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The risky gene: epidemiology and the evolution of race

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Alcabes examines how modern epidemiology views race, including a historical review and a critique of methods. Race occupies a central place in health discourse partly because of two misapprehensions. First, contemporary epidemiologic research focuses on individual behaviour as a determinant of disease risk, despite the fact that risk as predicted from epidemiologic data is solely interpretable for large populations, not for individuals. Historically and today, connections between behaviour and disease have been used to fortify racial discrimination, with reprobate behaviours imputed to unwanted races. Second, the advent of evolutionary theory and the recognition that genetics provides a mechanism by which evolution proceeds together have allowed for the social concept of race’ to be imbued fallaciously with biological determinants. With an epidemiology based on behaviour, a behavioural indexing of race and a racial interpretation of evolutionary theory and genomics, the circle closes: society can ascribe differences in disease occurrence to the genetic make-up of the sufferers or to their behaviour, or both-that is, to race-and avoid having to address social problems that typically underlie disease risk.

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Keywords: behavioural medicine; epidemiology; ethics; genetics; history; race

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2006-09-01

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