Race and medicine in light of the new mechanistic philosophy of science

Abstract

Racial disparities in health outcomes have recently become a flashpoint in the debate about the value of race as a biological concept. What role, if any, race has in the etiology of disease is a philosophically and scientifically contested topic. In this article, I expand on the insights of the new mechanistic philosophy of science to defend a mechanism discovery approach to investigating epidemiological racial disparities. The mechanism discovery approach has explanatory virtues lacking in the populational approach typically employed in the study of race and biomedicine. The explanatory constraints that form an integral part of the new mechanistic approach enable mechanism discovery to avoid the epistemic and normative shortcomings of the populational approach. The methodology of mechanism discovery can fruitfully be extended to the treatment and reversal of epidemiological racial disparities.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    By epidemiological racial disparities I mean statistically significant differences in the incidence of disease between racialized groups. Except when discussing the views of others, I use “race” and “racialized group” interchangeably. However, see Hochman (2019) for the argument that since racialization theory is not committed to a racial ontology, “racialized groups” are conceptually distinct from “races.” Since I am not committed to a racial ontology in my use of “race” (unless I am referring to another author’s conception), I do not take this distinction to be a problem for my usage. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for drawing my attention to this issue.

  2. 2.

    Sesardic (2010) defends genetic race realism and race as a genetic concept. See Taylor (2011) for a response.

  3. 3.

    African Americans are fairly admixed with only modest variation in ancestry and are primarily drawn from populations originating in West and West-Central Africa, including the Yoruba in Nigeria (Zakharia et al. 2009).

  4. 4.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this term.

  5. 5.

    See discussion of evidence for details.

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Correspondence to Kalewold Hailu Kalewold.

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Kalewold, K.H. Race and medicine in light of the new mechanistic philosophy of science. Biol Philos 35, 41 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-020-09759-x

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Keywords

  • Mechanism
  • Race
  • Epigenetics
  • Explanation
  • Disease
  • Epidemiology