Long ago, it was thought that the peoples of Europe developed white skin as a means of adapting to the low-level lighting of ice age Europe (an assumption that disregarded why the people of Asia don't look the same in the same latitude, or why the peoples inside the Arctic Circle have darker skin.) But recent evidence has shown that human whitewashing came much later than we thought and seemed tied to the advent of agriculture, the art of manipulating vitamin-D-low plant species into food. And other, similarly recent, evidence is showing that the diversity of phenotypes has more to do with individual mutations than geographic or latitudinal distribution.

In an alternate Earth, humankind had undergone more numerous mutations, some from individuals, others from admixtures with other hominid species--for argument's sake, let's say satyrs, fauns, dwarves and giants. The end result--an anatomically modern human species whose skin has spots, stripes and other natural patterns on a plain canvas (we humans have only the plain canvas), all of which feature every shade of...

  • White (Alabaster, Alice blue, Anti-flash white, Antique white, Azure white, Beige, Blond, Bone, Champagne, Cornsilk, Cosmic latte, Cream, Eggshell, Floral white, Flax, Ghost white, Honeydew, Isabelline, Ivory, Lavender blush, Lemon chiffon, Linen, Magnolia, Mint cream, Navajo white, Nyanza, Old lace, Papaya whip, Peach, Pearl, Seashell, Snow, Splashed white, Vanilla, White, White smoke)

  • Grey (Grey, Ash grey, Battleship grey, Blue-grey, Cadet grey, Charcoal, Cinerous, Cool grey, Davy's grey, Dim gray, Eigengrau, Feldgrau, Jet, Marengo, Nickel, Payne's grey, Gunmetal, Platinum, Silver, Slate grey, Taupe, Purple taupe, Medium taupe, Rose quartz, Taupe grey, Timberwolf, White smoke)

  • Red (Alizarin crimson, Amaranth, American rose, Apricot, Auburn, Blood red, Burgundy, Candy Apple Red, Cardinal, Carmine, Carnelian, Cerise, Chocolate Cosmos, Cinnabar, Coquelicot, Coral, Crimson, Dark red, Electric crimson, Fire brick, Flame, Folly, Fuchsia, Hollywood cerise, Indian red, Magenta, Maroon, Mahogany, Mystic red, Oxblood, Persian red, Pink, Raspberry, Red, Red-violet, Redwood, Rose, Rosewood, Rosso corsa, Ruby, Russet, Rust, Scarlet, Tea rose, Terra cotta, Tomato, Turkey red, Tuscan red, Tyrian purple, Venetian red, Vermilion, Wine)
  • Pink (Amaranth pink, Baker-Miller pink, Boto pink, Brilliant rose, Brink pink, Carnation pink, Cerise, Cherry blossom pink, Coral pink, Cyclamen, Deep pink, Fairy Tale, French rose, Fuchsia, Hollywood cerise, Hot magenta, Hot pink, Lavender blush, Lavender pink, Magenta, Mexican pink, Mimi Pink, Misty rose, Mountbatten pink, Orchid pink, Pale Dogwood, Persian rose, Pink, Puce, Rose, Rose pink, Rose quartz, Salmon pink, Shocking pink, Thulian pink, Ultra pink)
  • Yellow (Amber, Apricot, Arylide yellow, Aureolin, Beige, Buff, Chartreuse, Citron, Citrine, Cream, Dark goldenrod, Ecru, Flax, Gamboge, Gold, Gold (metallic), Goldenrod, Harvest Gold, Jasmine, Jonquil, Khaki, Lemon chiffon, Lemon Lime, Lion, Maize, Mikado yellow, Mindaro, Mustard, Naples yellow, Navajo white, Old gold, Olive, Papaya whip, Peach yellow, Saffron, School bus yellow, Selective yellow, Stil de grain yellow, Straw, Sunglow, Sunset, Vanilla, Wheat, Yellow)
  • Black (Bistre, Black, Black bean, Black olive, Café noir, Charcoal, Dark purple, Ebony, Eerie black, Eigengrau, Jet, Licorice, Midnight blue, Onyx, Outer space, Oxford blue, Raisin black, Russian violet, Smoky black)
  • Brown (Auburn, Almond, Beaver, Bistre, Bole, Bronze, Brown, Brown sugar, Buff, Burgundy, Burnt sienna, Burnt umber, Camel, Caramel, Chamoisee, Chestnut, Chocolate, Citron, Cocoa Brown, Coffee, Copper, Cordovan, Coyote, Desert sand, Drab dark brown, Earth yellow, Ecru, Fallow, Fawn, Field drab, Fulvous, Khaki, Lion, Liver, Mahogany, Maroon, Ochre, Olive, Raw umber, Redwood, Rufous, Russet, Rust, Sand, Sandy brown, Seal brown, Sepia, Sienna, Sinopia, Tan, Taupe, Tawny, Umber, Walnut brown, Wenge, Wheat)
  • Orange (Amber, Apricot, Atomic tangerine, Bittersweet, Buff, Burnt orange, Butterscotch, Caramel, Carrot orange, Champagne, Citron, Coral, Dark salmon, Deep carrot orange, ECE/SAE Amber, Flame, Fulvous, Gamboge, Gold, Gold (metallic), International orange, Lion, Mahogany, Mango, Marigold, Old gold, Orange, Orange (web), Orange-red, Orange peel, Papaya whip, Peach, Peach-orange, Peach-yellow, Persian orange, Persimmon, Portland Orange, Princeton Orange, Pumpkin Rust, Safety orange, Salmon, Satin sheen gold, Scarlet, Sunset, Tangelo, Tangerine, Tawny, Tea rose, Tomato, UT Orange, Vermilion)

