This article was written by Jared Diamond, a professor of physiology at UCLA Medical School. To summarize it briefly, this short work explores the possible theory that genetics may have played a role in why American blacks of modern times tend to be predisposed to hypertension. The author first establishes this fact by going back into history, or rather, the history of slavery, to be more specific. The blacks have experienced severe conditions and torture at the hands of slave traders and owners. They have been mistreated during their travel from Africa to the New World; they were chained and kept in closed quarters against each other, not given sufficient food and drink, and most importantly, not given humane sanitation. These conditions continued even when they were bought; the harsh conditions of labor selectively chose those with the physique to be able to survive. It is also important to keep in mind that back then, salt was not readily available, thus those who lost salt and water quickly died first. It was essential that one’s kidney be able to retain salt. However, this blessing of the past has now become a curse, with almost everyone adopting a Westernized lifestyle, and salt is now a readily available product.
This article was very informative. Today, all sorts of health concerns are popping up, and there is a renewed interest in exercise and diet. We hear about all sorts of fan diets such as South Beach and Atkins. We also hear about articles saying that some diseases are in part, due to our genetics as well. However, if the theory that the past has shaped our genetics in this way is a dominant reason, then should it not follow that considering the lifestyle changes that humanity has experienced, should our genetics not adapt to our lifestyle now? That was mostly what I found interest in the article, and also the fact that for such a dated work, the information that one can get from it is very much modern and “now”. I admit that after reading the article, I felt a sense of anger and unfairness that was doled out to American blacks and blacks in general. The author mentioned that white doctors back then dismissed the condition of blacks’ kidneys to retain more salt than normal as a “defect”. That reeks of discrimination, and just the fact that because they are blacks, their condition is merely dismissed as a “defect” is very unfair, and it made me detest discrimination even more. Of course, discrimination still is very much apparent in society. Perhaps in the law, discrimination is stamped out, but we still carry that notion at times through our actions or words. With all that we have achieved in terms of science and technology, we now have access to a wide variety of medicines and services, but there is little we can do about the genes that we have inherited from our ancestors (at least for now, anyway). The slave experience has altered the genes of blacks, and in this way discrimination was forever stamped on them and their ancestors in terms of health.
I thought that the article was sufficient in giving enough information on the process of how the genes of black Americans who have been slaves were altered according to their environment. For those afflicted with this condition, there is really not much that one can do save for watching their diet and exercising regularly. There is no “short-cut” to a healthy person, despite what others may say. I think that with the flurry of new information on health that has been arising recently, there are also those who advocate practical advice and common sense. Through a balanced diet and regular exercise, in time we might see improvements in our physique. Of course, our genes will still have an impact on us, but at least we still maintain an amount of control and maybe lessen the damage our genes can cause us in the long term.
- Diamond, Jared. “The Saltshaker’s Curse.” Natural History Oct. 1991: 20, 22-26.