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Home » Epigenetics » Race, Medicine, and Epigenetics: How the Social Becomes Biological

Race, Medicine, and Epigenetics: How the Social Becomes Biological

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Denis Noble

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Race and medicine is a tendentious topic. On one hand, you have people like sociologist Dorothy Roberts (2012) who argues against the use of race in a medical context, whereas philosopher of race Michael Hardimon thinks that we should not be exclusionists about race when it comes to medicine. If there are biological races, and there are salient genetic differences between them, then why should we disregard this when it comes to a medically relevant context? Surely Roberts would agree that we use her socio-political concept of race when it comes to medicine, but not treat them like biological races. Roberts is an anti-realist about biological races, whereas Hardimon is not—he recognizes that there is a minimalist and social aspect to race which are separate concepts.

In his book Rethinking Race: The Case for Deflationary Realism, Hardimon (2017, Chapter 8) discusses race and medicine after discussing and defending his different race concepts. If race is real—whether socially, biologically, or both—then why should we ignore it when it comes to medical contexts? It seems to me that many people would be hurt by such a denial of reality, and that’s what most people want to prevent, and which is the main reason why they deny that races exist, so it seems counterintuitive to me.

Hardimon (2017: 161-162; emphasis his) writes:

If, as seems to be the case, the study of medically relevant genetic variants among races is a legitamate project, then exclusionism about biological race in medical research—the view that there is no place for a biological concept of race in medical research—is false. There is a place for a biological concept of race in the study of medically relevant genetic variants among races. Inclusionism about biological race in medical research is true.

So, we should not be exclusionists (like Roberts), we should be inclusionists (like Hardimon). Sure, some critics would argue that we should be looking at the individual and not their racial or ethnic group. But consider this: Imagine that an individual has something wrong and standard tests do not find out what it is. The doctor then decides that the patient has X disease. They then treat X disease, and then find out that they have Y disease that a certain ethnic group is more likely to have. In this case, accepting the reality of biological races and its usefulness in medical research would have caught this disease earlier and the patient would have gotten the help they needed much, much sooner.

Black women are more likely to die from breast cancer, for example, and racism seems like it can explain a lot of it. They have less access to screening, treatment, care, they receive delays in diagnoses, along with lower-quality treatment than white women. But “implicit racial bias and institutional racism probably play an important role in the explanation of this difficult treatment” (Hardimon, 2017: 166). Furthermore, black women are more than twice as likely to acquire a type of breast cancer called “triple negative” breast cancer (Stark et al, 2010; Howlader et al, 2014; Kohler et al, 2015DeSantis et al, 2019). Of course, this could be a relevant race-related genetic difference in disease.

We should, of course, use the concepts of socialrace when discussing the medical effects of racism (i.e., psychosocial stress) and the minimalist/populationist race concepts when discussing the medically relevant race-related genetic diseases. Being eliminativist about race doesn’t make sense—since if we deny that race exists at all and do not use the term at all anymore, there would be higher mortality for these “populations.” Thus, we should use both of Hardimon’s terms in regard to medicine and racial differences in health outcomes as both concepts can and will show us how and why diseases are more likely to appear in certain racial groups; we should not be eliminativists/exclusionists about race, we should be inclusionists.

Hardimon discusses how racism can manifest itself as health differences, and how this can have epigenetic effects. He writes (pg 155-156):

As philosopher Shannon Sullivan explains, another way in which racism may be shown to influence health is by causing epigenetic changes in the genotype. It is known that changes in gene expression can have durable and even transgenerational effects on health, passing from parents to their children and their children’s children. This suggests that the biological dimensions of racism can replicate themselves across more than one generation through epigenetic mechanisms. Epigenetics, the scientific study of such changes, explains how the process of transgenerational biological replication of ill health can occur without changes in the underlying DNA sequence.

If such changes to the DNA sequences can be transmitted to the next generation in the developmental system, then that means that the social can—and does—has an effect on our biology and that it can be passed down through subsequent generations. It is simple to explain why this makes sense: for if the developing organism was not plastic, and genes could not change based on what occurs in the environment for the fetus or the organism itself, then how could organisms survive when the environment changes if the “genetic code” of the genome were fixed and not malleable? For example, Jasienska (2009) argues that:

… the low birth weight of contemporary African Americans not only results from the difference in present exposure to lifestyle factors known to affect fetal development but also from conditions experienced during the period of slavery. Slaves had poor nutritional status during all stages of life because of the inadequate dietary intake accompanied by high energetic costs of physical work and infectious diseases. The concept of ‘‘fetal programming’’ suggests that physiology and metabolism including growth and fat accumulation of the developing fetus, and, thus its birth weight, depend on intergenerational signal of environmental quality passed through generations of matrilinear ancestors.

If the environmental quality—i.e., current environmental quality—is “known” by the developing fetus through cues from the mother’s nutrition, stress etc, then a smaller body size may be adaptive in that certain environment and the organism may survive with fewer resources due to smaller body size. In any case, I will discuss this in the future but it was just an example of a possible epigenetic modification on current slaves. I, personally, have noticed that a lot of blacks are really skinny and have really low body fat—who knows, maybe this could be part of the reason why?

