Genes and the Nature of Race

Ziba Kashef in Color Lines:

Instead of focusing on the 99.9 percent overlap in all human genes, the Pharmacogenetics Research Network, a government funded follow-up to the Genome Project, honed in on the 0.01 percent difference as a source of the new discoveries and therapies. And several scientists and researchers sought further funding for investigations into possible genetic causes for racial disparities in disease and drug responses.

Their faulty reasoning, however, is illustrated by the controversial race drug BiDil. Developed to address the greater mortality from heart failure among African Americans, the drug has been met with both celebration and skepticism. While it is true that Blacks ages 45 to 64 are more than twice as likely to die from heart failure than whites, Duster points out that the disparity narrows after age 65. The disparity may have less to do with biology and race than other documented factors in heart disease, such as diet, stress and lifestyle. Evidence outside of the U.S. also undermines the rationale for a race-based approach to the condition. Citing the data of epidemiologist Richard S. Cooper, who compared hypertension rates worldwide, Duster explains, “Germany has the highest rate of hypertension, and Nigeria has the lowest rate. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in epidemiology to figure out what might be the issue there. It can’t be race and genetics.”

Scientists do, of course, acknowledge the influence of environment and lifestyle on disease and disparities. The laser-like focus on, and blind faith in, genes as the source of understanding and treating disease has been tempered by technical challenges and other trends in medicine. But the damage to our society’s understanding of race may be done.