"Time to retire the 'firewater' fairytale"
October 12, 2015 12:44 PM   Subscribe

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.
No, Native Americans aren't genetically more susceptible to alcoholism.
posted by MartinWisse (63 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
 
Same with diabetes.

Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease by Robin Karr-Morse & Meredith Wiley is an excellent read about trauma and its long-reaching effects.
posted by sutureselves at 12:56 PM on October 12, 2015 [7 favorites]


I always thought it was suspicious that heightened genetic alcohol sensitivity has been blamed both for higher alcoholism rates (Native Americans) and also lower alcoholism rates (East Asians and European Jews). (The theory for the latter is that you get drunk and sick so quickly that you're not interested in even trying alcohol.) I mean, it seems like the same genetic phenomenon can be used to explain just about any cultural phenomenon.
posted by miyabo at 1:02 PM on October 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


These conversations are so important. I've read so many accounts that just assumed Native Americans couldn't handle liquor genetically, a sad but unstoppable thing. I guess my white people blindness just led me to assume this was science, not racism.
posted by emjaybee at 1:02 PM on October 12, 2015 [18 favorites]


I'm glad you posted this, because I too really did think this was true. I didn't think less of Native Americans for it, any more than I think less of myself and my family for having nearly useless eyeballs, but I did believe it. Improved study on the effects of childhood trauma is going to teach us so much; I hope we can handle it.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:21 PM on October 12, 2015 [15 favorites]


In a related vein, Daniella Zalcman's haunting/compelling/harrowing double-exposure images + accounts accompanying Laurence Butet-Roch's New Yorker piece on Canada's Indian Residential Schools:
posted by sutureselves at 1:22 PM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is great, and very important, FTA: 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.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:23 PM on October 12, 2015 [15 favorites]


The logic in the pull quote seems faulty (it's possible Europeans could have genes for resisting addiction that are less prevalent in other populations), but the rest of the article makes a pretty good case for debunking the supposed genetic link.
posted by straight at 1:25 PM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


I have always assumed that Native Americans were basically the caged rats in a human-sized version of the Rat Park experiments.
posted by mstokes650 at 1:27 PM on October 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


Huh. I knew that in various specific communities there were higher rates of alcoholism but I hadn't heard the idea that it was genetic. Was it supposed to apply to Central and South American groups too?
posted by XMLicious at 1:28 PM on October 12, 2015


It seems far more parsimonious to assume that their high rates of alcoholism are related to being a systematically discriminated against population and thus by and large having few resources or opportunities, but my knowledge of the current state of native affairs more or less amounts to the first chapter of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt; even that was enough to turn my stomach, though.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:30 PM on October 12, 2015


Interesting. My reaction was both the same and opposite as emjaybee's - the idea that it's genetic struck me as an all-too-convenient "just so story" in that sweep-our-societal-failing-under-the-rug kind of way that societies do with failings they don't want to acknowledge, but I didn't give much thought to it partly because I just didn't know much about it or see very much of it.

However, if I was born and raised in the USA, I think I would have assumed the genetic explanation was true. I was born in a culture where a different set of underclass failings got ascribed to genetics, but alcoholism was more just a mundane marker of general poverty and/or loser-ness. So when I saw a society (America) where it was the other way around which things were said to be "genetic" and which things were not genetic, those convenient genetics explanations in both societies started sounding unlikely.

Although, I'm also inclined to think that morally it shouldn't matter. Even when someone genuinely is genetically predisposed to an illness, that's not a get-out-of-jail-free for society to shrug and say "welp, nothing we can do to improve anything then", but this "it's just natural so we're not obligated to do anything" is a big part of the popularity of genetics explanations.
posted by anonymisc at 1:33 PM on October 12, 2015 [7 favorites]


See also Drunken Comportment: A Social Explanation by Scott MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton, which was printed orignally in 1969.

MacAndrews and Edgerton noted that various cultures use alcohol as an excuse for antisocial behaviors but they were not consistent. Native American rates of alcoholism ar emuch lower south of the Rio Grande, for instance.

