This post builds on the research article “What if the Environment is a Person? Lineages of Epigenetic Science in a Toxic China,” which was published in the May 2016 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Charlie Lotterman: To start off our conversation, can you situate this article within your own personal and academic history? What concerns did it grow out of, and what interests initiated the project as a whole?
Janelle Lamoreaux: This article is a revised chapter of my dissertation, which I completed in 2013. It was the last chapter I wrote because for a long time I didn’t think it fit with the rest of the dissertation, which was primarily—at least at the outset—concerned with male infertility in China and how the science of sperm opened up questions of nationalism, masculinity, and socioeconomic change. A chapter on congenital disorders didn’t seem to make sense given this focus, but when I decided to let this side project become an entire chapter I found that it helped me look at the dissertation differently. My project was no longer only about what I had imagined it would be (male infertility), but had expanded into a project about toxicity, (epi)genetics, and a variety of potentially inheritable reproductive health conditions in contemporary China. The concern that gave rise to this article was, then, a desire to know about anything that the lab was involved in studying, even if at the time it seemed peripheral.
After returning from fieldwork and reading the literature on epigenetics that had been recently published, I knew that I had come across something different than what was being described by other social scientists. Epigenetic research certainly focused on the potential inheritance of epigenetic modifications through the maternal “environment.” But the toxicologists I was working with also saw epigenetic research as a means of challenging an individualized sense of parental responsibility and placing emphasis on the economic and industrial policies that were causing massive pollution in the Yangtze River Delta. Developing this chapter for publication seemed like a good way to contribute a perspective on scientific engagements with epigenetics that promote a more distributed sense of responsibility rooted in a more distributed understanding of the person.
CL: In the very first sentence of the article, you purchase a watermelon as a gift, which anthropologists will recognize as the original object to collapse the distinction between persons, objects, and society—a project that you continue. In the more thickly ethnographic sections of the article, this watermelon reappears, precipitating a dialogue. Since the anthropology of gift exchange emphasizes the organization of relations across types and scales, as well as the positions of persons in relation to one another, this brings me to asking about how you locate yourself within this field site and within your argument. In what ways do you frame yourself and your expertise as an anthropologist within the DeTox Lab? How do you see yourself, as a producer of knowledge, in relation to these other knowledge producers? To what extent would you characterize this ethnography as collaborative?
JL: It’s interesting, I’ve gotten a lot of comments about that re-emerging watermelon! At this point, I’m mostly thinking of it as a narrative thread. But in terms of the relationship to gift exchange, knowledge production, and collaboration, I now remember how the watermelon was part of a longer introduction (eventually cut from the article) about the walk from the laboratory where I usually did fieldwork to the hospital on the day I describe. One of the scientists I worked with in the lab arranged the hospital visit, and he and I stopped to buy that watermelon along the way. The watermelon and the story of buying this gift for those we were about to visit speak to the way laboratory scientists negotiate distances between themselves and others they work with. As I mention in the published version of the article, the research scientist who accompanied me to the hospital had never been there before, even though he had worked on studies that used samples from the hospital. He was learning about the conditions that these infants face, as well as physician and patient experiences, even as I was. Sharing the watermelon during this interview was a moment in which researchers (myself included) came together in a different configuration than usual, thereby learning different things about one another. During many of the interviews and site visits I conducted, members of the lab would not only facilitate engagements but also ask questions and make observations. For them, I think these experiences, especially for those who treated patients that they also studied, led to reflections about their research and about what motivates them as research scientists. These experiences had the same effect on me.
At least some of the time I spent with the lab, then, was an effort to think through the contexts of epigenetic research and reproductive health together with those I studied. That said, this article certainly isn’t a meditation on collaboration. I suppose that, methodologically, I’m trying to explore what it would mean for social scientists to understand the environment through the methodology of the toxicologists I studied, and how this might open up new understandings of the boundaries of both environmental anthropology and the anthropology of reproductive health. I hope to expand on this point in my book, Infertile Futures, and your questions about the politics of knowledge production will help me as I think through this further.
CL: Over the past decade or two in anthropology, ideas about the permeability of persons, the personhood of the environment, and more-than-human ecologies have surfaced out of research largely conducted in Amazonia and Melanesia. You’ve brought this discussion to China, where you mention that these topics are also a concern for anthropologists, and more specifically to a scientific laboratory. What does this new location, as well as your focus on scientific expertise, offer by way of extending these anthropological conversations?
