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Against "Racialized" Medicine

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 22, 2012 02:58 PM

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The verdict is in: The science of genetics has effectively ended the idea of race as a biologically (as opposed to socially) meaningful concept. From a fascinating article in American Scientist, "Race Finished," by Jan Sapp:

A turning point in debates on race was marked in 1972 when, in a paper titled “The Apportionment of Human Diversity,” Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin showed that human populations, then held to be races, were far more genetically diverse than anyone had imagined. Lewontin’s study was based on molecular-genetic techniques and provided statistical analysis of 17 polymorphic sites, including the major blood groups in the races as they were conventionally defined: Caucasian, African, Mongoloid, South Asian Aborigines, Amerinds, Oceanians and Australian Aborigines. What he found was unambiguous—and the inverse of what one would expect if such races had any biological reality: The great majority of genetic variation (85.4 percent) was within so-called races, not between them.... The genetic divergence between geographical populations in the course of human evolution does not compare to the variation among individuals

And yet, Sapp points out, nearly forty years later pharmaceutical products are still marketed in a race-based way. Consider "the drug called BiDil,"

FDA approved as an anti–heart-attack agent specifically marketed to African Americans on the grounds that they have a biological propensity for heart disease brought on by high blood pressure. Not only is the drug not effective for all African Americans, it is quite effective for many individuals who self-identify as Caucasian.

The truth, Sapp argues, is that social factors, rather than genes, are behind the unequal distribution of high blood pressure among American ethnic groups. This sort of "radicalized" medicine, Sapp argues, is absurd: it buys into a myth of biological race which was debunked long ago. More at American Scientist.

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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