And I believe that either MacAndrews and Edgerton or Marvin Harris made the argument that North American Native Americans learned drinking from trappers who were what we would call extreme binge drinkers. Trappers and fur traders, who were the first Europeans many tribes encountered, drank themselves to oblivion as fast as possible. But then nearly everyone in late 18th and early 19th century America were per capita very hard drinkers in comparison to us today.

see also Robin Room - Intoxication and Bad Behavior
posted by y2karl at 1:44 PM on October 12, 2015


Huh! My dad is half Native and for as long as I knew him, he insisted that specific strand of genetic heritage was the sole reason he couldn't drink, something something metabolism. Never saw the dude so much as pop open a single beer on a hot summer day -- it wasn't that he didn't like it, he always said ingesting any alcohol at all would make him sick, same as his (fully Native) father before him. So my whole life, until literally today, I took it as settled science. I wonder if he really thought it was science, too, or if was he just trying to dissuade me from drinking too much when I grew up.
posted by divined by radio at 1:45 PM on October 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


I wonder if he really thought it was science, too, or if was he just trying to dissuade me from drinking too much when I grew up.

Never met the guy, but my money is on partially he believed it (or it was true for people in his specific family), but also partially "I'm Just Not Into drinking and I don't want to argue with you people about why my beverage of choice shouldn't need to be the same as your beverage of choice" :)
posted by anonymisc at 1:51 PM on October 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


It’s easier to pathologize people than it is to think critically
Easy snap judgements are always easier go with than actually trying to understand the real issues. Great article.
posted by arcticseal at 1:59 PM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Marvin Harris made the point that Asian Americans, who are the nearest relatives Native Americans in terms of shared DNA, tend to have the lowest rates of alcoholism in the USA. If alcoholism were a genetically determined phenomenon, where were the Asian alcoholics ?

Rates of alcoholism among American Jews are also low.

Drinking and drunken comportment are culturally determined learned behaviors.
posted by y2karl at 2:02 PM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


The genetic factor that is linked to lower alcohol consumption among some Asians compared to Europeans is not a higher sensitivity to alcohol per se but a lesser ability to metabolize acetaldehyde (the major metabolite of ethanol) which leads to flushing and uncomfortable symptoms. This is probably only one factor that affects alcohol use but it's a real phenomenon. Just saying that's actually something else.
posted by atoxyl at 2:05 PM on October 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


and also lower alcoholism rates (East Asians and European Jews). (The theory for the latter is that you get drunk and sick so quickly that you're not interested in even trying alcohol.)

I'm not sure what you mean by this. The link between the ALDH2*2 allele and the "flushing" response in some Asian populations is well-established and documented.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:08 PM on October 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


Unless I guess as y2karl is suggesting it's actually the same kind of "alcohol sensitivity" that is prevalent among Native Americans - which then I would say is an additional reason to think its a bullshit explanation for alcoholism.
posted by atoxyl at 2:09 PM on October 12, 2015


I phrases that confusingly I'm asking if Native Anericans actually tend to have the Asian ALDH variation. Because that would be a really unlikely predictor of alcoholism.
posted by atoxyl at 2:12 PM on October 12, 2015


The article makes some good points, but it's a bit hand-wavey and self-contradictory. This paragraph in particular basically reverses everything:
To make matters worse, severe stress doesn’t just affect one generation: it is passed down, both socially — affecting parenting — and physiologically, by actually changing how children’s genes are read, which can alter both brain and body, a phenomenon known as epigenetics. Research on children of Holocaust survivors, for example, shows changes in reading instructions for genes related to stress.
So stress isn't genetic, except it can be. And stress causes alcoholism, except for Holocaust survivors and their descendants, who are mostly not known for it. That doesn't take away from the author's good point that social stress is a more parsimonious explanation for alcoholism than genetic risk - but the author needs to explain why that doesn't apply to Jews, and why (if stress can be hereditary) that doesn't mean that stress-induced alcoholism can be hereditary.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:14 PM on October 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is an article posted on the Verge. Not a science paper and not a well documented study at all. There is ample research that tell the other clinically supported opinion.
posted by shockingbluamp at 2:16 PM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Thank you for educating me.
posted by Soliloquy at 2:17 PM on October 12, 2015


I actually had no idea this was a widely-held belief. I'd always charted it as a racist-just-so-story.