JL: Ideas about more-than-human ecologies have long existed in Chinese contexts—both in classic Chinese texts and in studies of China by social scientists before me—so I can’t take credit for bringing this discussion to China. But I suppose my article does show that ways of thinking about the relationship between humans and nonhumans or thinking across the scales that characterize traditional Chinese medical philosophies and Chinese understandings of personhood can also be seen in the thinking of laboratory scientists studying gene-environment interactions through advanced technologies. Although epigenetic thinking is not new, there are new ways that epigenetic thinking is making its way into research about the problems that human and nonhuman populations face when confronted with an increasing number of toxins from a wide variety of sources. Of course, some of the theories proposed by scientists who conduct epigenetic research are still controversial, especially when it comes to ideas of how epigenetic modifications are inherited across generations, but the fact that physicians and scientists are building careers on studying the possibility of toxic inheritance is an interesting phenomenon, especially in China.
CL: You write that to study Hirschsprung’s disease, the scientists at the DeTox Lab collect data in a number of ways, through “biological samples, written surveys, and chemical analyses.” First, I am curious to learn if this diverse stream of data is usual among epigeneticists, or if this is a distinct practice adopted by your interlocutors that corresponds to the unique goals of the lab. Second, is there a hierarchy that organizes the interpretation of these streams of data? Or, like the figuration of the environment you describe, is data also interpreted through concentric circles? Since anthropology is celebrated as a discipline that weaves together multiple genres of data into ethnographic texts and theoretical arguments, I am wondering if you drew any lessons from these scientists that now inform your anthropological practice.
JL: It’s difficult to say because “epigeneticists,” as in scientists who conduct epigenetic research, are so many and so diverse, operating in multiple research fields and addressing so many different questions about human and nonhuman life through varied techniques. It would be hard to characterize this research in a singular sense, just as it would with genetics. But research trends in the field of toxicology, at least, speak to broader patterns in the biological sciences, and here research projects like the human birth cohort studies I describe in the article are often thought of as difficult and time-consuming to conduct. Questions of epigenetic inheritance and toxic exposure which might be conducted on human subjects in a more epidemiological way are instead studied through animal models in the laboratory or through statistical models in an effort to be more cost-effective and to conduct research that is easier to control. This research design shapes the kinds of questions that can be asked and answered, as well as perceptions about the credibility or translation of epigenetic inheritance research across methods and domains. For instance, questions about what can and cannot stand in for humans or for toxic exposures get increasingly complicated in efforts to simplify research processes. One of the advantages of doing research in China, from the perspective of those in the DeTox Lab, is that as long as you have the funds to acquire the equipment you need, you can do a lot of human subject research quite quickly due to the large population of willing research participants and comparatively fast academic, scientific, and human subject research bureaucracies. As they explained it to me, projects that might take years to fund and conduct in the United States would take months in China. So, from their perspective, China offers a unique place from which to conduct human subject research on toxic exposures.
As for anthropological lessons from their multiple methodologies, an increasing number of my colleagues are interested in exploring the anthropologies of environment and health through experimental, interdisciplinary work in close association with life scientists and/or their methods. For instance, Amber Benezra’s work on microbiomes and Liz Roberts’ bio-ethnographic approach have been interesting for me to reflect on after spending time in the DeTox Lab. I think the lab’s work, and the multiple scales and settings that its understanding of the environment traverses, could well be adapted for such anthropological pursuits.
CL: Your article points out that in Euro-American contexts, epigenetic interpretations bring greater responsibility and even blame to mothers. Conversely, in Chinese epigenetics (where the person and environment are differently constituted as social subjects), the question of responsibility becomes more complicated. Since gender figures into your argument so significantly, I wanted to ask if the environment itself, as a person, is gendered in any way? If the environment is a person, then does it fit the categories that are inscribed onto human persons, or do these categories become inoperable in a way that might lead us to question them more broadly?
