June 7, 2012
Race Based Medicine: In Chicago, black women die of breast cancer at twice the rate of white women. It’s not because of their genes.
June 7, 2012
Have you heard this one? A sociologist, a lawyer, and a biologist walk into a bar, scoot their stools up to the counter, order drinks, and begin to chat. Suddenly, a booming voice (God, the bartender?) envelops them. “What is the meaning of race?” the voice asks.
While the question may seem straightforward on its face, it quickly spawns further questions, often vexing. Is race purely a political construct, or is it biologically encoded? Certainly there are aspects of human biology—skin color, hair color, the presence or absence of epicanthic folds, etc.—that are commonly associated with racial differences, but is race just the sum of these physical features, with all of the overlaps, exceptions, and ambiguities they involve? How do genes factor into the story? And what connection—if any—is there between biological markers of race and the social experiences of racial groups?
Each of the three drinking buddies has a lot to say to God or Sam Malone, and, by the way, their responses don’t end in laugh lines. The biologist, Richard Francis, engages other issues, though his concerns directly affect how we answer the loud voice. But the sociologist, Ann Morning, and the lawyer, Dorothy Roberts, are narrowly focused on the science of race and how medicine mediates racial experience. And with good reason: in the United States people of a darker hue (on average) die sooner than pink-skinned people. They are afflicted with higher rates of particular diseases, such as high blood pressure, strokes, and kidney failure. So the race you’re born with, or, rather, which race you are born into, might mean a healthier, longer life—or not.
These days large numbers of medical research dollars are devoted to finding genetic differences between races that might explain health disparities. But many students of biology and race, and at least some of our bar mates, think that is a bad idea. They are not against medical research per se but against bad research. Instead of looking for genes that cause race and attending health outcomes (the standard approach) they point to evidence strongly suggesting that everyday events alter our bodies, making them sicker or more resistant to disease—events that the political economy ensures are more or less common depending on which racial categories one is assigned to. Indeed, it may be that biology doesn’t create race but that racial marking creates new biological states via processes that all three of these thinkers discuss in new books.
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In The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference, Morning gleans the meaning of race from interviews with university students and their professors and from close reading of high school textbooks. She presents detailed information with great care and enlivens the discussion with hilarious tongue-tied statements from students and professors as well as personal anecdotes. When she takes her two-week-old daughter for a doctor’s visit, the hospital admissions clerk won’t allow the baby to be seen without first having a racial designation. When Morning suggests “multiracial”—she usually identifies as black; her husband is Italian—the clerk replies, “That’s not an option” and settles instead for “race unknown,” as if that could offer significant clinical information.
Race is engrained in American medical practice. Sometimes beliefs about racial difference are even wired into medical diagnostic machines. For example, you can’t get a bone scan evaluated without designating a race, because the formulae programmed into bone densitometers use different standards for assessing bone thinning in white, Asian, Hispanic, and African American women. The evidence supporting different standards is rarely questioned and certainly unknown to the technicians who operate the machines. Often even the radiologists who evaluate the results don’t know much about the differing standards.
Or consider spirometers, which measure lung function. The normal functioning of black people’s lungs is typically presumed to be 10–15 percent below that of white people’s. As Lundy Braun, who studies the intersection of race and medical science and technology, has shown, the presumption stems from a poorly supported idea that blacks inherently have lesser lung capacities than whites. Yet spirometers are calibrated to account for this difference. Some machines actually have a “race” switch built into them, which technicians flip depending on what race they believe the patient to be. Pegging the lung function of blacks at a lower level means, among other things, that they have to be sicker than whites in order to qualify for worker’s compensation or other insurance for lung-related illness.
In The Nature of Race Morning uses the lenses of biology and medicine to isolate several conceptualizations of race. She finds that there is no consensus among either social or biological scientists and groups her respondents into three general categories: essentialists, anti-essentialists, and constructivists.
It may be that biology doesn’t create race but that racial marking creates new biological states.
Essentialists propose that there are biologically grounded human races that share some more or less immutable essence. In modern terms the essence is usually understood to be specific genes or groups of genes, or to result from evolutionary processes that have acted on genetically isolated populations.