At the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota (home to Wounded Knee) I was talking to a Lakota kid who told me that the unemployment rate there was over 90%. There's your trauma right there.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:32 PM on October 12, 2015 [9 favorites]


It may be published in The Verge, but it's also here, and it's by Mefi's Own maias, who is one of the best science writers on the topic of substance use there is. She cites a number of different studies and what she says is consistent with the best current thinking on trauma and problematic substance use.
posted by gingerbeer at 2:33 PM on October 12, 2015 [28 favorites]


Well the thing is about epigenetic changes is that, at least in animal studies, they tend to be reversible through multiple generations of healthy environments and what they call "environmental enrichment" which includes an enriching living environment and care by nurturing parent figures what they call in mice "high licking and grooming" care.

Meaning instead of a heavy focus on pumping people full of chemicals to alter "bad biology", we might want to focus on oh, say alleviating poverty, providing healthy homes and food, creating a flourishing community, trauma care, comfort and loving support that allows grief and pain to be expressed rather than stuffed.

Some people have a lot more than others to process. That doesn't mean their bodies are doing it wrong.
posted by xarnop at 2:52 PM on October 12, 2015 [25 favorites]


The ACE study in 1995 that followed kids from abusive families showed that yep, lots of bad things(addiction, health problems, poor mental health) are likely to happen to survivors of trauma.

A risk factor for alcohol dependance is lack of a social network. Jews tend to have very strong community ties that may lead to resilience and decrease alcoholism rates.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:56 PM on October 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


This is great! There seem to be several streams of research on this right now, all from different quarters, but flowing into the same river. From a Tlingit perspective, my friend and schoolmate Kyle Wark recently did a thesis that thoroughly establishes scientifically that there is no racial predisposition toward alcoholism among the Tlingit. He's done some amazing follow-up work on that, engaging his community and trying to overcome the racist binds to actually confront the problems of alcoholism.
posted by koeselitz at 2:57 PM on October 12, 2015 [7 favorites]


This article appears to ignore the existence of a fair amount of contradictory information in the scientific literature, e.g. 1, 2. Pull quote from the first of those: our results suggested that a higher degree of NA ancestry is associated with higher frequencies of potential risk variants and lower frequencies of potential protective variants for alcohol dependence phenotypes.
posted by kickingtheground at 3:03 PM on October 12, 2015


The article, or the research it's based on?
posted by koeselitz at 3:16 PM on October 12, 2015


I have a problem, with this sentence, from the article:

The apogee of victim-blaming, the idea that genetic "inferiority" causes native peoples to be particularly susceptible to addiction was not falsifiable when it was initially spread.

Genes are neither superior, nor inferior…they just are. There is no blame.

The author is the one projecting "inferiority", here, as well as the notion of victim-blaming, on the part of the people who first theorized about it.
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 3:32 PM on October 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


Thanks so much for posting my article, MartinWise!!!!

Regarding the articles kickingtheground cited, you need to read the articles and not just the abstracts to understand why they don't prove that Native Americans are particularly susceptible. But the conclusion of the abstract for the second one pretty much sums up my point:

Substance dependence has a substantial genetic component in Native Americans, similar in magnitude to that reported for other populations

In other words, Native Americans are no more genetically susceptible than anyone else: they have the same heritability of addiction that most people of most races do (ie, about 50%).

Regarding the first study, those alcohol metabolism enzymes that are protective are found overwhelmingly in Asians, rarely in whites. So, if you want to argue that Native Americans are at higher risk genetically because they don't have those protective mutations, you also have to argue that the same is true for the majority of the American population, who are not Asian. This doesn't account for why Natives would have higher risk than whites in the U.S.

Also, it does not account for why they have higher risk for other types of addiction, which do not involve metabolizing alcohol.
posted by Maias at 3:34 PM on October 12, 2015 [24 favorites]


Earlier generations of scientists absolutely did make claims about the genetic inferiority of other races. The author isn't projecting. The history of racism and victim-blaming in science is well-documented.
posted by mmmbacon at 3:35 PM on October 12, 2015 [15 favorites]


It is no longer politically acceptable to make claims about genetic "superiority" or "inferiority", period.
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 3:37 PM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


It is no longer politically acceptable to make claims about genetic "superiority" or "inferiority", period.

