Race and Disease

 

From: Peter Staudenmaier
Date: Tue Apr 27, 2004 9:37 am
Subject: race and disease

Paulina, our resident expert on race, falls for an easy one. In reply to my query about "disease weaknesses that are typical of entire races as such", she writes:

What about sickle-cell anemia, for an example?

Perhaps Paulina believes that sickle-cell anemia is an example of a disease that is typical of entire races as such. If so, I very much encourage her to expound on this interesting theory. While she's doing that, here's what people who don't believe in fictions like "racial character" have known about sickle cell anemia for many years: it is prevalent in people whose ancestors come from malarial zones, because it is itself an adaptation to malaria. That means that many people of West African and Central African origin carry the trait. So do many people from parts of the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin as well as south Asia (who knows, maybe those people also count as "black" in Paulina's eyes). People of East African or southern African origin rarely have sickle-cell anemia, which is one reason why the vast majority of African-Americans do not carry the sickle-cell trait, and hence why it obviously is not an instance of a disease that is typical of entire races as such.

This information is very readily available in many forums. Here is a link to an interview with Alan Goodman, whose work I have recommended several times, addressing the links between sickle cell and race:

http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-01-07.htm

And here are several comments from leading sickle-cell associations on the ethnic and racial dimensions of the disease. The Sickle Cell Information Center reports:

"Sickle cell is in many nationalities including African Americans, Africans, Arabs, Greeks, Italians, Latin Americans, and those from India. You can be Caucasian and have sickle cell disease or trait. All races should be screened for this hemoglobin at birth."

http://www.scinfo.org/sicklept.htm

The American Sickle Cell Anemia Association says:

"The error in the hemoglobin gene results from a genetic mutation that occurred many thousands of years ago in people in parts of Africa, the Mediterranean basin, the Middle East, and India."

http://www.ascaa.org/cause.htm

And the Sickle Cell Society confirms:

"The different kinds of SCD and the different traits are found mainly in people whose families come from Africa, the Caribbean, the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia."

http://www.sicklecellsociety.org/education/sicklecell.htm

But then, maybe all those people simply share the same "racial character".

Peter

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From: winters_diana
Date: Tue Apr 27, 2004 12:53 pm
Subject: Re: race and disease

In medicine race is now often spoken of as a "marker." I recall this term giving confusion on this list before. I forget who, maybe Daniel, who had the meaning of a "marker" and what it "marks" reversed, so I hesitate to plunge ahead with this explanation, but . . . Bradford found a relevant passage explaining this, though he didn't seem to get it either.

In medicine a "marker" for disease means a sort of stand-in, as close as you can get when you don't know exactly how to "get at" the thing you wish you could get at (in order to diagnose and treat, or prevent, or study). Like a signpost: if the person's skin is black, sickle cell anemia may be "this way." It will be worth looking in this direction to see what you find. It is worth screening people with darker skin for sickle cell anemia, because you find a lot of them that way, and you can help prevent disease. Good stuff. The point is it is imprecise. The map is not the territory. People don't have sickle cell anemia because they are black, and because someone is black doesn't mean they have (or are susceptible to) sickle cell anemia. It is not in the "racial character" of blacks to have or be susceptible to sickle cell anemia.

Often they don't know exactly what the marker marks: genes (which of course vary greatly among members of the same "race"), exposure to toxins, diet, many possible things. It isn't really necessary to find out, of course, if the marker is getting you close enough that your screening is getting most everybody (is very sensitive; not many false-negatives) and not incorrectly identifying people as having the disease who don't (very specific; not many false-positives).

Diana

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From: at
Date: Tue Apr 27, 2004 7:39 pm
Subject: Re: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] race and disease

Paulina:

What about sickle-cell anemia, for an example?

Peter Staudenmaier:

Perhaps Paulina believes that sickle-cell anemia is an example of a disease that is typical of entire races as such.

