Since Francis Crick and James D. Watson’s discovery of DNA in 1953, researchers, policymakers, and the general public have sought to understand the ways in which genetics shapes human lives. A milestone in these efforts was the completion of the Human Genome Project’s (HGP) sequencing of Homo sapiens’ nearly three million base pairs in 2003. Yet, despite the excitement surrounding the HGP and the discovery of the structural genetic underpinnings of several debilitating diseases, the vast majority of human health outcomes have not been linked to a single gene. Moreover, even when genes have been associated with particular diseases (e.g., breast and colon cancer), it is not well understood why certain genetically predisposed individuals become ill and others do not. Nor has the HGP’s map provided sufficient information to understand the actual functioning of the human genetic code, including the role of noncoding DNA (“junk DNA”) in regulating molecular genetic processes. In response, a growing number of scientists have shifted their attention from structural genetics to epigenetics, the study of how genes express themselves in particular situations and environments. Anthropologists play roles in these applications of epigenetics to real-world settings. Their new theoretical frameworks unsettle the nature-versus-nurture binary and support biocultural anthropological research demonstrating how race becomes biology and embodies social inequalities and health disparities across generations. Ethnographically grounded case studies further highlight the diverse epigenetic logics held by healthcare providers, researchers, and patient communities and how these translations of scientific knowledge shape medical practice and basic research. The growing field of environmental epigenetics also offers a wide range of options for students and practitioners interested in applying the anthropological toolkit in epigenetics-related work.
Charles H. Klein
Anna Maria Mercuri
Plant use is a familiar word pair that emphasizes how the great wealth of properties and characters of different botanical species has allowed humans to develop different aspects of their culture. On one hand, plants communicate chemically with each other; on the other hand, their wealth of chemical communication tools has attracted humans, who are interested in colors and smells, taste and food, fuel, wellness, and health. The traces of plants buried in archeological sites—the subject of archeobotany—allow us to reconstruct the steps of the relationship between humans and plants. Surprisingly, the study of botanical remains from the past shows complex uses since the very early stages of human cultures, dating back even before the beginning of the Holocene. The relationship with the environment was structured in forms of increased control, at least from the invention of agriculture (as something that had never existed before) onward, undertaking complex forms of exploitation in accordance with the different cultures in the different regions of the world. In more recent times, people and plants have also progressively developed a history of greater management and interdependence, including the development of agricultural landscapes, selection of domesticated species, and creation of gardens. The relationship with plants changes as society changes, leading to the loss of much knowledge in present times because of less connection and contact with nature. Knowledge and conservation of traditions dealing with plants are studied with ethnobotany, which explores plant use in the present day. Ecology for ecosystem services is the newest perspective on plant use, where perhaps trees return to play a key role in human existence without being cut down, and the green color of chlorophyll returns as a reassuring signal to the human species.
Stacy Lindshield and Giselle M. Narváez Rivera
While anthropological primatology is known for its basic research on understanding the human condition from comparative and evolutionary perspectives, its applied and practicing domains are equally important to society. Applied researchers and practitioners often work in the fields of environmental sustainability and conservation, biomedicine, captive care and management, and education. For sustainability and conservation specializations, primatologists seek careers in higher education, government, and nongovernmental organizations and may work in large and diverse teams on conservation and management problems for nonhuman primates (hereafter, termed primates). Primate conservation has largely focused on population monitoring in protected and unprotected areas; measuring effects of agriculture, extractive industries, and tourism on primates; and evaluating intervention strategies. Primate population management in urban and peri-urban areas is a growth area; these landscapes pose risks for primates that are absent or rare in protected areas, which include dog attacks, animal–vehicle collisions, and electrocutions. Anthropologists can leverage their deep knowledge of primate behavior, cognition, and ecology as part of interdisciplinary teams tasked with environmental mitigation in these human-centered landscapes. One example of this work is the use of arboreal crossing structures for primates to move safely through forests fragmented by roads. Primate conservationists recognize that environmental sustainability extends beyond conservation. For instance, primates may create public health problems or nuisances for local communities in cases where they are potential disease vectors. While these circumstances lead some people to view primates as pests, in a subset of these cases, cultural norms and values prohibit culling (i.e., killing or otherwise removing from a population) as a management strategy. Primate conservationists working on these issues may integrate human perspectives and attitudes toward primates in localized intervention or mitigation programs aimed at environmental sustainability and/or natural resource management. More than half of the world’s nonhuman primate species are threatened with extinction, and this problem is mostly a modern and global phenomenon related to unsustainable land use. Primates enhance many societies through providing ecosystem services, enriching cultural heritage, and advancing scientific research. It is for these reasons that primatologists often contribute to conservation programs in protected areas. Protected areas are designed to allow wildlife to flourish in spaces by restricting land use activities, but the history of protected areas is fraught with social injustices. Such areas are often but not always associated with higher biodiversity than adjacent and unprotected spaces. People and primates have shared spaces since time immemorial, often in sustainable ways. In addition, allocating a majority of primate range areas to fortress-style protection is at odds with the economic growth models of some primate range countries (i.e., nations with indigenous wild primates). Furthermore, many primatologists recognize that conservation benefits from integrating social justice components into programs with the ultimate goal of decolonizing conservation. Primate conservation continues to build on the foundation of basic and applied research in protected areas and, further, contributes to the development of community conservation programs for environmental sustainability. Examples of these developments include participating in offset and mitigation programs, introducing ethnographic methods to applied research to evaluate complex social processes underlying land use, and contributing to the decolonization of primate conservation.
Amber Wutich, Melissa Beresford, Teresa Montoya, Lucero Radonic, and Cassandra Workman
Anthropological thinking on water security and scarcity can be traced through four scholarly approaches: political ecology of water scarcity, water insecurity, water economics, and human-water relationality. Political ecologists argue that water scarcity a sociopolitical process and not necessarily related to physical water availability. The political ecological approach is concerned with power, global-local dynamics, and how water scarcity is unevenly distributed within and across communities. Water insecurity research is concerned with how injustice and inequity shape household and individual variability in water insecurity. Inspired by biocultural research, water insecurity scholars have used systematic methods to advance theories of how water insecurity impacts mental health, food insecurity, dehydration, and other human biological outcomes. Economic anthropologists explore how economic dynamics—including formal and capitalist economies, noncapitalist and hybridized economies, reciprocity, social reproduction, and theft—shape water scarcity and insecurity. Research priorities in economic anthropology include water valuation, meanings of water, and water as an economic good. Building from Indigenous scholars’ insights, relational approaches argue that humans have reciprocal obligations to respect and care for water as a living being. Water justice, these scholars argue, requires restoring human-water relations and upholding Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. All four of these research areas—scarcity, insecurity, economics, and relationality—are producing cutting-edge research, with significant implications for research agendas in the anthropology of water security and scarcity.