Here is how one of Morning’s interlocutors, a biologist whom Morning classifies as an essentialist, chews over the definition of race:
Well, I think the textbook will say that there are three major races—Negroid, Caucasian, and Asian or Mongoloid . . . . So I guess in the old definition they’re like you would imagine they are: the edges are a little blurred, but the old classical definition of race is a lot clearer. And don’t we kind of look at people today [like that].Referring to Morning, this scientist continues:
I said you’re part Caucasian and part black, so I’m taking two of the standard races, and I’m mixing them in some proportion, and that’s probably the best I could do in terms of race: three races . . . blurring at the edges.But this blurring is a problem for anti-essentialists, who see the fuzziness of racial categories as a sign that they can’t be rigorously connected to particular genes. Anti-essentialists either emphasize the genetic unity of humans in a single race or highlight how difficult and arbitrary it is to draw biologically based racial boundary lines. Anti-essentialists agree that there is wide biological variation in human traits, but because groups of traits don’t link and vary together, this variation can’t be used to set up clear racial categories…
June 7, 2012
These are ruminations of a Russian liberal, and they would have never been written if not for one simple fact: the concerns described herein are beginning to dominate the Russian liberal community (and not just the Russian one, I’m afraid). We are dealing with a phenomenon that until recently was unthinkable: emerging anti-Western and anti-American liberalism. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that Russian liberals are rejecting liberal principles. They are just increasingly critical of the way the Western elites—political and intellectual—adhere to these principles, both inside and outside of Western societies. Are these criticisms a reflection of the usual tension between non-Western dogmatism and Western revisionism? Could be. But I’d rather not be presumptuous: I am only describing how Western developments and Western policies are seen from the outside by those who have traditionally looked to the West as an example and even an icon.
One could all too easily shrug and dismiss this phenomenon as ludicrous. It would be arrogant, after all, for those who have failed to achieve a liberal agenda in their own country to accuse those who have succeeded of normative inconsistency and structural ineffectiveness! On the other hand, Western observers themselves admit that the West has problems. Francis Fukuyama, for one, writes about “American Political Dysfunction.” Walter Mead declares, “The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore.” William Galston says, “We need a fundamental renewal of the liberal tradition in America.” Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum discuss American decline and what is necessary “to revitalize the United States” (p. 329). Even Robert Kagan, whom we can hardly suspect of declinism, agrees that “the United States must adjust to the new” (p. 140).
Europe is no different. Walter Laqueur has announced “the slow death of Europe.” Zbigniew Brzezinski concludes that Europe has become “the world’s most comfortable retirement home” (p. 36). Europeans themselves lament the crisis of Western civilization as well. Constanze Stelzenmüller acknowledges a “toxic polarization of domestic politics” and discrediting of “politicians as well as of the institutions of representative government.” The Western project is beginning to resemble a house with a shaky foundation, and the spreading gloom has made the new “crisisology” into the favorite hobby of Western and non-Western observers alike.
So, what’s wrong with the West? There is a consensus: failing economy, dysfunctional domestic political systems, entrenched interests, dwindling prosperity and populism. This naturally leads one to wonder, “What are the causes of the current Western malaise?” Fukuyama reminds us of Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations, in which the latter argued that, during prolonged periods of prosperity and peace, democratic countries tend to accumulate entrenched interest groups, which in turn leads to the ossification of political systems. If this diagnosis is correct, the problem is systemic, and the remedy is to update the basics.
I would add that the crisis in the West was not entirely unexpected; it has a cyclical nature. In the 20th century, liberal democracies experienced traumatic shocks three times (before World War I, in the 1930s and again in the 1970s). These crises provided a powerful impetus for social renewal and the emergence of post-industrial society. Thus, what the West is going through now seems to be a stage in the normal rhythm of life—in itself a sign that liberal society is still vibrant and alive. The Russian experience, meanwhile, demonstrates that calm and stagnation are a much worse omens—signs that a society may soon lose its energy and drive. The more acute the signs of a crisis are, the faster the recovery.
