I am frustrated by the politicization of science in the twenty-first century. The scientific community continues to research racial genetic health outcomes despite the widely accepted theory of a universal common ancestry that posits all species evolved from a single-celled organism. Many scientists, during the DNA revolution, proved that 99.9 per cent of all humans are the same and that there is no genetic basis for race — yet some researchers continue to focus on it.
A prime example of racial genetic research is the Million Veterans Program, funded by the US Department of Veterans Affairs. It is an ongoing cohort study that examines genetic influences on health and disease. The project screens individuals for biomarkers of health issues.
Studies like this, which investigate race-related genetic differences in health, only contribute to the larger social construct of race.
Numerous scientific findings have shown that environmental factors, not race, are the major determinants of pathology. A 2016 study found that microbiomes are influenced by mode of birth and formula feeding in infants. Changes in these variables were linked to metabolic issues and autoimmune diseases, as well as neurological disorders. Environmental differences have overwhelmingly been the suspect behind greater risks of life-threatening diseases.
The prevalent use of race as a control for genetic studies frustrates me. I think one of the larger letdowns of the science community is that tools like ethnic adjustment spirometers — instruments that measure lung capacity — exist to this day, despite the extensive evidence against racial classification in genetics.
According to Dr. Lundy Braun of Brown University, these spirometers correct or adjust for race by using a scaling factor for non-white individuals or by applying population norms. Such spirometers were developed around the time of the Industrial Revolution and the US slave trade, when certain marginalized populations were exposed to worse living and working conditions than their non-marginalized counterparts. As a result, they likely had smaller lung capacity.
Last summer, I did an internship at a hospital back home in Zimbabwe. The experience further opened my eyes to the extent of progress still needed in the scientific community. I had the opportunity to be placed in the neurosurgery, obstetrics and gynecology, plastic surgery, and general surgery departments. I shadowed in the operating room, assisted with patient interviews, and observed patient examinations.
During my internship, there was little to no attribution of disease to race. Instead, physicians sought out the environmental factors and social conditions that left patients vulnerable to illnesses.
The majority of Zimbabwe’s population is of Black ancestry, and even there, I noticed that there were still variations in patients’ lung capacity and susceptibility to obesity.
I love science, but I am also constantly at odds with it. As a neuroscience major, I always feel a twinge inside me when I read research papers that use race or ethnicity as a control in genetic studies. How is it that in a world where science itself demystified the concept of race, it is still considered a significant confounding variable that must be controlled? Why is it that without logical explanation, we still have ethnic adjustment spirometers in some hospitals?
I hope that we will one day be able to stop searching for racial causes of disease and start exploring what brings about the necessary conditions for genes and the environment to manifest into sources of disease.