“No, Native Americans aren’t genetically more susceptible to alcoholism”

“The “firewater” fairytale that Elm came to know all too well goes like this: Europeans introduced Native Americans to alcohol, which they were genetically unprepared to handle. That happenstance led to alcoholism rates that are around twice as high as those seen in whites — and alcohol-related death rates, which are at least tripled. In this view, colonization didn’t make conquered people susceptible to heavy drinking — genes did.
Addiction is often described as an equal opportunity disease. It isn’t: while anyone can become addicted under certain conditions, like most bullies, addiction prefers to hit people who are already hurting. The more trauma and social exclusion a child experiences, the greater the addiction risk. This creates a vicious cycle: addiction itself becomes a reason for even more rejection, prejudice, and maltreatment.
Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the shameful collection of stereotypes and stigmas surrounding alcoholism among American Indians. “Firewater” myths come from the racist ideology that fueled colonialism…
In fact, there’s no evidence that Native Americans are more biologically susceptible to substance use disorders than any other group, says Joseph Gone, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. American Indians don’t metabolize or react to alcohol differently than whites do, and they don’t have higher prevalence of any known risk genes.
Rates of all types of addiction — not just alcohol — are elevated in aboriginal peoples around the world, not only in America. It’s unlikely that these scattered groups randomly happen to share more vulnerability genes for addiction than any other similarly dispersed people. But what they clearly do have in common is an ongoing multi-generational experience of trauma.”

This history of alcohol is really interesting; before chemistry and biology explained that wine, beer, and liquors all had the same compound, and that this compound had a biological impact that created intoxication, these drinks were not all considered to be in the same category. Intoxication was thought of as a low-class behavior, and so only the drinks that were affordable and commonly consumed by the poor were considered to be intoxicating. People genuinely believed that wine didn’t make you drunk like beer.

And lots of our understanding of the world still falls directly from time periods where white supremacy was considered to be a strong, scientific explanation of the world. We really need to actively de-colonize science and medicine.

This is also an excellent example of why everyone needs to have access to becoming STEM researchers; if there were only white people doing research, I don’t know that it would occur to anyone that this common understanding might be a myth, and I doubt anyone would feel sufficient motivation to commit time and resources to this study (not to mention the question of finding volunteers to donate DNA samples).

Related: “Descendants of Holocaust Survivors Have Altered Stress Hormones

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