There is yet another factor that helped the West re-energize itself in the past: the existence of Soviet Communism, an alternative civilization with global aspirations. It was this alternative that forced the West to pay close attention to justice, fairness, equality and social aspects of capitalism. Josef Joffe reminds us that it was the Soviet Sputnik satellite that forced the United States to change its fiscal priorities and funnel billions of dollars into research and education. Searching for ways to reform itself in the 1970s, the West not only upgraded its entire system; it also introduced values into the conduct of its international relations—for the first time in history. It was, in fact, a major breakthrough. Human rights became the leading theme of Western foreign policy. The universalization of human rights and respect for dignity and freedom blurred the boundaries between domestic and foreign policy, entailing rejection of the concept of absolute sovereignty in the global arena. The Helsinki process and its Final Act were simultaneously a sign of the new vitality of Western civilization, an effective instrument to contain the U.S.S.R. and a catalyst for the “third wave” of democratization. The Velvet Revolutions of 1989 owed at least part of their success to the influence of liberalism in the area of international relations.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left the West without an opponent that could force the liberal democracies to refine their principles and modernize their systems. Political Islam, extreme nationalism and fascism failed to become alternatives to liberal democracy, as some experts had predicted, at least globally. These days, even paternalistic Asian authoritarianism is looking as if it is losing steam. Today, the liberal democracies will have to find their second wind from within; there are no outside factors to stimulate recovery.
Meanwhile, the way liberal democracies are currently trying to revitalize themselves raises some concerns and doubts. There are two “cures” under discussion within the Western community. First, the West has to find ways to deal with entrenched interests and their own plutocracies while at the same time rewriting social contracts to make the welfare state economically effective again. Second, liberal democracies have to figure out how far they want their power to extend in the outside world: whether they should limit its reach in order to tackle domestic problems (as per Obama’s popular “time to focus on nation building here at home” rhetoric), or expand it. Foreign policy experts are also debating new ways of understanding the world, managing threats, and forecasting future events. Whereas the thinking of the 1970s emphasized a normative dimension and the interdependence of domestic and foreign policy, Western policymakers today are mainly trying to update internal politics—brushing aside interdependence with the international environment—and debating how to maintain the geopolitical and societal status quo.
I have not found any substantive evidence (or did I perhaps miss it?) that the West’s “resuscitators” are prepared to offer ways to connect the domestic revival with a new model of “liberal internationalism”—to reconcile ideals and interests. Even staunch liberal internationalists today keep a low profile, as if they are still afraid of being accused of holding on to the neocon legacy. Indeed, it seems that there is no intellectual or political force in the West that would dare repeat the breakthrough of the 1970s by re-energizing liberal civilization with a return to values and principles. Looks like we are back in the Kissingerian world…
The Library of Utopia: Google’s ambitious book-scanning program is foundering in the courts. Now a Harvard-led group is launching its own sweeping effort to put our literary heritage online.
June 7, 2012
In his 1938 book World Brain, H.G. Wells imagined a time—not very distant, he believed—when every person on the planet would have easy access to “all that is thought or known.”
The 1930s were a decade of rapid advances in microphotography, and Wells assumed that microfilm would be the technology to make the corpus of human knowledge universally available. “The time is close at hand,” he wrote, “when any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his own study at his or her convenience to examineany book, any document, in an exact replica.”
Wells’s optimism was misplaced. The Second World War put idealistic ventures on hold, and after peace was restored, technical constraints made his plan unworkable. Though microfilm would remain an important medium for storing and preserving documents, it proved too unwieldy, too fragile, and too expensive to serve as the basis for a broad system of knowledge transmission. But Wells’s idea is still alive. Today, 75 years later, the prospect of creating a public repository of every book ever published—what the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer calls “the library of utopia“—seems well within our grasp. With the Internet, we have an information system that can store and transmit documents efficiently and cheaply, delivering them on demand to anyone with a computer or a smart phone. All that remains to be done is to digitize the more than 100 million books that have appeared since Gutenberg invented movable type, index their contents, add some descriptive metadata, and put them online with tools for viewing and searching.
Google had the smarts and the money to scan millions of books into its database, but the major problems with constructing a universal library has little to do with technology.
It sounds straightforward. And if it were just a matter of moving bits and bytes around, a universal online library might already exist. Google, after all, has been working on the challenge for 10 years. But the search giant’s book program has foundered; it is mired in a legal swamp. Now another momentous project to build a universal library is taking shape. It springs not from Silicon Valley but from Harvard University. The Digital Public Library of America—the DPLA—has big goals, big names, and big contributors. And yet for all the project’s strengths, its success is far from assured. Like Google before it, the DPLA is learning that the major problem with constructing a universal library nowadays has little to do with technology. It’s the thorny tangle of legal, commercial, and political issues that surrounds the publishing business. Internet or not, the world may still not be ready for the library of utopia.