Yes, the article criticizes the idea. You are agreeing with it.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:40 PM on October 12, 2015 [10 favorites]


Sure, but a genetic explanation for something like alcoholism isn't inherently racist, or victim blaming, which is what I read into that sentence.
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 3:49 PM on October 12, 2015


The article is alluding to a particular victim-blaming and racist statement about genetics. I agree that a genetic explanation is not inherently those things, but that particular one was when it was first proposed centuries ago.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:54 PM on October 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


No, a genetic explanation isn't *inherently* racist, except when it is *explicitly* racist, which this one was, historically. A gene "for" alcoholism might not make you genetically "inferior" in real life— but when eugenics was popular in the U.S., the belief that some people had these genes made them real-life victims of forced sterilization.

And I'm sure there are plenty of people now who might choose to abort or not implant an embryo that was described as having a high risk of alcoholism or addiction. That might be really dumb, given that the same gene might also give you persistence and perseverance in the face of challenges, not just persistence in drug seeking, but there are certainly people who would make that choice.
posted by Maias at 3:55 PM on October 12, 2015 [10 favorites]


Same goes for the US population and anti-depressants. What goes around comes around.
posted by telstar at 3:56 PM on October 12, 2015


This is literally just the first thing I found on Google but some interesting detail (leading to the same conclusion) about the science of ADH and ALDH in Native American populations.

Beyond alcohol metabolism there are thought to be genetic factors that contribute to a risk of any sort of addiction, no? Dopamine system something something. But as the initial article pointed out, it doesn't seem terribly likely that native populations all over the world all just happen to have the same predisposition.
posted by atoxyl at 4:06 PM on October 12, 2015


Glad to see this on metafilter.
posted by spitbull at 5:33 PM on October 12, 2015


Drinking and drunken comportment are culturally determined learned behaviors.

Yeah, I am not sure that any population genetic study says much about "determinism". Here's a nice readable summary about heritability. A nice pull quote from that link is: [Heritability for height is 90%] is often misinterpreted, for it does not mean at all that people's heights are determined 90 percent by genetics and 10 percent by the environment. The concept can be tricky.

I do wish we could move past the genes vs. culture/environment debate. It's like the dictionary definition for a 'false dichotomy'.

There are several good examples of traits where science has worked out the genetic basis of adaptation in humans. Here's a nice summary of Sarah Tiskoff's work with variation in lactose-tolerance. To my knowledge, these studies never draw conclusions that group people at the level of what you or I may have learned in the mid-1980's as the "races" of the world (unless they are by some people really far outside the mainstream). Indeed, "race" is not a valid human biological grouping. But, local adaptation, like high altitude adaptation to native poplutions of the Himalyas and the Andes is a real phenomenon. So, yeah, this is my roundabout way of agreeing with Shakespearian that genetic explanations aren't inherently racist, but this one certainly was.
posted by cnanderson at 5:39 PM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I haven't done any research on alcoholism as it pertains to Native Americans so I won't touch on that. But there's nothing wrong with saying that certain genotypes make one more susceptible to alcoholism, and that certain genotypes are more common in some populations than other. For example, it's a scientific fact that East Asians are more likely to have a genetic mutation that causes them to blush when they drink alcohol (as well as suffering other unpleasant symptoms). There's nothing racist about that. What's racist is claiming that that makes East Asians inferior.

For what it's worth, I had a DNA test done and I have the (A;G) variant of the Rs1799971 allele, which apparently makes me having stronger cravings for alcohol than those who have the (A;A) variant. I also have the (G;G) variant of rs671, which means I don't get any Asian flush symptoms whatsoever (despite being Asian). I had no idea that's common among Jews as well (mentioned by a commenter above).

As a layman, I get the impression there is still tons of work to be done here. But it's probably a bit premature to say there's no genetic basis for predisposition to alcoholism.
posted by pravit at 5:39 PM on October 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


But it's probably a bit premature to say there's no genetic basis for predisposition to alcoholism.

