Today, a fable of death by racial superiority. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Black Americans are horribly
at risk of hypertension. Half of Black American
males are hypertensive when they reach 50. Ten
times as many die of hypertension as do Whites.
Kidney disease is 18 times as common among Blacks
as it is among Whites. Diabetes also hits Blacks
Dr. Jared Diamond suggests a startling reason for
this imbalance. He invites us into the West African
bush in, say, 1800. Slavers capture 100 Africans.
They put them in chains and march them 800 miles to
a coastal port. They load them down with their
supplies. They give them little water or food.
Twenty-five die of exhaustion in the month-long
trip. Nine more die of heat and dehydration in a
coastal holding cage.
Only 66 live to cross the ocean, chained in their
own filth in the hold. Seven more die of diarrhea,
heat, and scurvy on the way. Three die waiting to
be sold. Then another 16 die of heat exhaustion and
bad diet during the first three years on the
By now forty -- maybe fewer -- have survived.
They've made it because they could adapt to a diet
with hardly any salt. The Darwinian selection
process has created a race of super body-salt
savers. The survivors also have remarkable sugar
metabolism to sustain them through starvation.
The survivors of slavery have other natural
advantages. One dramatizes our point today. It's a
resistance to malaria. Sickle cell hemoglobin gives
that resistance. But when people protected by the
sickle cell trait marry, one in every four of their
children suffers sickle cell anemia.
So the blessing becomes a curse. Black Americans
emerge with a huge Darwinian advantage. But the
advantage turns to a death sentence, now that we
load our diets with salt and sugar.
All this creates a hard moral fable in a world that
loves specialization. The best survivors are not
specialized. They're people who can adapt to
varying conditions. Sooner or later it works
against us to become a specialized superman.
Today, Black Americans come into their own in a
land that hasn't treated them well. As they do, it
is an eerie fact that the hard-bought ability to
live on a low-salt, low-sugar diet turns to
disadvantage. I ask anyone who believes in racial
superiority to look at the damage this Black
superiority has done.
In the end, the only real edge is adaptability. And
that's a human trait, not a racial one.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds