Race and Medicine

We seem to be pursuing a theme here today, albeit an unintentional one, with race and medicine. In the medical field, there’s something that’s referred to as “personalized medicine.” This is the idea that doctors will (some day) be able to individually tailor medical care to the patient’s needs based on an individual-level analysis of the individual’s genome. Now, some are suggesting that this “personalized medicine” should replace racial classification. Sharon Begley writing in “LabNotes” for Newsweek, says:

…a new paper published online this week by the journal Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, .. concludes that classifying people by the crude category of race—as in, of African, Asian or European ancestry—for medical purposes, as some people want to do, is really, really stupid.

The article Begley refers to, “Individual Genomes Instead of Race for Personalized Medicine,” reports on the results of the sequencing of the genes of two white guys – Craig Venter and James Watson (yes, the same Watson) – to see how they metabolize six different drugs. The results were revealing.

What they found is that these two men, ostensibly of the “same race,” in fact have very different genetic make-ups when it comes to how their bodies process certain drugs. What these geneticists conclude is consistent with what social scientists have been saying for some time: “race” is social category, not a meaningful biological category. In the words of the authors of the study:

…race/ethnicity should be considered only a makeshift solution for personalized genomics because it is too approximate; known differences may occur within a defined category. …The label “African” or “African-American” is therefore insufficient to determine whether an individual comes from a population with a high frequency of the *17 allele. Even if an individual is known to be, for example, Ethiopian rather than Zimbabwean, the ancestry is less relevant than the true genotype, which could be easily resolved with today’s technology. Even the term “Caucasian” can be deceptive. If a self-identified Caucasian originates from a founder population in which certain disease-specific alleles occur at higher frequencies (e.g., Quebec French Canadians or Ashkenazi Jews), his or her doctor may miss an important aspect of the patient’s medical history. One’s ethnicity/race is, at best, a probabilistic guess at one’s true genetic makeup.

I have to say, I feel quite vindicated, given the little dust-up back in November 2007 (see the comments) with guys who wanted to argue that the “reality of race is genetic.” Still, it’s deeply ironic that this news should come from Venter and Watson, not known for their forward thinking on race (see my earlier posts about both of them here and here). But hey, I’ll take it.


  1. Joe

    Nice piece, Jessie, and it does vindicate your previous analyses. What do we call it when people think something is “there,” when it is not. That thing called “biological race?” Isn’t that a collective psychosis — in some mainstream science and much media analysis?


  1. Race and Medicine

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