The epigenome and nature/nurture reunification: a challenge for anthropology

Med Anthropol. 2013;32(4):291-308. doi: 10.1080/01459740.2012.746973.


Recognition among molecular biologists of variables external to the body that can bring about hereditable changes in gene expression or cellular phenotypes has reignited nature/nurture discussion. These epigenetic findings may well set off a new round of somatic reductionism because research is confined largely to the molecular level. A brief review of the late nineteenth-century formulation of the nature/nurture concept is followed by a discussion of the positions taken by Boas and Kroeber on this matter. I then illustrate how current research into Alzheimer's disease uses a reductionistic approach, despite epigenetic findings in this field that make the shortcomings of reductionism clear. In order to transcend the somatic reductionism associated with epigenetics, drawing on concepts of local biologies and embedded bodies, anthropologists can carry out research in which epigenetic findings are contextualized in the specific historical, socio/political, and environmental realities of lived experience.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / genetics
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology
  • Anthropology*
  • Biomedical Research
  • Epigenomics*
  • Humans