What is biological about biocultural research? (Part 1)

In 2005, concerned about the absence in much biocultural research of an explicit theory of culture, Bill Dressler wrote a landmark piece in Ethos entitled “What’s Cultural about Biocultural Research?” While not all of us follow Bill’s approach to the letter, the perspective this article represents has been a major driving force as we’ve developed our Biocultural Medical Anthropology PhD program.

One could ask a parallel question: what’s Biological about Biocultural research? In many of the circles where I spend my conference time, the biological component of the research is easily assumed. I attend the Human Biology Association on an annual basis, and probably see more researchers there who consider themselves “biocultural” than at either of the other anthropological conferences I frequently attend – the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology. (Not just as a percentage, but as a raw number, despite the fact that HBA is so much smaller.) Nearly all human biologists consider their work biocultural whether or not it hews to Bill’s definition, because human evolution is irreducibly biocultural and human biologists are interested in that. And, being human biologists, they rarely feel the need to prove that they’re “biological enough.”

Yet our program historically has followed a different pathway. In the early years of the PhD program, every one of our doctoral students was advised either by Bill Dressler or Kathy Oths. (These days students are spread much more evenly among the faculty.) Bill and Kathy tended to attract students who were bright and sophisticated, fully capable of engaging with biological dimensions of their work, but with a primary foothold in cultural anthropology. To an extent this has persisted even as Chris Lynn and I have taken on doctoral students. If one were to put my doc students to date into a box, it would have CULTURAL written in caps, with biological in lower case. It’s a wonderful feature of this program that both the faculty and students are so comfortable transacting across boundaries that a biocultural human biologist like me can advise a great student like Martina Thomas, whose NSF-funded research concerns HIV-related cultural models in adolescents. And have that be a positive experience for both of us, sans either biomarkers or evolutionary hypotheses. (Our very strong tradition of group mentorship and either formal or informal co-advising has a lot to do with this too – a post on this soon, I think.)

So, in short, as I see our students develop, a question that I turn over and over in my head is: what does it mean to refer to “biology” here? First, let’s do some debunking.

1)   Biocultural research is not about biomarkers. I have seen biomarkers thrown into studies for their own sake, with no significant development of biocultural theory. I have seen them thrown into studies because it was fashionable. I have seem them thrown into studies because they are (falsely) understood as a shortcut that circumvents all the challenges of assessing “stress” or some other nebulous concept by observing and talking to people. The inclusion of biomarkers does not by itself make a study biocultural any more than the inclusion of a question about someone’s ancestry or “traditional foods and dress” makes it biocultural. Biomarkers are a method, a tool. They are only as useful as the study design and underlying theory make them. If they don’t make sense in a given study design, and they’re not called for by theory, they should be omitted. So, then, they’re not a sufficient condition, but they’re also not necessary. Consider Daniel Lende’s work in substance use in Colombia, or much of the recent work developing the nascent field of Neuroanthropology. Not a biomarker to be found in many cases – but we do see careful attention to underlying neurological mechanisms that influence and are shaped by subjective experience.

2)   Biocultural research is not about genetics (or even genomics). This is an extension of an older false equivalence: biology = genes. Biological phenotypes are both overdetermined and complexly determined, through a multi-level interaction among genes, developmental systems, and social/cultural environments. The “biology = genes” fallacy is particularly common in discussions that have a “nature vs. nurture” tone to them, and often take the form, “Is X trait/phenotype biological or cultural,” where “biological” = “genetic,” “cultural” = anything remotely social or experiential, and all the developmental systems that actually produce the phenotype are ignored. Genotypes can be quite helpful in biocultural research, depending on the question, but they also are neither necessary or sufficient.

3)   Biocultural research is not limited to work drawing from evolutionary theory. This one is perhaps more controversial among people in my circles, most of whom approach their work from the standpoint of evolutionary theory and hypotheses drawn from it. Much (although not all) of my work does as well.  Yet it is simply not necessary to chart the evolutionary history of a physiological system to usefully study it. Sometimes developmental theory is more helpful. Sometimes stress theory. Sometimes ecocultural theory. Sometimes epidemiological theory. Denying the importance of the evolution of these systems to their current variation and functioning is a non-starter for me, and all our students get exposed to evolutionary principles. But it’s sometimes useful to study the (current) endpoint of a long process of evolutionary change without explicit reference to how and why we got to there. Conversely, there’s a danger of a certain evolutionary tokenism. Mentioning Paleolithic diets does not a biocultural study make (even when it’s not blatant misrepresentation or overinterpretation of the actual paleo human data).

So far, we’re in a place where I’ve outlined some negatives, but no positives. If it’s not per se about biomarkers, genetics, or evolution, than what is the biology in biocultural research about?

In a subsequent post I’ll explore this in more detail, making the argument that biocultural research is about integrative transactions across theoretical frameworks combined with methodological opportunism. Those methods are chosen from an interdisciplinary toolkit to fit specific hypotheses and research questions rather than a pre-set, unchanging, conventional inventory. I’ll argue that how we operationalize human biology is ultimately less important than how we understand it to work. I’ll argue for the value of developmental perspectives, although without claiming all biocultural research must lean on human development. I’ll argue for the importance of measurable outcomes with inherent biological implications, without claiming that biology need be directly measured to achieve this. If this seems too vague, or filled with straw men, hopefully Part 2 will dispel that. In the meantime, comments would be received warmly.

[Update: Part 2 is now available here.]

A Truly Unique PhD Program in Biocultural Medical Anthropology

The University of Alabama offers one of the few dedicated Biocultural Medical Anthropology doctoral programs in the United States.  We are currently accepting applications from qualified students.  Please visit our faculty page & feel free to contact us with any questions or to learn more.