That's fine in a fantastical setting and worth exploring, but the question is, are such transitions between different color shades natural, or do they need to be subtler, like our skin color differences?

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Natural is everything that spontaneously happens in nature. If the above happens in your fictional nature, then it is natural. I don't get your question. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Dec 3 '18 at 3:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ What is the purpose of said taxonomy of colors? We can't say whether the colors are good enough without knowing what they're going to be used for. Using a racial example, for many caucasian people, "Asian" is a good enough description of a race. But for other people, especially those within that "Asian" umbrella, dozens of culturally visible racial lines can and are drawn. "Don't eat the purple 'shrooms" may be more than sufficient for purposes of avoiding poison! $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Dec 3 '18 at 3:56
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Since I and I assume many people here will have no idea what many of those shades are this is difficult to answer. If you are asking if skin pigmentation needs to be a continuum then yes, just like the real world skin colors are, but that has never stopped humans sticking arbitrary discrete labels on them. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 3 '18 at 4:04
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey: Those colors are real only to interior decorators and the like. The rest of us don't have a clue what most of them are, and couldn't pick them out on e.g. a bunch of paint samples. (And why is vanilla listed under white? Both vanilla extract and the actual vanilla beans are a very dark brown.) $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 3 '18 at 5:33
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Biological pigments are one of those things that either are or aren't a certain color. After a ph d thesis related to such topics my opinion is choose any color you like for any organism and don't overthink. The only alternative, simulating evolution to screen for paths for certain colors and inventing some bs explanation, won't be possible for at least a century $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Dec 3 '18 at 7:14

First: a note on the nature of colour and pigmentation.

All the colours you listed are effectively just handy labels for ‘this distribution of light wavelengths bounces rather than being absorbed, then triggers specific neuro-chemical reactions in our eyes’. We can arbitrarily merge, change and invent new ‘colours’ without changing the fundamental wavelengths they refer to. The pigments that mix together to create these ‘colours’, however, are more physical and exactly describable, but even they blend in a continuous way, meaning you can make any mix of light that corresponds to any ‘colour’ pretty much as you like. The gradient over which one colour blends into another will always be continuous: you have to eventually pick a level of ‘sharpness’ to enable you to say ‘well that was a step change in colour’.

But can we create patches of arbitrarily pigmented skin? The answer is yes.

The simplest example I can give for this is a shocking phenomenon that happens even in current day humanity:

Tan lines.

Here the skin has been coloured in response to an external stimulus, but there’s no reason an internal change can’t create exactly the same effect. A suitably firmly held ‘stencil’ (cycling tops and shorts are fantastic for this) will create a clearly delineated patch of ‘tanned’ vs ‘Not tanned’ skin.

For a more extreme (but also less controlled) example: consider vitiligo, a skin condition causing pigment production in patches of skin to simply stop. This can create very striking contrasting patches of dark/light skin.

So: the answer to your question is that there’s no reason your future humans can’t have sharp, delineated patches of colour. As for a reason this would happen, I have no idea: but evolution does a lot of weird things for no discernible reason.

| improve this answer | |
  • $\begingroup$ This works for changes in color caused by changes in melanin concentration, but the OP is still stuck with melanin as the only skin pigment. Somehow you'd have to get the "humans" to produce different-colored pigments. This is obviously possible, since birds do it (though some of their colors are structural), but the genetic split between bird-ancestor dinosaurs and mammal-ancestor therapsids was something like 275 million years ago. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 3 '18 at 18:30
  • $\begingroup$ Then the question would be ‘can I get these colours’, not ‘would this kind of transition be possible’. The transition clearly is possible as evidenced by the fact it works already, and the OP has already stated the colours they want are in existence in their world. I’m not about to question how they got those colours!!! $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Dec 3 '18 at 18:43

We humans do not have only the plain canvas

Humans make two pigments which contribute to skin color: dark brown melanin and reddish pheomelanin. When the amount of pigment in the skin is very low, the underlying blood vessels give a pinkish color by translucence. As a result, all humans have skin of various shades of brown, from almost completely desaturated in some northern European populations to very dark in some parts of Africa.

But our skin is not of a uniform color. We do have genetically determined patches of contrasting color on our lips and torsos, where the proportion of pheomelanin is increased.

Leonidas at Thermopylae

Leonidas at Thermopylae, by Jacques-Louis David. King Leonidas of Sparta and two of his men show than humans have color patches on their torsos. Reproduction from Wikimedia; public domain.

What this means is that we already have the genetic infrastructure to produce patterns of pigmentation.

As for the lengthy list of colors in the original question, white, gray and orange cannot be made with our existing pigments. Black (or at least very dark brown), brown, yellow (or at least light saturated brown), red, and pale pink are already available, and present in various human populations.

| improve this answer | |

are such transitions between different color shades natural, or do they need to be subtler

There is the real world, and there is fiction. In fiction, I would never use 95% of the colors you have listed; the point of fiction is to entertain people, and it is not entertaining for anybody to leave the book to google some color every other page. Actually using these colors in exposition will make readers put the book down. The point is not accuracy, you are writing to assist their imagination, and you don't want to break their reading reverie by using words they don't understand --unless you take the time to explain the words within the story, by dialogue or exposition, but that would be pointless for this many color words.

As for nature, I do not think there would be natural transitions in this many colors. In colorful bird and animal species, we see unique colors; a red comb on a rooster for example. We don't see combs on a spectrum ranging from light to dark red. I see blue birds and red birds, but I don't see a spectrum there, either. I see Zebras and leopards with patterns, but the colors are distinct and always the same.

The same thing applies to many plants; there is no "shading" between the colors, there are distinct colors. Even if there are many colors, as in apples, there is a finite number of them. Because the color of apple skin are heritable. There are mutations, but in general we breed "red delicious" or "pink lady" apples and the trees produce only that color.

So to the extent skin color and patterns are produced genetically, and are heritable, there are specific genes making those colors or spots or stripes (even if the spots are not in the same exact place on every individual, all non-mutant leopards have spots).

This means the genes can be enumerated. There may be additional variation due to environmental factors, like sunlight, which can lighten hair or darken skin, or the opposite for a lack of light.

But I would not expect fine shading to occur genetically, and would expect light exposure levels to ONLY influence the darkness of skin, adding more or less black pigment.

And in the mechanics of fiction, you are better off not using words the majority of readers will not know. Using any words they are unlikely to know sparingly, in places where it can be ignored, understood by context, or is explicitly defined by exposition or in dialogue.

Times to use a word the audience is not likely to understand is when the author intentionally doesn't want them to understand, in order to create a sense of confusion or clueless consternation in an emergency, and the author wants the reader to feel as clueless as the characters. A similar reason is to bolster the perception of esoteric expertise in a character:

"If that's true, it means your frenalator is overheating, fool, it can't produce phlonon pairings at that temp! When was the last time you flushed it?"

"Where's the frenalator?"

"Great. Perfect! Okay, look. To the left of your core, find a panel near there marked either J173 or K178, and tell me which one it says ..."

| improve this answer | |
  • $\begingroup$ This does not answer the question. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Dec 3 '18 at 22:53
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey The question is "would the transition between shades be natural", if you read my 2nd paragraph my answer is NO, by evolutionary reasoning and by evidence of colors in animals IRL, these shades given would NOT be natural. It answers the question in the negative; not all answers must agree with the OP's premise. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 4 '18 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ You also deviated from the question and rambled on and on about what the readers should and shouldn't know, which isn't the point. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Dec 6 '18 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnWDailey Your question, but it IS the point, I am a professional writer and world building is done in the service of writing stories in that world. You are asking if it is plausible to have condition X: Not only is it scientifically implausible, it is likely to produce bad fiction in the bargain. I won't withdraw the answer, I think it is useful for other writers to read. $\endgroup$ – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 6 '18 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ World comes before history, and history comes before story. That is the reality that worldbuilding should be relying on. If you write the story before you build that world, then you're making stuff up as you go along, which takes away a lot of the substance and becomes your run-of-the-mill, been-there-done-that fantasy. $\endgroup$ – JohnWDailey Dec 6 '18 at 20:43

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.