The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Moving Beyond Genetic Race: Developmental contributions to human variation in New Zealand


1Anthropology, Northwestern University, 2Cells 2 Society, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

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While it is well-known that social inequalities are important contributors to health disparities across groups varying in ethnicity or self-identified race, there is growing interest in the possibility that these experiences can transcend the current generation, thereby resulting in a multi-generational pattern of adverse health. As one example, it has been hypothesized that a woman's experience of stress or discrimination prior to or during pregnancy could modify the stress physiology of her developing offspring, thus influencing health outcomes in the next generation. However few studies have tested this hypothesis. Here we evaluate whether reports of racial discrimination contribute to biological difference among an ethnically diverse cohort of pregnant women and their infants in Auckland, New Zealand. Consistent with our model we found that women reporting having experienced ethnic discrimination had elevated evening cortisol in late pregnancy (p < 0.01), even after controlling for socioeconomic status. Among their offspring, newborns with a lower birth weight had a blunted cortisol response to vaccination at six weeks of age (p = 0.04). Together these data suggest that the maternal social environment, including experiences of racial discrimination, induces durable modifications in maternal and fetal biology. These findings help explain why biological patterns of health and disease tend to map onto socially defined categories such as ethnicity or race.

ZMT was supported by a NSF GRF, Wenner Gren Dissertation Fieldwork Grant and Osmundsen Award.

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