Melanin is one of the deadliest molecules made by man. It has contributed to more death and suffering than better-known substances like strychnine or even the modern nerve gas, sarin. Melanin has not only been linked to the death of millions, it has contributed to whole peoples being enslaved, chained in ships and sold as chattel. Children, with a high amount of this substance in their bodies, have been ripped from their parents, and adults have been murdered or brutally lynched or dragged to their deaths. This pernicious polymer, a chain of multiple repeating chemical units formed by melanocytes in the skin, has been an instigator to wars, political unrest and enormous civil upheaval.

Melanin is the pigment that gives humans skin color. With a lot, a person's skin is dark; a little, and the skin tone is light. It is there to protect the skin from the radiation damage of the sun. Races in the Northern Hemisphere do not need as much solar shield due to longer winters and less light. Meanwhile, populations originating along the equator need more. People have been enslaved, persecuted or murdered simply because they have more sunscreen! That's it. It is not because they were inferior, evil, dumb or weak. They just had a different quantity of a brown-black polymer of dihydroxyindole and dihydroxyindole carboxylic acid — whatever that is.

There is no lab test or blood examination to determine the right amount of melanin we all should have in our bodies. We just know that we need some. Albinism has no melanin, and this condition carries risks for visional problems along with skin cancer concerns. Melanin is found in a variety of body parts other than the skin, including the brain. Unlike atoms such as iron, sodium and many other chemicals in our bodies, there is no range of normal for melanin. Some simply have more melanin than others. The amount of melanin that our body produces changes from birth to death. There are also external factors that will cause an increase or decrease in production of melanin, such as the amount of sun exposure.

One can only wonder why those without a lot of melanin came to despise and persecute those with more. Maybe they were jealous, because with less melanin a person is more at risk for sunburns and skin cancers — including the vicious malignant melanoma, a cancer of the melanocytes. Furthermore, skin ages from the UV damage when there is less protective melanin. UV makes wrinkles and dermatologists rich. It is true more melanin reduces vitamin D synthesis, but that is no reason to feel racially superior.

Sadly, in spite of great progress in civil rights, some prejudice against melanin-rich people hasn't stopped. It is still difficult to realize that jobs, housing or social contacts are dictated by a polymer in the skin. In politics, it sounds incredibly silly that those with more melanin say that the Democratic candidate for president has too little melanin, and more idiotic still is for some with less melanin to say he has too much. It is only a molecular barrier against UV radiation, for Pete's sake. It would be like making people using SPF 30 lotion sit in the back of the bus.

It is tragic that we punish children for the genetic endowment of melanin they obtained from their parents. When two people with more and less melanin have children, it is interesting that their offspring are classified according to their relative melanin. They are not more-melanin white children but less-melanin black children. I love Tiger Woods — not only because he is an incredible athlete but because his color is so mixed up between all his different melanin-dihydroxyindole producing ancestors that he refuses to label himself.

Let's hope we can follow his example in both hitting a golf ball and in looking past our own dihydroxyindole polymer prejudice and see the person beneath their inherited sunscreen.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected]