What’s Race’s Impact On Biology?

by Patrick Appel

While trashing Nicholas Wade’s book on race and genetics, Jonathan Marks points out that Wade ignores epigenetics:

It is hard to find a book on evolution today that fails to mention epigenetics—the ways in which DNA can be modified in direct response to the environment, and those DNA modifications can be stably transmitted—but this is one such book. Flexibility and reactivity are not in Wade’s evolutionary arsenal. To acknowledge the plasticity and adaptability of the human organism—which has framed most scientific work in human biology over the last century—would be to undermine Wade’s theme of the independent, unforgiving external world exacting its selective toll on the human gene pool.

Relatedly, Anne Fausto-Sterling reviews Richard C. Francis’s Epigenetics: How Environment Shapes Our GenesAnn Morning’s The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference, and Dorothy Roberts’s Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First CenturyHere’s a quote from Roberts that explains her thesis:

Race is a political category that has staggering biological consequences because of the impact of social inequality on people’s health. Understanding race as a political category does not erase its impact on biology; instead, it redirects attention from genetic explanations to social ones.

Fausto-Sterling takes this argument and runs with it:

Morning and Roberts argue convincingly that race is a socially produced set of categories that has profound and often terrible biological consequences. Without putting words into Francis’s mouth, since he doesn’t discuss race per se, he would, I think, agree that epigenetics provides a well-understood tool that ought to be used more frequently in studies of biological correlates of racial inequality in health. If our goal is not just to understand race, but to improve health, then we don’t need research to find genes that cause essential hypertension as much as we need to address the sources of chronic stress. … Understanding race as a producer of health outcomes, but not a result of genetic programming, doesn’t suggest that we abandon biomedical research as it relates to race, but it does suggest that looking for race-oriented genetic precursors of disease is a fruitless labor. We need a different kind of investigation.

It’s true that epigenetics “ought to be used more frequently in studies of biological correlates of racial inequality in health.” But that doesn’t preclude looking for genes that influence health. And some of those genes may well be concentrated in populations with genetic simularies. Just because those populations are not races doesn’t mean that we should focus entirely on epigenetics.

Previous Dish on Wade here.