Sharad P. Paul, New Zealand-based skin cancer specialist and author of “Skin: A Biography”, tells SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY the fascinating story of the evolution of the largest organ of our body and much more
Titles do make readers pre-judge a book. I did it the other day. Skin: A Biography seemed not at all my cup of tea. Well, I didn’t quite quit suddenly, instead decided to skim through its introduction.
Now I say, the book is a fine example of why readers shouldn’t just go by the name on the cover.
Sharad P. Paul, the author of Skin: A Biography (published by 4th, an imprint of Harper Collins), is in the Capital to launch the book at the New Zealand High Commission. Paul, a top class cosmetic surgeon and skin cancer specialist in the Kiwi country, comes across as a raconteur who can surely make a good story sound better. Or better still, a great story sound fascinating. And as far as its name goes, he states, “The book covers so much about skin that I just couldn’t think of another name but to call it a biography.”
The book tells the fascinating story of the evolution of the largest organ of our body, and offers captivating reasons as to “why other sense organs are for our wellbeing while the skin (sense of touch) is for our being”; why the skin of some is black and brown and of others’ white, thereby deciding “why Africans have better teeth, win more medals in the Olympics than others.”
Also interesting are the parallels between the human skin and that of animals and fruits, driving home the humbling point that ultimately, our skins are the same, have the same genes, and depend totally on the sun. “Say, the red in the apple is because of the sun.”
Skin, he highlights, “enables us to feel pain. Pain is important for our survival. Creatures who didn’t feel pain, or a warning to their lives, died out.”
Paul also underlines the point that humans might fight over skin colour, but — black or white — one day, we shall all be brown!
“The story of skin is one of the most complex, sweeping tales of evolution. Any scientist contemplating this journey will have to make some choices, such as what bits to tell, which ones to leave out,” says Paul. Besides being a specialist in skin cancer with about 20 years of research practice in various aspects of skin, who also teaches skin cancer surgery at the universities in Queensland, Australia and Auckland, New Zealand, Sharad is also a novelist. The package seems to make him the right candidate for the endeavour.
England-born Sharad says one of the greatest evolutionary questions related to skin is: why do apes in Africa have pink skin while polar bears have black skin? This simple question holds the complexities of skin, its history.
“This is because black skin helps polar bears retain body heat from the sun, while preventing the skin from burning. The black skin of polar bears doesn’t absorb Vitamin D due to melanin deposits, but this is balanced by their diet rich in vitamin A and D sourced from salmon and other fish. So the polar bears never needed to change their skin colour according to the region they live in, but the African apes needed to.”
The logic works for the dark-skinned Arctic folks, like the Inuits. So also for the human skin found in other parts of the world.
“Everything revolves around the sun. When people from Africa began to migrate to different parts of the world, their skin began to acclimatise according to the new regions. So Indians became brown and Europeans white.”
“The basic point of uniqueness of the skin is that while all other organs are localised to specific sites in or on our bodies, skin envelopes our entire body. This enveloping creates a porous partition, both separating us from and connecting us to the outside world,” he says.
And then, “wrong people went to the wrong places too.” Like in the southern hemisphere.
“Their skin colour is not suitable to handle the direct sun, so most white people are prone to skin cancer and freckles, unlike the brown skinned who face the problem of pigmentation,” says the 47-year-old.
Here, he gives the logic why the world will be brown one day.
“Gradually, say over the next 2000 years, the white skin, in the process of acclimatising to the sun, will become a bit brown. So will the African skin. So most people will turn brown.”
Well, that would be the day then when words like apartheid start to seem really insane.
Closer home, reams of matrimonial ads in Indian newspapers seeking “fair skinned” brides would cease too.