That's not at all what the article stated, nor what the author stated in this thread. As she said above, "In other words, Native Americans are no more genetically susceptible than anyone else: they have the same heritability of addiction that most people of most races do (ie, about 50%)."
posted by jaguar at 6:20 PM on October 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


[One comment deleted. littlejohnnyjewel, please let it drop in here and let other people talk about the article.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 6:36 PM on October 12, 2015


ok…

sorry if I offended anyone...
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 6:45 PM on October 12, 2015


Regarding the articles kickingtheground cited, you need to read the articles and not just the abstracts to understand why they don't prove that Native Americans are particularly susceptible. But the conclusion of the abstract for the second one pretty much sums up my point:

Substance dependence has a substantial genetic component in Native Americans, similar in magnitude to that reported for other populations

In other words, Native Americans are no more genetically susceptible than anyone else: they have the same heritability of addiction that most people of most races do (ie, about 50%).


Biologist speaking here. The notion that there's no difference in heritability between the populations doesn't mean that there's no difference in genetic risk. The particular allelic variants carried by a population determine risk. Heritability is just the phenomenon whereby a trait (such as alcoholism) is carried over from one generation to the next. Heritability of a trait implies a genetic basis for that trait. Therefore, saying that alcoholism is equally heritable between two populations simply means that alcoholism is equally determined (or not determined) by genetics of the two populations. It may still be the case that the populations have different allelic variants that confer greater or lesser risk of alcoholism.

Regarding the first study, those alcohol metabolism enzymes that are protective are found overwhelmingly in Asians, rarely in whites. So, if you want to argue that Native Americans are at higher risk genetically because they don't have those protective mutations, you also have to argue that the same is true for the majority of the American population, who are not Asian. This doesn't account for why Natives would have higher risk than whites in the U.S.

Also, it does not account for why they have higher risk for other types of addiction, which do not involve metabolizing alcohol.


Higher risk is associated not just with variants of metabolic enzymes, but also with variants of genes that play a role in neurotransmission, particularly within the dopamine circuitry of the brain. In fact, there is a correlation between certain genetic variants involved in dopamine function and the propensity to engage in reward-seeking behaviors, including addiction.

That said, substance abuse and other risky behaviors are likely influenced by both genes and environment, many genetic studies are poorly controlled and have too-small sample sizes, and correlation doesn't equal causation. Genetic studies of complex traits should always be taken with a grain of salt, as it's very difficult to disentangle the influences of genes and environment.
posted by phoenix_rising at 7:19 PM on October 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


Heritability of a trait implies a genetic basis for that trait. Therefore, saying that alcoholism is equally heritable between two populations simply means that alcoholism is equally determined (or not determined) by genetics of the two populations.

Yeah, like I said above, this is tricky. Heritability means genetic variation in a population helps explain phenotypic variation of a population. It's a population level measure that doesn't quite make sense applied at the individual level. I don't think it's quite equivalent to state that high heritability "implies a genetic basis for the trait". See my link above for examples of traits that certainly have (some) genetic causation, but no heritability (because all the genes "for" that trait are fixed).

It's very difficult to disentangle the influences of genes and environment.

Absolutely agree.
posted by cnanderson at 7:35 PM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't really know how to start this post, and initially i was going to start it by replying to someone else... But i'm native and i just always believed this. And i believed it even more and thought it was Really Sciency™ after learning about the "asian flush" thing.

My mom is a serious alcoholic. Many people in my huge extended family are, or drug+alcohol/polysubstance abusers.

There's definitely lots of trauma and hardship in a lot of their families, and most of their lives. And honestly, i had sort of blamed at least part of my own struggles with/acceptance of hard drinking on it.

But... yea, the "nurture" explanation here makes so much sense. And holy shit, i was like shaking with rage when i realized that i had just been spoonfed some centuries old racist garbage that me and a lot of otherwise smart, reasonable people i know had just eaten up whole. Hell, i'd make self deprecating gallows humor jokes about it.

God dammit.
posted by emptythought at 7:54 PM on October 12, 2015 [21 favorites]


Heritability means genetic variation in a population helps explain phenotypic variation of a population. It's a population level measure that doesn't quite make sense applied at the individual level.

Absolutely. Genetic risk factors for a given trait may be more prevalent in a certain population, but this doesn't mean that any given individual from that population necessarily possesses that trait.

I don't think it's quite equivalent to state that high heritability "implies a genetic basis for the trait".

Fair enough; I was being a bit loose with the terminology. A trait that is heritable likely has a (at least partial) genetic basis; heritability is a measurable statistic that relates phenotypic variation to genetic variation, as you mentioned above.
posted by phoenix_rising at 7:56 PM on October 12, 2015


holy shit, i was like shaking with rage when i realized that i had just been spoonfed some centuries old racist garbage that me and a lot of otherwise smart, reasonable people i know had just eaten up whole.

You and me both.

I was a voracious reader with a good memory. My policy was to read everything. You know how old science and history books tend to hang around in libraries? Well, old books are often really racist. I blush when I remember the stupid stuff I believed because it was written in a calm, authoritative tone.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:32 PM on October 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Jews tend to have very strong community ties that may lead to resilience and decrease alcoholism rates."
Reminded me of this piece, the transcript of Johan Hari's TED Talk, "Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong; The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection."

I'm no scientist, but I am still intrigued by the notion that misery is what drives people to drugs and drink or other bad behaviors. No doubt there's no shortage of misery or trauma among native Americans. And no doubt bad behavior transmits from generation to generation in any family or community. It's not that uncommon for people to say or believe that alcoholism passes through families; maybe it's really just bad situations that people can't break out of?
posted by nothing.especially.clever at 4:43 AM on October 13, 2015


I have no science background, but I can speak as someone who has lived on an Indian Reservation for some years. Drinking happens, doing drugs happens. Stress about almost every aspect of life is a constant. No jobs, or no good jobs, bad education which makes it hard to deal with non-reservation government and authorities, limited access to transportation and good grocery stores....it's a ghetto, basically.

Drinking is more socially acceptable than doing drugs. People will talk behind your back for drugs, but drinking? Just don't pass out in your yard or kill someone in a drunken rage, and even the heaviest drinking is no big deal (YMMV, this is what I observed in the reservation I lived on) I've lost multiple uncles/cousins to hit-and-runs because they were walking home drunk.

As soon as I was old enough to drive I high-tailed it the heck out of there to go live with an Aunt back in what I considered "the normal world" in my teenage brain. While not comparable to a war-torn country, it was still a hell-hole, and I'm not surprised any of them drink, and I won't judge them too harshly for it.
posted by sharp pointy objects at 7:04 AM on October 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Count me as one more who has heard and read variants of the "Native populations are genetically predisposed to alcoholism" thing for years, including from at least one Native professor in college, and really not interrogated it much at all. I'm sure I've repeated it in arguments with friends or relatives as an attempted counter to explicitly racist ideas.

I'm ashamed of how little direct thought I've given this.
posted by brennen at 8:20 AM on October 13, 2015


Emptythought and Joe in Australia, I just wanted to thank you for posting— I've covered addiction for decades and I thought it was true for a while as well, it was just another piece of "conventional wisdom" in addiction that turns out to be a pernicious myth. It was actually very hard to get an editor to take this piece, so it's really good to hear that it has been helpful and made people think.

Also, Phoenix wrote:

Higher risk is associated not just with variants of metabolic enzymes, but also with variants of genes that play a role in neurotransmission, particularly within the dopamine circuitry of the brain. In fact, there is a correlation between certain genetic variants involved in dopamine function and the propensity to engage in reward-seeking behaviors, including addiction.

Yes, this is not news to me ;-)

But no one has found and replicated (important for genetic studies especially!) higher levels of neurotransmission-related-risk genes common to native peoples around the world, either. So, at this point, the onus is on those who think indigenous peoples globally have some special, higher levels of alcoholism/addiction risk genes to prove that this is 1)true and 2) more important a factor than their cultural histories of trauma and oppression. I don't see any reason to see why colonized peoples across multiple geographies would coincidentally share especially high levels of genetic risk for all types of addiction when Occam's Razor alone suggests that they share something far more obvious.

