Bioethics Blogs

“Bioculturalism” — An interview with Greg Downey by Greg Downey

This series aims to get anthropologists and closely-related others talking seriously, and thinking practically, about how to synergize biological and social scientific approaches to human health and well-being, and to what positive ends. In this interview, Greg Downey responds to questions posed by series organizer Jeffrey G. Snodgrass.


How and why might cultural anthropologists and social scientists interested in health benefit from integrating biological variables/biomarkers into their research and analysis?

I’m not particularly interested in health, to tell the truth. My research is about skill acquisition and enculturation, especially the biological consequences of these processes, such as specialised neural functioning, sensory plasticity, and embodied adaptation to behavioural patterns. The first reason biomarkers of a variety of sorts are useful is just to demonstrate that these sorts of physiological adaptations are happening in response to cultural-developmental regimens. The artificial separation of cultural and biological approaches, or of cognitive and brain research, can suggest that the brain or body are biologically determined or universal or innate, but the things we do with them are not. Sometimes the argument is that the brain is hardware and ‘the mind’ or ‘culture’ is software, or some such metaphor. Everything we know about neurological functioning suggests that the division is impossible to uphold, that skill-related refinement and patterns of use lead to architectural, functional, and connection changes in the brain, in non-conscious behaviour, and even in gross anatomy, such as skeletal remodelling or muscular hypertrophy. This is a long way of saying that biomarkers are important for my research to show that culture has biological consequences on basic human functioning.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.