Genocide, not genes: indigenous peoples' genetic alcoholism is a racist myth

I've heard — and repeated — the theory that addiction rates among indigenous people in the Americas was caused by genetics — specifically, that "new world" populations hadn't gone through the European plague years' genetic bottleneck that killed everyone who couldn't survive on alcoholic beverages (these having been boiled during their production and thus less likely to carry infectious diseases).

But there's no evidence to support that theory — it's just a story without any falsifiable hypotheses. Our received scientific wisdom is full of well-known "facts" that are just fairy-tales made up to explain social problems through a biological lens (see, for example, virtually the entire field of Darwinian psychology). These science-tales serve a social purpose: they situate social problems as being innate and outside of the realm of human fault. Particularly, they excuse away any social inequality as being the (seemingly inevitable) result of our biology, and not the result of some people grabbing more than their fair share, at everyone else's expense.

Enter the theory of genetic susceptibility to alcoholism.

Addiction science is a mess to begin with, overshadowed by politics. Scientists who do objective research are shut down by government ideologues who are, themselves, addicted to the law-and-order message that says that people who use or abuse drugs have some biological and/or criminal deficit that requires that they be placed under direct state control.

Meanwhile, researchers like Canada's Bruce Alexander have demonstrated, through elegant experiments, that addiction follows from privation. Animals (including humans) who lead miserable, impoverished lives end up addicted to drugs (not, as is often assumed, the other way around).

Bruce Alexander's theory is it moves the "drug problem" from a problem of individual weakness to a problem of social injustice. When it comes to indigenous people, the belief that genes, not genocide, cause addiction, means that genocide itself is something that can be put behind us.

Jessica Elm, a member of Wisconsin's Oneida Tribe who is a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, cites Alexander's work in her own research, showing how American Indians who've been lifted out of poverty (through casino wealth) have seen their addiction problems dwindle to the baseline rate for wider American society. Other researchers have investigated the prevalence of alcoholism risk factors in indigenous peoples' genomes and found no evidence for their prevalence.

What is prevalent among indigenous people who struggle with alcoholism is the trauma associated with residential schools, state breakup of families, poverty, and other factors that are also associated with Europeans who become addicted to drugs, including alcohol.

The link between trauma and addiction is not in dispute — and the earlier the trauma, the worse the risk of addiction becomes. Whether it's losing a parent young, being emotionally, physically, or sexually violated, experiencing a natural or man-made disaster or witnessing violence, the risks add up. For example, one study of nearly 10,000 people found that those with four or more of these types of "adverse childhood experiences" (ACEs) have a risk of alcoholism that is seven times greater than those with none. Similarly, boys who have four or more ACEs are nearly five times more likely to inject drugs than those with none.

American Indians are also much more likely than whites to have their families broken up by the state, which can propel trauma down the generations. Among older Indians, thousands were torn away from their parents and sent to abusive boarding schools whose explicit goal was cultural genocide: "Kill the Indian to save the man." In these schools, children were forbidden from using their own language and even their own names. Today, a full quarter of Native Americans either have personal boarding school experience or were adopted by whites — meaning they were separated from their parents and, often, from their tribe early in life, according to Elm.

Other evidence also shows that the introduction to alcohol by whites wasn't itself the cause of Indian drinking problems. Take, for instance, the historical case of one island tribe in Canada, cited by psychologist Bruce Alexander, the author of The Globalization of Addiction. The colonists who took over the island opposed drinking, so they didn't introduce alcohol. Its geographical isolation actually allowed successful prohibition. But this didn't prevent addiction-related destruction and despair. "Gambling became a problem," Alexander says, noting that the pastime had mainly been harmless before the colonists arrived.

No, Native Americans aren't genetically more susceptible to alcoholism
[Maia Szalavitz/The Verge]