Genes Don't Cause Racial-Health Disparities, Society Does

Researchers are looking in the wrong place: White people live longer not because of their DNA but because of inequality.

On April 24, 2003, shortly after the completion of the human genome project, its director Francis Collins and his team posed 15 grand challenges to the scientific community. They dared researchers to harness the genome to crack puzzles of biology, health, and society. In particular, they called for genome-based tools to close health disparities. Since then, the United States has pumped more than $1 billion a year into genomics research. What do we have to show for it?

“What we found in the literature published from 2007 to 2013 was basically nothing,” said Jay Kaufman, the lead author of the first study to examine available genetic data for evidence that explains a major racial-health disparity. For many years, researchers speculated that what they couldn’t explain about disparities must be the fingerprint of some mysterious genetic component. But since they are now able to scan the entire genome, this speculation appears both lazy and wrong. When it comes to why many black people die earlier than white people in the U.S., Kaufman and his colleagues show we've been looking for answers in the wrong places: We shouldn't be looking in the twists of the double helix, but the grinding inequality of the environment.

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