Not all addiction is self medication of trauma and/or pre-existing mental illness, but a huge proportion of it is. We can't change the horrible history, but we can change the ongoing trauma now— and that will be a hell of a lot more effective at fighting addiction than locking people up and continuing to do so in a racially biased manner.
posted by Maias at 11:40 AM on October 13, 2015 [8 favorites]


I don't see any reason to see why colonized peoples across multiple geographies would coincidentally share especially high levels of genetic risk for all types of addiction...
This seems to me like completely backwards thinking. It's not that these indigenous peoples coincidentally share unusually high levels of risk factors; it's that they're, in each case, being compared mostly to white europeans, who have an unusually low level of these risk factors - which, itself, makes some sense as europeans would have, in most cases, much more history of significant alcohol intake, particularly of distilled spirits.
posted by kickingtheground at 3:07 PM on October 13, 2015


Except that doesn't explain why native peoples would also have elevated rates of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, prescription opioids, marijuana, etc. addictions compared to whites. Whites didn't have time to evolve genetically around metabolizing those drugs, either.
posted by Maias at 3:18 PM on October 13, 2015


And also, there's no replicated evidence that whites have lower prevalence of known alcohol-related risk genes compared to American Indians. There was one study that suggested that having greater levels of American Indian heritage was linked with higher risk for alcoholism, compared to being more mixed race— but that doesn't show causality because being, say, more obviously of native American heritage might also represent more trauma exposure, not just genes. And it was one study, not replicated.

Genetic studies are notorious for false positives that are not replicated and even more so in the addictions field, so just one study isn't enough. There are numerous "alcoholism genes" that have been identified, only to not be linked with alcoholism risk when people try to look a second time.

Some of these, btw, are failed dopamine gene link replications.
posted by Maias at 3:26 PM on October 13, 2015


Thanks, Maias. There's an open FPP about British pubs and how they're closing because of social and economic changes. Pubs used to be the social centers of most British communities; that's no longer the case, but the rate of alcohol consumption has been pretty constant. The same thing has happened in Australia; every supermarket seems to carry alcohol, but the pubs have either closed or become "a pub and ..." (a bottle shop, a restaurant, a gambling venue). Australians were known as heavy drinkers; we probably still are.

But side by side with this we have our own stereotype of indigenous alcohol addiction: Aborigines "spend their Welfare" on liquor; they get drunk in public parks; they "go down to the creek to get drunk". They obviously have a problem! But ... what about our cheerful Aussie boozers? The builders' mates who go on the shick for the weekend but turn up for work at 7AM on Monday? Why does that reflect the knockabout larrikin nature of the Aussie battler, not a deep-seated inability to handle social stress? Here's my theory: it's all about them and us.

Aborigines used to be subject to statutory and socially-enforced restrictions. When they could buy liquor (many Aboriginal communities are still "dry") they certainly couldn't drink it in pubs and hotels, like white Australians. So if Aborigines wanted to socialise when drinking, they had to do it in the public venues they were allowed to use: public parks. Even today, if they're from a "dry" community they don't have much choice: they can travel twenty or thirty or a hundred kilometers to come into town and buy alcohol, but they can't take it home and there are no social venues where they'd be welcome to come and get drunk. So they go down to the creek, where they can hang out with other people that have the same objective. Most white Australians live in towns and they're welcome in their local bars. Even if they get drunk they're just a local character, not a threatening stranger.

This social ostracism probably reinforces binge-drinking: the folk wisdom used to be that pubs discouraged alcoholism because they encouraged people to drink socially; surely the converse must be equally true. Even if that isn't the case, public consumption of alcohol is much more obvious and potentially much more threatening because it breaches white Australian norms. White Australians might drink in public at a barbecue or sports match or party - but they'd carefully ensure that passersby could recognise the social signals that make it OK. Without those social signals it looks wrong, and when it's carried out by an identifiable group it tends to characterise that group: "Oh, there's some Aborigines getting drunk".

