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Skin: A Natural History Hardcover – October 5, 2006

4.6 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This amply illustrated rhapsody to the body's largest and most visible organ showcases skin's versatility, importance in human biology and uniqueness: human skin is hairless and sweaty, has evolved in a spectrum of colors and is a billboard for self-expression. Penn State's anthropology chair, Jablonski nimbly interprets scientific data for a lay audience, and her geeky love for her discipline is often infectious. At her most compelling, Jablonski demonstrates that our hairlessness didn't evolve after humans adopted clothing or because our distant hominid relatives splashed through an aquatic phase like dolphins and whales; rather, it's inextricably linked to our abundance of sweat glands. Similarly intriguing are the notions that indigenous people of the hot tropics are tall and lean because mammals with a high ratio of skin surface area to body weight keep cool in intense heat, and that women have lighter skin color than men because females need to maximize vitamin D production during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Much less successful is a chapter entitled "Wear and Tear," which briefly discusses but sheds little light on such skin conditions as birthmarks, scabs, burns and acne, and serves up the same visual guide to checking moles for melanoma that is found in countless doctors' offices. Color and b&w illus. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"When you meet people, whether they're fully clothed on the street or scantily clad on the beach, the first part of their body that you see, smell, and perhaps touch is the skin. Skin is our largest and most visible organ, our personal poster board for decoration and advertisement. Nina Jablonski gives us the best and most fascinating account of everything that you might want to know about the packaging of our anatomy." - Jared Diamond, author of Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel "This fascinating book traces the long evolutionary history of our integument, revealing a whole host of essential skin functions that most of us have probably never even thought of." - Ian Tattersall, author of The Fossil Trail "A fascinating and comprehensive account of the biological and cultural aspects of human skin." - John Relethford, SUNY College at Oneonta"

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 281 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; First Edition edition (October 5, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520242815
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520242814
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,264,163 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Enhanced with the inclusion of 14 color photographs, 2 color maps, 36 black/white photographs, and 13 line drawn illustrations, "Skin: A Natural History" by Nina G. Jablonski (Head of the Department of Anthropology at The California Academy of Sciences) is a thoroughly "reader friendly" and scholarly introduction to the biological and cultural functions of human skin. "Skin" addresses such questions and issues as how and when human skin came to look, fell, and function as we know it today; why we turn pale when anxious but red when we are embarrassed or angry; why touch is one of the fundamentally important senses of the body and relates to every aspect of human life; what is the real purpose of fingerprints; skin as a canvas for self-expression; the effects of aging, environmental stress, insect bites, burns, and diseases upon skin; advancing medical technologies relevant to skin issues, and so much more. Surveying more than 300-million-years of evolutionary development as it relates to the skin of homo sapiens, "Skin" addresses the critical role skin plays in human health (including processing sunlight for Vitamin D), the role of melanin in protecting us from the sun's rays, and the advances toward to the creation of artificial skin, gene therapies, reversing the aging process of skin, and other fascinating issues related to our skin. "Skin: A Natural History" is an informed and informative addition to medical school, academic library, and Anthropological Studies collections, as well as a very highly recommended study for non-specialist general readers with an interest in the biology and sociology of skin issues.
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Format: Hardcover
"It isn't good to take for granted something as important as skin," writes Nina G. Jablonski in _Skin: A Natural History_ (University of California Press). Whatever risk you have of taking skin for granted, Jablonski isn't likely to do so. She is a professor of anthropology, and her research has been done on different aspects of skin, especially skin color. She describes her new book as "not a systematic treatise or a manual, but more an idiosyncratic guidebook, replete with personal detours into topics about skin that have most engaged me in my work over the years." Engaged is a good word; she clearly loves her subject, and succeeds in communicating her enthusiasm. Skin itself is of undoubted importance. It is the largest of our organs (just because it is your outer covering and not an inner mound of tissue like your liver doesn't keep it from being a unified organ). It is, unlike the skin of most animals, basically naked, with not very much hair and no scales or feathers. Like any of our other organs, it is a product of evolution that has its current properties because it has done a good job: "Our fabric doesn't wear out, our seams don't burst, we don't spontaneously sprout leaks, and we don't expand like water balloons when we sit in the bathtub." Jablonski is right that we take skin too much for granted, and her book is a happy corrective.

In a phrase that has been made famous by pop anthropology, we are "naked apes," but the reason for our hairlessness (at least compared to our primate cousins) has been disputed. Jablonski discusses the best explanation for our not having hair is that we sweat, sweating, of course, being an important function of our skin.
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Format: Hardcover
This review just touches the surface, to flesh this book out, read it.

Skin is amazing - it's strong, resilient, sensitive. Skin protects us from microbes and chemicals, shields us from heat, water, abrasion, and punctures. As Jablonski puts it "this is a list of qualities that make the epidermis sound more like a revolutionary new type of carpeting than a natural material".

We have as many hairs on our bodies as apes, but ours are much thinner, practically invisible in most places. We can't communicate emotion by standing our hair on end like angry chimps or cats (piloerection), so we've evolved other ways to show anger, such as pursed lips.

I've always liked Morgan's aquatic ape theory, but I've had to give it up after reading so much criticism. Jablonski points out that we couldn't have lived on the water's edge in our ancestral environment because we'd have been killed by crocodiles and other predators lurking at waters edge. Since we're quite vulnerable to water parasites and show no sign of an evolved immune system to fight them, it isn't likely we spent much time in the water. Nor is skin is an advantage, due to thermoregulation issues. Walrus and hippo's are so huge that heat loss is not a problem. Otters and other water mammals have thick fur they don't get cold in the water or back on land.


Everyone zeros in our big brains to define humanity, but what about our sweat? Sweat has played a huge role in how we evolved.

Our nakedness is a great advantage in hot weather. If we had fur, we could only produce 10 to 20% of the sweat we're capable of to cool us down. Fur is great in the heat until it gets wet, and then it's hard to dissipate and animals can die if they stay out in the sun then.
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