Hayley. I'm actually not encouraging anyone to imitate these precise conditions, more to consider how the physical environment of a world would influence the people who live there. I wouldn't say anything gets thrown out the window, because in an alternate world it would be perfectly possible for the biological underpinnings (folate vs. vitamin D in this essay) to be entirely different, thus allowing appearance not to have this relationship to location in any sense.

  5. Talk about synchronocity! I just read this today on a recommend from someone else on twitter.

    While I recognize the weaker points of the reasoning, what I like about this is the reminder to think about the factors that go into melanin production and not arbitrarily decide "race" in your story without regard for that. I know there are fantasy worlds that base everything on an earth society, sometimes with little regard for WHY the people should all look European/Asian/etc.

    When I first visited my own premise, I realized that I would have to address color and so did and am doing some heavy research into the kind of geography that matches my world and the kinds of people that it would produce.

    Thanks for the share! At least inspires the mind in the right direction.