This is something that sociologist Maurizio Meloni (2018) calls “the postgenomic body”—the fact that biology is malleable through what occurs in our social lives. So not only is the human brain plastic, but so is the epigenome and microbiome, which is affected by diet and lifestyle—along with what we do and what occurs to us in our social lives. So our social lives, in effect, can become embodied in our epigenome and passed down to subsequent generations. Similar points are also argued by Ulijaszek, Mann, and Elton (2012). (Also see my article Nutrition, Development, Epigenetics, and Physical Plasticity.)So in effect, environments are inherited too, and so, therefore, the environments that we find ourselves in are, in effect, passed down through the generations. Meloni (2018) writes:

On the other hand, by re-embedding the individual within a wider lineage of ancestral experiences and reconfiguring it as a holobiontic assemblage, it may literally dissolve the subject of emancipation. Moreover, the power of biological heredity may be so expanded (as it includes potentially any single ancestral experience) to become stronger than in any previous genetic view. Finally, the several iterations of plasticity that emerge from this genealogy appear so deeply racialized and gendered that it is difficult to quickly turn them into an inherently emancipatory concept. Even as a concept, plasticity has an inertial weight and viscosity that is the task of the genealogist to excavate and bring into view.

Thus, current biological states can be “tagged” and therefore be epigenetically transmitted to future generations. Think about it in this way: if epigenetic tags can be transmitted to the next generation then it would be presumed that that environment—or a similar one—would be what newer generations would be born in. Thus, the plasticity of the organism would help it in life, especially the immediate plasticity of the organism in the womb. Likewise, Kuzawa and Sweet (2008) argue:

that environmentally responsive phenotypic plasticity, in combination with the better-studied acute and chronic effects of social-environmental exposures, provides a more parsimonious explanation than genetics for the persistence of CVD disparities between members of socially imposed racial categories.

Of course, if we look at race as both a biological and social category (i.e., Spencer, 2014), then this is not surprising that differences in disease acquisition can persist “between members of socially imposed racial categories.” Phenotypic plasticity is the big thing here, as noted by many authors who write about epigenetics. If the organism is plastic (if it can be malleable and change depending on external environmental cues), then disease states can—theoretically—be epigenetically passed to future generations. This is just like Jasienska’s (2009, 2013, Chapter 5) argument that the organism—in this case, the fetus—can respond to the environmental quality that it is developing in and, therefore, differences in anatomy and physiology can and do occur based on the plasticity of the organism.

Lastly, Jan Badke, author of Above the Gene, Beyond Biology: Toward a Philosophy of Epigenetics (Baedke, 2018), argues that, since the gene-centered view of biology has been upended (i.e., Jablonka and Lamb, 2005; Noble, 2006, 2011, 2012, 2017) for a postgenomic view (Richardson and Stevens, 2015). Genes are not closed off from the environment; all organisms, including humans, are open systems and so, there are relationships between the environment, developmental system, and the genome which affect the developing organism. Baedke and Delgado (2019) argue that the “colonial shadow … biologicizes as well as racializes social-cultural differences among human groups.” Since every race faces specific life challenges in its environment, therefore, each race shows a “unique social status that is closely linked to its biological status.” Thus, differing environments, such as access to different foods (i.e., the effects of obesifying foods) and discrimination can and are passed down epigenetically. Baedke and Delgado (2019: 9) argue that:

… both racial frameworks nutrition plays a crucial role. It is a key pathway over which sociocultural and environmental difference are embodied as racial difference. Thus, belonging to a particular race means having a particular biosocial status, since races include two poles – a social status (e.g., class, socio-economic status) and a biological status (disease susceptibility) – which are closely interlinked. Against this background, human populations in Mexico become an exemplar of types of bodies that are not only relocated to a destabilizing modernized world in which they suffer from socio-economic deprivation. What is more, they become paradigmatic primitive bodies that are unbalanced, biologically deprived, and sick. In short, in these recent epigenetic studies poor places and lifestyles determine poor bodies, and vice versa.

In sum, accepting the reality of race—both in a minimalist/populationist biological manner and social manner—can and will help us better understand disease acquisition and differing levels of certain diseases between races. Recognizing the minimalist/populationist concepts of race will allow us to discover genetic differences between races that contribute to variation in different diseases—since genes do not alone outright cause diseases (Kampourakis, 2017: 19). Being eliminativist/exclusionist about race does not make sense, and it would cause much more harm than good when it comes to racial disease acquisition and mortality rates.

Furthermore, acknowledging the fact that the social dimensions of race can help us understand how racism manifests itself in biology (for a good intro to this see Sullivan’s (2015) book The Physiology of Racist and Sexist Oppression, for even if the “oppression” is imagined, it can still have very real biological effects that could be passed onto the next generation—and it could particularly affect a developing fetus, too). It seems that there is a good argument that the effects of slavery could have been passed down through the generations manifesting itself in smaller bodies; these effects also could have possibly manifested itself in regard to obesity in Latin America post-colonialism. Gravlee (2009) and Kaplan (2010) also argue that the social, too, manifests itself in biology.

(For further information on how the social can and does become biological see Meloni’s (2019) book Impressionable Biologies: From the Archaeology of Plasticity to the Sociology of Epigenetics, along with Meloni (2014)‘s paper How biology became social, and what it means for social theory. Reading Baedke’s and Meloni’s arguments on plasticity and epigenetics should be required before discussing these concepts.)


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