JL: I think the gender of the environment is really important, especially in questions about burdens of responsibility. So many of the environmental problems that are most discussed (e.g., overpopulation, extinction, and climate change) are implicitly or explicitly linked to reproductive health. In this article, I show that there is a very specific understanding of the environment as maternal body and as the vehicle for inheritable modifications in some epigenetic research and some media reports on the preliminary scientific findings of epigenetic inheritance. But I also argue that the blaming of women for epigenetic abnormalities—and this has been analyzed by a number of social scientists—relies on a specific understanding of the person as an autonomous individual. If that idea of the person as individual is complicated, as I argue that it is by the toxicologists I study, then epigenetics “could be organized otherwise” (as you so nicely put it in our email correspondence).
The gender of the environment, then, could never be reduced to the gender of a singular person because the environment itself always stands in relation to other persons and other environments. Moreover, the burden of responsibility would be distributed among many people and things instead of isolated to the individual mother. So, to answer your question, it is not that categories inscribed onto human persons (such as gender) do or do not fit, but that the very idea of the human person—how we understand the boundaries of persons in time and in space, and perhaps how we understand gender—is being questioned more broadly. A lot of my book will still be about male infertility and theories of how toxins impact sperm, men, and masculinity, so I’ll be getting to questions of gender and the environment even more there.
The scientists I study don’t speak of the environment as an entity with desires, nor do they speak of genes as selfish or desiring. Perhaps they think of chemical toxins as persistent or with lasting effects, but this is different than endowing them with a capacity to desire. I think this goes back to my earlier point about the deindividualizing of the environment that characterizes their work.
CL: My own research interrogates the permeability of persons and the more-than-human worlds in which human subjects are constituted. I work with a laboratory that studies humans who harbor parasites, which my interlocutors argue influence their human hosts psychologically and morphologically. For these scientists, and many other biologists, the concept of desire does a lot of work. Ascribing desires to organisms makes it possible to map encounters within a structural-functionalist type of paradigm, wherein different organisms approach the encounter with different perspectives and seek to realize different ends. Desire gives motivation, which then gets inscribed into a narrative that holds together interspecies relations. In your article, you write about the expression and realization of desire in a post–Reform and Opening context in which concepts of the individual are being newly shaped. But I am wondering if the environment, again as a person, also has desires. Through your work with the DeTox Lab, did you find that the environment has desires that it seeks to realize? If so, how might the environment act to satisfy its desires?
JL: The scientists I study don’t speak of the environment as an entity with desires, nor do they speak of genes as selfish or desiring. Perhaps they think of chemical toxins as persistent or with lasting effects, but this is different than endowing them with a capacity to desire. I think this goes back to my earlier point about the deindividualizing of the environment that characterizes their work. You are right, though, that increasing individualization and desire is a topic of much anthropological work done in China (both Lisa Rofel and Everett Zhang, for example, have developed important theories of desiring subjectivity in their work). I have not found that desire is at issue for the scientists I’ve studied, likely because what I’m trying to explore is a science-based counternarrative to the tale of China inevitably moving toward individualism in a way that is similar to the West.
CL: In closing, I wanted to give you a chance to look forward. Have any new discoveries from the world of epigenetics or any emergent anthropological debates captured your attention?
JL: I’m just now returning from maternity leave and looking forward to re-entering conversations in both anthropology and toxicology. I’ll soon be starting a new job at the University of Arizona, where I’ll be working on my book and related articles in which I elaborate on how, at a time when epigenetics is becoming more and more accepted as an everyday part of genetic research, the environment is proliferating, both discursively and materially. I’m also developing a second project: a study of coral reefs in which I’m going to be studying scientists who use reproductive technologies to create banks of coral egg and sperm in an effort to preserve biodiversity in the face of future species loss. This activity is especially interesting in the South China Sea, where territorial disputes and the loss of biodiversity are often interconnected. To prepare for this project, I’ve been reading social science research on extinction, endangerment, and repopulation, as well as cryopreservation (particularly Carrie Friese’s work). With colleagues in the Reproductive Sociology Research Group, I’ve been thinking about how debates around reproductive technologies and women’s bodies that were common in the 1980s (see Franklin 2013) are being reworked in contemporary environmental discourse and activism, especially regarding the role of technology in the preservation of future natures. My colleague Katie Dow and I are exploring these and other related issues through a collaborative project called “Reproducing the Environment.”
Franklin, Sarah. 2013. Biological Relatives: IVF, Stem Cells, and the Future of Kinship. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.