So it may not be true; it doesn't need to be true; but we make it look as if it's true. We distinguish between acceptable drinking (in a pub, at a football match, at a party) and unacceptable drinking. And then we make it impossible for indigenous Australians - almost all of them before the late 60s; many of them even today - to meet our standard. And the standard is an artificial one, which has no bearing on the amount of alcohol consumed, and which could just as easily have been defined the opposite way.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:37 PM on October 13, 2015 [6 favorites]


Despite being from Oklahoma, I may be less than sensitive to the baggage inherent to asking "Why" alcoholism exists. Poverty, dis-enfranchisement, society, genetics; doesn't really matter to a lot of young kids who are surrounded by problem drinking and susceptible to repeating the mistakes of their fathers. This article bothers me a little bit because it makes it hard to talk of the 'wheres' and 'whys' of these issues with-out feeling accused of implicit racism. Since you all don't know me, it's going to sound like I'm sea-lioning. But oh well, here goes...

"where were the Asian alcoholics ?"

They are in Mongolia and Tibet. I don't know of these are stereotypes, but talking to people in Mongolia and Tibetans in exile in Dharamasala, alcoholism was the chief social concern not related to economics or the Chinese of everyone I met. While the Tibetan refugee / government in exile population assuredly fits the paradigm of population based trauma, it's all a little too neat. Mongolians definitely seemed to have less trauma in their recent history, the nomadic herding lifestyle was practice by many families in an uninterrupted fashion regardless of what the Chinese and Russians were doing. And Airog existed as a traditional alcoholic beverage in Mongolia for generations before vodka showed up, so it's not like whole "native population not knowing how to deal with fire-water" trope applies.

But I always thought it was interesting the Northern Native Americans, Tibetans and Mongolians were all seemingly particularly vulnerable and shared a nomadic heritage and thus distilling high concentration alcohols was traditionally not part of their society. Could it play a role in why they seem more afflicted than central American native populations and Han Chinese/ SE Asian populations? Then again, Kenyans around Lake Victoria also seemed to be very concerned about the rates of alcoholism but that has always been a farming region.

In general, the thing that always interested me was the perspective of the people in these populations. Mongolians I talked to seem to believe it was inherited, that they weren't born with the ability to handle Vodka. The Tibetans story of their own alcoholism tied it to dis-enfranchisement of the men, that the depression of being separated from the plateau made it easy to refill the Chang when it wasn't New Year... or switch from Chang to Jack Daniels. The Kenyans I met seemed to blame most things on the terrible economic arrangements orchestrated by Mumias Sugar Corp.

Anyways, I'm no author or social scientist. I only met a hand full of people from each population. We probably also under-estimate our own (Western/European) alcoholism. It's easier to be a functional addict when you have the economic resources to buffer the depressing effects.
posted by midmarch snowman at 12:45 PM on October 14, 2015


"where were the Asian alcoholics ?"

They are in Mongolia and Tibet.


I know I've read many cute lifestyle pieces about Japanese "salarimen" who spend hours after work at nightclubs and karaoke bars, and about Westerners who get entertained at Chinese banquets and have to keep taking shots of liquor. Heck, I've read (translated) poems from those countries that are basically paeans to the delights of getting drunk. Why don't we think those cultures are full of alcoholics?

Answer: for the same reason we think ours isn't. Because people in Japan and China are considered to be honorary Westerners, so we don't get to be judgmental about how much they drink.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:30 PM on October 14, 2015


There actually is a gene that is common in Asians that makes drinking extremely unpleasant. However, even that can be overcome by culture. When the Japanese heavy drinking culture really took off among businessmen, the prevalence of the gene among people in treatment for alcoholism went from 2.3% to 13%. And that's a gene that makes it nine times less likely that someone will become an alcoholic, and that change happened in less than 20 years.
posted by Maias at 1:18 PM on October 16, 2015 [2 favorites]


...MacAndrew and Edgerton's analysis, Drunken Comportment, described how various cultures create a social compact about exactly what behavior--or misbehavior--will be tolerated on drinking occasions, even those involving drunken excess. Remarkably, nearly all drunken behavior occurs within these cultural guidelines. For example, the researchers described cultures that practice drunken sexual orgies in which incest taboos are observed by culture members who are apparently uncontrollably intoxicated. These taboos apply to intricate familial relationships that observers outside the culture are unable even to comprehend.
Stanton Peele: The Cultural Concept of Addiction

See also Stanton Peele: The Meaning of Addiction
posted by y2karl at 10:58 AM on October 17, 2015


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