Monday, February 27, 2012

The Slavery Hypothesis

In Survival of the Sickest, Dr. Moalem mentions the idea of the Slavery Hypothesis in order to illustrate the mechanism of evolutionary medicine and its long term consequences. The Slavery Hypothesis is the idea that African-Americans have a predisposition for high blood pressure due to selection during the Middle Passage and ensuing enslavement. Dr. Clarence Grim hypothesized that slaves who survived the journey were likely to have been able to retain high levels of salt, as the death rate was high due to deprivation of food and water, as well as rampant illnesses that caused diarrhea and vomiting. Moalem does not mention that these claims are widely unsubstantiated. There is no proof of there being historical validity to the fact that Africa was salt-scarce and the statistics regarding this hypothesis lack supporting evidence.

However, it is interesting to note that the Slavery Hypothesis remains widely accepted today, despite the numerous criticisms that exist. It is still described as truth in medical textbooks and peer-reviewed literature, in the New York Times, the American Journal of Cardiology, Science News, and even by Oprah and Dr. Oz. As a result, ideas about genetic determinism and the biological basis of race have once again become a focus of scientific research. Acceptance of this hypothesis would presumably imply the acceptance of the idea that race is a biological, not social, construct. I agree with Moalem when he states, “From a medical perspective, it’s clear that specific diseases are more prevalent in specific population groups in a way that is significant and deserves continued, serious exploration” (65). However, this does become an issue when ideas such as that of eugenics arise. These ideas regarding the biological and social constructions of race are obviously a reoccurring theme in this class and remain an interesting topic of debate.


  1. I also found the comparison between high blood pressure amongst African-Americans and the Slave trade to be largely unsubstantiated in Survival of the Sickest. I am very interested to see the evidence provided by other peer reviewed literature and see whether they offer any new insights on this matter. However, just based on Moalem's evidence, I found the connection to be superficial and I am left wondering how factors such as interracial breeding come into this argument. Additionally, I also am curious about how far back in history one can go back to trace modern health occurrences. For example, Moalem relates the Ice Age, the Plague, and the Slave Trade as impacting health trends today. But while the Plague occurred in 1600s and the Slave Trade happened up until the 19th century, the Ice Age was thousands, even millions of years ago. How far back does history continue to affect us?

  2. I actually have never heard of this argument before reading about it in chapter 3. I don't find the Moalem's argument is substantial enough to prove that the slave trade serves as the reason behind hypertension in the African American population. The argument also in a way takes the blame off of the large presence and availability of fast food in low income communities as the reason for high blood pressure amongst African-Americans. By placing the blame on slavery, we look away from the lack of affordable nutrition and disregard the even larger impact this has on the African American population, who primarily live in low socioeconomic communities as a result of slavery and post-slavery naturalization laws and red-lining, even if this theory is correct. Regardless of whether the roots of high blood pressure in the African American community can be traced back to the slave trade, relying on this theory looks away from the social disparities in modern day American society.