A Sunburn Can Make You Realize How Weird History Is

The phenomena of sunburning and skin cancer reveal that something as apparently natural as going out in the sun can be unfamiliar, historically contingent and even dangerous.

June 26, 2024 08:26 EDT

Dear FO° Reader,

Over the weekend, my wife and I decided to hit the beach. We had a blast — Delaware has some great beaches — but I am paying for it days later. I must not have applied enough sunscreen, because my arms still itch.

Why is my body so unequipped to handle a few hours of sun? Sure, I could blame my mostly European ancestry. But Delaware is north of where three of my grandparents came from. The real answer lies deeper in history. Much deeper.

Although we humans are relatively large animals that wake in the daytime, our mammal ancestors spent most of their evolutionary history as small, scurrying prey animals under the foot or claw of the dinosaurs. The first milk-producing mammaliaforms emerged some 227 million years ago in the late Triassic. They — we — spent the next 161 million years (over 70% of the total time!) hiding from the dinosaurs in burrows, only coming out at night. Even after the Cretaceous extinction event that wiped out most of the dinosaurs, the surviving dinosaurs (birds) continued to predate on small burrowing mammals — and many of them still do. Try telling a rabbit that the reign of the dinosaurs is over.

Things were not always so great for us.

During our long nocturnal period, mammals developed a number of traits that are useful for an animal that lives in the dark. To this day, mammals still retain them. Most mammals have poor eyesight and good hearing and smell, perfect for finding food in the dark. We are warm-blooded and hairy, not needing to bask in the sun.

Just as importantly, we lost several traits that are only useful to animals that are active in the daylight. We squint and blink in the sunlight; birds don’t. And we lack several chemical adaptations in our skin that would protect us from sun damage. Nearly all living things, from bacteria to fungi to birds, have photolyase, an enzyme that repairs DNA when it is damaged by ultraviolet rays. Mammals don’t. So, humans get sunburns and skin cancer, as do gorillas and dolphins.

Evolution teaches us that so many things we take to be natural and eternal are in fact historical and subject to change. You’ve probably thought to yourself before, “Why should I need to protect myself from the sun? Isn’t it natural?” In many ways, it isn’t. On the timescale of molecular evolution, you are a nocturnal animal that only recently came out into the sun.

As evolution is to biology, so history is to politics. Nowadays we think that democracy is the normative way to organize a society; modern democracy is scarcely more than 200 years old. The predominant military power on Earth is the United States; this has only been true for 80 years. American civilization itself is barely 400 years old. Assyria lasted 2,000 years until losing to Babylon after it had dominated much of the world (as they knew it) for centuries. Nowadays, more Assyrians live in the US than in Assyria. Things change.

Assyria was once the most powerful, unchallenged military power on Earth. Via Morningstar1814 on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

It’s as easy to assume that democracy, the global order or peace in one’s own country are going to be around forever as it is to assume that you can go outside without sunscreen and just rely on your ability to tan. We want to think that the present order of things is natural and will never change. A little bit of history will demolish that notion.

At FO° we make it our mission to look at the history behind today’s events. We look to the past both for learning and warning. Only when we realize how mutable the world really is can we defend what needs to be preserved and construct what needs to be created. The future is in our own hands, but only if we are conscious of it. Otherwise, we walk blindly into danger.

Putting on some sunscreen is always better than chemotherapy.

Warm regards,

Anton Schauble
Chief of Staff

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