Larry Page isn’t known for his literary sensibility, but he does like to think big. In 2002, the Google cofounder decided that it was time for his young company to scan all the world’s books into its database. If printed texts weren’t brought online, he feared, Google would never fulfill its mission of making the world’s information “universally accessible and useful.” After doing some book-scanning tests in his office—he manned the camera while Marissa Mayer, then a product manager, turned pages to the beat of a metronome—he concluded that Google had the smarts and the money to get the job done. He set a team of engineers and programmers to work. In a matter of months, they had invented an ingenious scanning device that used a stereoscopic infrared camera to correct for the bowing of pages that occurs when a book is opened. The new scanner made it possible to digitize books rapidly without cutting off their spines or otherwise damaging them. The team also wrote character recognition software that could decipher unusual fonts and other textual oddities in more than 400 languages.
In 2004, Page and his colleagues went public with their project, which they would later name Google Book Search—a reminder that the company, at least originally, thought of the service essentially as an extension of its search engine. Five of the world’s largest research libraries, including the New York Public Library and the libraries of Oxford and Harvard, signed on as partners. They agreed to let Google digitize books from their collections in return for copies of the images. The company went on a scanning binge, making digital replicas of millions of volumes. It didn’t always restrict itself to books in the public domain; it scanned ones still under copyright, too. That’s when the trouble started. The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers sued Google, claiming that copying entire books, even with the intent of showing only a few lines of text in search results, constituted “massive” copyright infringement.
Google then made a fateful choice. Instead of going to trial and defending Book Search on grounds that it amounted to “fair use” of copyright-protected material—a case that some legal scholars believe it might have won—it negotiated a sweeping settlement with its adversaries. In 2008, the company agreed to pay large sums to authors and publishers in return for permission to develop a commercial database of books. Under the terms of the deal, Google would be able to sell subscriptions to the database to libraries and other institutions while also using the service as a means for selling e-books and displaying advertisements.
That only deepened the controversy. Librarians and academics lined up to oppose the deal. Many authors asked that their works be exempted from it. The U.S. Justice Department raised antitrust concerns. Foreign publishers howled. Last year, after a final round of legal maneuvering, federal district judge Denny Chin rejected the settlement, saying it “would simply go too far.” Listing a variety of objections, he argued that the pact would not only “grant Google significant rights to exploit entire books, without permission of the copyright owners,” but also reward the company for its “wholesale copying of copyrighted works” in the past. The company now finds itself nearly back at square one, with the original lawsuits slated to go to trial this summer. Facing new competitive threats from Facebook and other social networks, Google may no longer see Book Search as a priority. A decade after it began, Page’s bold project has stalled.
If you were looking for Larry Page’s opposite, you would be hard pressed to find a better candidate than Robert Darnton. A distinguished historian and prize-winning author, a former Rhodes scholar and MacArthur fellow, a Chevalier in France’s Légion d’Honneur, and a 2011 recipient of the National Humanities Medal, the 72-year-old Darnton is everything that Page is not: eloquent, diplomatic, and embedded in the literary establishment. If Page is a bull in a china shop, Darnton is the china shop’s proprietor.
Robert Darnton has written that he wants to open up “nearly everything available in the walled-in repositories of human culture.” Credit: Thierry Dudoit/Express-Rea/Redux
But Darnton has one thing in common with Page: an ardent desire to see a universal library established online, a library that would, as he puts it, “make all knowledge available to all citizens.” In the 1990s he initiated two groundbreaking projects to digitize scholarly and historical works, and by the end of the decade he was writing erudite essays about the possibilities of electronic books and digital scholarship. In 2007 he was recruited to Harvard and named the director of its library system, giving him a prominent perch for promoting his dream. Although Harvard was one of the original partners in Google’s scanning scheme, Darnton soon became the most eminent and influential critic of the Book Search settlement, writing articles and giving lectures in opposition to the deal. His criticism was as withering as it was learned. Google Book Search, he maintained, was “a commercial speculation” that, under the liberal terms of the settlement, seemed fated to grow into “a hegemonic, financially unbeatable, technologically unassailable, and legally invulnerable enterprise that can crush all competition.” It would become “a monopoly of a new kind, not of railroads or steel, but of access to information.”…