Montoya ’16: A fatal simplification

Opinions Editor
Wednesday, September 16, 2015

In the never-ending battle against the diseases that plague humanity, genetic markers are an increasingly common weapon on the scientific front. Since the first sequencing of the human genome in 2003, geneticists have tirelessly searched for evidence linking gene mutations with diseases. In recent years, these scientists have begun to use race as a biological category, undertaking research projects focused solely on single racial groups in order to root out genes that may be linked to disease causality.

A 2014 study of Mexican individuals, including those born in both Mexico and the United States, found that 30 percent of subjects contained a mutated gene that raised their likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes by five times that of any other population in the world. Karol Estrada, who led the study, explains the significance of the discovery of this gene for Mexican populations, saying that “a genetic DNA test could determine the type of diabetes in minutes and from this the treatment to follow … it enables us to do the work knowing that it is a single gene variant for the Mexican population and not having to test for many other genes.”

It is easy to see why many are so quick to accept race-specific genes as causes for disease. Illness is terrifying to the public, and people crave the power to determine their own health. This alleged diabetes gene mutation is something tangible to Mexican populations — a simple test that they could undergo to determine their risk for the disease and allow them to take precautions against diabetes and confront the possibility of developing the illness in the future.

Yet the world should not be so ready to accept these genetic markers, for no matter what hope they may offer, the methodology behind their discovery is innately flawed. Race should never be used as a biological categorization for scientific inquiry, for assuming that the health of all the members of any one race can be determined merely by genes is a major oversight of other contributing factors. Humans are far more than just their genes; socioeconomic status, environment, occupation and diet are just a few of many interrelated external elements that can affect a person’s overall health and act as risk factors for disease.

Past studies have proven the fallacy of race as a genetic categorization as it has been used in this diabetes study. In her book “Fatal Invention,” Dorothy Roberts describes the case of sickle cell anemia, a disease thought to be genetically linked to “black blood.” In truth, there are equally high occurrences of the condition in parts of Europe, Oceania, India and the Middle East — all places where mosquitoes and high rates of malaria are present. In a comparison of a map of malaria cases and one of sickle cell anemia, Roberts explains that “the maps mirror each other perfectly. … It is plain to see that malaria and sickle cell aren’t restricted to Africa. … It would be more accurate to call the groups with the sickle cell gene the ‘anti-mosquito race.’”

While there is no question that diabetes is a major cause of suffering and mortality throughout the world, its seemingly disproportionate presence within Mexican populations cannot be explained purely by a genetic mutation, just as sickle cell could not be explained merely as a “black disease.” Accepting such a mutation as the reason behind the increased diabetes risk among Mexicans assumes that all individuals who identify as Mexican live similar lives and share similar beliefs about healthcare and lifestyle. It is necessary to take a broader look at the lives of Mexican populations and consider which elements of their lives could be placing them at a higher risk for diabetes. Perhaps socioeconomic status plays a role: carbohydrate-heavy foods like rice and corn are far more affordable than fruits and vegetables, and thus could be more widely consumed by Mexicans who are less wealthy. In a real study of diet and socioeconomic status as risk factors for diabetes, it would be necessary to look through these categories as research lenses instead of race, examining individuals of lower socioeconomic status of all races in order to get an accurate and realistic picture of those who suffer from the disease.

For geneticists to examine disease causality through a racial lens is a fatal oversimplification. In addition to pathologizing certain races, this research method will ultimately fail to discover the true conditions that put groups at an increased risk for diseases like diabetes. The test for this supposed mutated diabetes gene should not be pursued as a method of prevention. Meant to give Mexican individuals a sense of hope and personal capability, a reliance on their genetic predisposition as an explanation for disease will lead only to hopelessness and little change in diabetes rates among suffering populations.

Rachel Montoya ‘16 is a science and society concentrator.

  • Alum

    …and epigenetics only add further complexity!

  • Greek Alum

    If a study concludes a race associated genetic marker without controlling for things like SES and geography then it’s just a poorly designed study. That’s not an inherent flaw with using race and genetics. It may turn out that there is no such thing as race-associated genes and that any effect of race is confounded by something else, but that just highlights the importance of proper controls – it doesn’t inherently mean having race as the hypothesis is flawed.