Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century

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The body is always ready for the next battle. Which brings us back to breast cancer. Not only rates, but breast cancer patterns differ between black and white women. When diagnosed, black women are more likely to be under the age of 35 and to die by the age of Some have argued that their tumors spread more quickly because they differ physiologically from white women. Black women tend to lack key hormone receptors, which means that tumors respond poorly to familiar hormone-based treatments. People who experience racial discrimination have higher essential hypertension and are more likely to give birth to low-weight babies.

Physician and cancer researcher Olufunmilayo Olopade noticed these differences and originally assumed that they were due to genetic, race-based differences between white women and women of African origin. Recently, however, she has begun to see things differently, looking to how women of color embody the daily stresses of racism and economic deprivation.

ISBN 13: 9781595584953

The absence of hormone receptors could be a function of environmental factors, but, seeking other explanations, Olopade has teamed up with University of Chicago biopsychologist Martha McClintock to ask a new kind of question. In a study of mice that primarily modeled the growth rate for human breast cancer, they have shown that socially stressed mice express certain genes differently in their mammary tissue.

Specifically, the stressed mice demonstrate an uptick in expression for suites of genes involved in lipid metabolism and a biochemical pathway that converts sugars into energy. Both pathways contribute to breast cancer growth. When you join the concepts of allostasis and embodiment, disease emerges as something that happens in bodies with histories.

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Each body forms a dynamic system not only with its current environment, but also with its particular history. Bodies are always in process, reflecting the past and incorporating the present. Dynamic systems theory explains stability in an organism or in a cell, but also offers a way to understand how, when a contributing process goes awry, a system destabilizes. If we think of breast cancer as a destabilized system, then it makes sense to ask what contributes to stability and how destabilization occurs.

Back at the bar, Roberts has supported her ideas with a dozen different examples from science, medicine, pharmacology, and genetic surveillance. But by now the biologist has gotten antsy. Freelance writer and neurobiologist Richard Francis, author of Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance , is excited to explain how new understandings of a long-known, but until recently poorly understood, phenomenon called epigenetics form part of the story.

Although Francis does not specifically address the question of race, he realizes from listening to his drinking mates that what he has to say directly relates to answering the booming voice. Like Morning and Roberts, Francis recounts a bit about the history of genetics, focusing briefly on Morgan, Mendel, and the relationship between genes and phenotypes, as in that fruit fly with a gene for the phenotype of white eyes.

The Morgan-Mendel tradition gave rise to a reductionist approach to genes as causes of traits. Francis, however, emphasizes another tradition, one represented in the work of geneticists Sewall Wright and C. Both focused on the complex pathways that intervene between genes and traits. Francis echoes these scientists, viewing genes as tools or cellular resources, responding to environmental input.

Modern epigenetics is the study of gene modifications induced by local changes in the environment. An epigenetic event is not a mutation, because there is no change in the genetic code. Instead small molecular add-ons to DNA regions that control gene expression can silence a gene or boost its expression. Not surprisingly, the infants born from starving mothers were undersized and not so healthy. Less expected is that members of this same cohort, examined in adulthood, were twice as likely to be obese as those born before or after the famine.

They also had an elevated risk for developing schizophrenia and other mental disorders. Epigenetic modification ranks first on the list of possible mechanisms that underpin these second-generation effects.


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Francis explains the science behind these conclusions with clarity and forthrightness. His path crosses with Roberts, Krieger, Olopade, and others in his argument that genes are responsive elements in the cell. So what is the meaning of race? Morning and Roberts argue convincingly that race is a socially produced set of categories that has profound and often terrible biological consequences.

We need a different kind of investigation. Already, the National Institutes of Health devote significant resources to studying the epigenome. And funding for research into the allostatic mechanisms by which, say, blood pressure becomes chronically elevated, is hard to come by. The question of what exactly race is may be with us for while. But if we are dedicated to delivering social services and doing the right kind of laboratory research, we can, right now, address the comparative ill health of people of color, the poor, and the medically underserved.

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Dorothy Roberts - The Betsy Wood Knapp ’64 Lecture 2019

A Political and Literary Forum. Menu Search Donate Shop Join. May 1, Topics: health race science and technology. While we have you Topics health race science and technology. Readers Also Liked. Against Black Homeownership The real estate market is so structured by race Philip Kitcher. Tim Maudlin.

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Join us to support engaged discussion on critical issues. Get Started. More In Race. Before America Burned Robert L. Is Science Political? Michael D. The Why of the World Tim Maudlin. Apocalypse Now Gianpaolo Baiocchi. Fatal Invention documents the emergence of a new biopolitics in the United States that relies on re-inventing race in biological terms using cutting-edge genomic science and biotechnologies. Some scientists are defining race as a biological category written in our genes, while the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries convert the new racial science into race-based products, such as race-specific medicines, ancestry tests, and DNA forensics, that incorporate false assumptions of racial difference at the genetic level.

The genetic understanding of race calls for technological responses to racial disparities while masking the continuing impact of racism in a supposedly post-racial society. Instead, I call for affirming our common humanity by working to end social inequities supported by the political system of race.

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