Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Race is a Social Construct

Back to back on my to read list were two articles that made an odd juxtaposition. First up was Race Is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue in the once great Scientific American. Here’s a representative blurb:

More than 100 years ago, American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois was concerned that race was being used as a biological explanation for what he understood to be social and cultural differences between different populations of people. He spoke out against the idea of “white” and “black” as discrete groups, claiming that these distinctions ignored the scope of human diversity.

Science would favor Du Bois. Today, the mainstream belief among scientists is that race is a social construct without biological meaning. And yet, you might still open a study on genetics in a major scientific journal and find categories like “white” and “black” being used as biological variables.

The article goes on as a confused mish-mash, and includes a comment that one researcher feels that

modern genetics research is operating in a paradox, which is that race is understood to be a useful tool to elucidate human genetic diversity, but on the other hand, race is also understood to be a poorly defined marker of that diversity and an imprecise proxy for the relationship between ancestry and genetics.

Of course, when people think “race” they think ancestry. Ask a random person to classify people whose ancestors lived in what is now Japan, Sweden, and Uganda 2,500 years ago and he/she will, with little difficulty in most cases, classify those people as “Asian,” “European” and “Black,” respectively. Other objections to discussing race include the fact that people travel, and sometimes procreate after they’ve moved. Additionally, the fact that not all White people are exactly alike, and not all Black people are exactly alike, etc.,  is also viewed as problematic.

Next up on my reading list was Impact of common genetic determinants of Hemoglobin A1c on type 2 diabetes risk and diagnosis in ancestrally diverse populations: A transethnic genome-wide meta-analysis in PLOS Medicine. Here are a few quotes:

Blood glucose binds in an irreversible manner to circulating hemoglobin in red blood cells (RBCs), generating “glycated hemoglobin,” called HbA1c. HbA1c is used to diagnose and monitor diabetes…. About 11% of people of African American ancestry carry at least one copy of this G6PDvariant, while almost no one of any other ancestry does. We estimated that if we tested all Americans for diabetes using HbA1c, about 650,000 African Americans would be missed because of these genetically lowered HbA1c levels… This work supports a role for a precision medicine application to reduce race-ethnic health disparities using HbA1c genetics to improve T2D diagnosis and prediction and to inform screening strategies for T2D across the African continent where the prevalence of the G6PD variant can reach 20%.

From what I can tell reading medical and genetic literature, there is a collage industry in which scholars tell us that “race is a social construct without biological meaning.” But there is a second cottage industry in which a different group of scholars looks for genetic manifestations that strongly correlate with that particular biologically meaningless social construct.

The first cottage industry also warns us (to quote the Scientific American article again) that:

Assumptions about genetic differences between people of different races have had obvious social and historical repercussions, and they still threaten to fuel racist beliefs.

Meanwhile, members of the second cottage industry seems hell bent on trying to save lives. It is all very odd.


Update, 10/18/2017, 5:48 AM PST – minor grammatical error corrected by removing the word “with” following the word “mish-mash.”

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Give A Man A Fish

I once spent a couple of weeks asking myself, “How can a nation, or even just a city, cheaply deal with a scarcity of food for the poor, together with a plenitude of cheapbad food (whether fast or home-made) which harms ones health?” I came up with the Streetfood Initiative (still in planning, I am sorry to say.)

Up here in the great white north we have plenty of poorly fed, obese, and diabetic people. We’re good — but not perfect. Our local food bank alone fed about 36,000 people four years ago when I last looked up the data, and the numbers have risen since then.

I proposed that a network of carts and tiny kiosks be set up to give away Streetfood to anyone who asks.

It would not infringe on the fast food industry because it would not be the sort of addictive mix of fat-sugar-salt-starch that they specialize in. All offerings would be vegetarian, though spicy and nutritionally balanced. Rice, lentils, curry, stews, and stir-fry type recipes, each serving handed over in an edible container, like a hollowed breadroll or a unsweetened ice cream cone type cup, using a minimum of wrapping. Recipes would be public, on the net, and available at the cart for the asking.

The carts and kiosks would be funded through general revenue, with the understanding that savings and benefits would show up elsewhere: less diabetes, better performance in the schools, fewer malnourished drunks taking up hospital beds, fewer proud starving seniors, and so on.

How much rice, lentils and beans can you buy for what it costs to care for one blind, amputee diabetic? Lots and lots, I bet.

Another effect I hoped for (perhaps the core effect) would be to alter people’s ideas of what “food” is.

We generally consider the food we grew up with to be real food, and stuff encountered later as foreign, peculiar or even non-food. Diet is partly choice, true — but much of what we consider choice comes down to imprinting.

Jared Diamon, in his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”: wrote about why the Norse settlements on Greenland failed. He said

“Looking back on these settlements from our vantage point today, we can observe that the Norse were imperceptibly following practices which weren’t sustainable in their environment in Greenland. These practices were as follows:
•Chopped down forests to use wood for fuel, furniture and houses
•Used cleared land for grazing cows
•Built houses out of 6-foot slabs of turf which meant a home consumed about 10 acres of grassland
These practices weren’t sustainable… Looking back the Norse Greenlanders should have learned from the Inuit to hunt seals as the most reliable food source in winter. But they preferred beef and didn’t like seal. The Norse also should have eaten fish. If they had, they may have survived.”

I consider canned mushroom soup to be a staple, along with bananas, potato chips, and frozen pizza. My grandmother, born in the late 1800s, most likely would never have seen these when she was growing up.

But what if a generation of children grew up eating delicious street food? Presented correctly, it could become the circus and state-fair finger food for a whole population of youngsters, and help introduce people to a diet that doesn’t subvert their health.

As for the free rider problem — bring ’em on. In an inversion of the old saw, we could be a culture where “the wealthy, as well as the poor, are permitted to eat Streetfood all they wish.”

Up here, a person generally has to be below 37% of our poverty line before they will go to a food bank. People who need the food still won’t go until truly desperate. I think the potential for free riders is less than one might imagine, and meanwhile — they will learn different tastes.

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