Daniel:

And perhaps Paulina does not believe that sickle-cell anemia is a disease "typical of entire races as such." As usual Peter Staudenmaier is oversimplifying a position in order to attack it as silly. The issue of sickle-cell anemia is not one of either-or, all-or nothing, blanket-racializing, typical of entire races, prejudicial, close-minded ignorance. It is simply another instance of the paradox behind the relationship between the individual to the group. In sociology the paradox is manifested in the curious fact that although every human being is unique as an individual, groups of unique individuals are quite predictable. The same is true of genetics: every individual is unique. But in groups many things are predictable. This is the basis of life insurance, as well as health insurance. With a large enough group you can predict a number of things accurately, such as the odds of death or the odds of contracting sickle-cell anemia. Then you can create statistical models using sub-groups and increase your accuracy even further. It has been noted that the darker the skin color, the higher the odds of contracting sickle-cell anemia. Of course, this says nothing absolute about any individual, only something statistical about the group. The causes and probable origin of sickle-cell anemia are understood, and it is understood that it only occurs in an individual when the exact conditions are met. So looking at a group is kind of like a "Schrödinger's cat" conundrum - each individual in the group either does or does not bear the genetic requirements for sickle-cell anemia, but you only know after you test them of they do or do not. Before you test the, you know the probability that they have it, but not whether they do or do not. Now none of the links contests the accuracy of the probability. What we hear over and over is that a probability is not a certainty. Very well, and no one claims that it is. So again we must ask, what does sickle-cell anemia tell us?

Daniel Hindes

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From: winters_diana
Date: Tue Apr 27, 2004 7:55 pm
Subject: Re: race and disease

Exactly, Daniel, you are agreeing completely with what I wrote. Skin color as a marker, useful in a practical sense as indicator of a statistical probability (an indication in this case to be looking for sickle cell). Not an indication that because people with darker skin have a higher likelihood of sickle cell, these people are therefore a race, and certainly not an indication that just because diseases exist that have a correlation with skin color, "race" per se is therefore a reality. And since, as you agree, knowing group probabilities tells you nothing about an individual, it seems to me this quite does away with the notion of "racial character" as manifesting in diseases - a notion Bradford is happily chewing on, and the same notion on which most of your arguments pertaining to the Atlantic Monthly article rested.

Diana

Paulina:

What about sickle-cell anemia, for an example?

(Note that she asked this question in response to Peter's question to Bradford: "Why do you believe that there are any particular immune system and disease weaknesses that are typical of entire races as such?")

Daniel:

It has been noted that the darker the skin color, the higher the odds of contracting sickle-cell anemia. Of course, this says nothing absolute about any individual, only something statistical about the group.

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From: at
Date: Wed Apr 28, 2004 1:33 pm
Subject: Re: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] Re: race and disease

Group probabilities tell you nothing about the individual. But they do tell you about the group. As a group, the Native Americans of 1492 were more susceptable to European diseases. Not all individuals contracted all diseases, nor were any of the diseases fatal to all individuals. But as a group the diseases were quite devastating, and frequently fatal. Now why was this?

Daniel Hindes

----- Original Message -----
From: winters_diana
Sent: Tuesday, April 27, 2004 10:55 PM
Subject: [anthroposophy_tomorrow] Re: race and disease

Exactly, Daniel, you are agreeing completely with what I wrote. Skin color as a marker, useful in a practical sense as indicator of a statistical probability (an indication in this case to be looking for sickle cell). Not an indication that because people with darker skin have a higher likelihood of sickle cell, these people are therefore a race, and certainly not an indication that just because diseases exist that have a correlation with skin color, "race" per se is therefore a reality. And since, as you agree, knowing group probabilities tells you nothing about an individual, it seems to me this quite does away with the notion of "racial character" as manifesting in diseases - a notion Bradford is happily chewing on, and the same notion on which most of your arguments pertaining to the Atlantic Monthly article rested.

Diana

Paulina:

What about sickle-cell anemia, for an example?

(Note that she asked this question in response to Peter's question to Bradford: "Why do you believe that there are any particular immune system and disease weaknesses that are typical of entire races as such?")

Daniel:

It has been noted that the darker the skin color, the higher the odds of contracting sickle-cell anemia. Of course, this says nothing absolute about any individual, only something statistical about the group.

 

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