The promise of Indigenous epigenetics

The promise of Indigenous epigenetics

Emma Kowal

For the last two decades, Indigenous peoples have consistently resisted genetics on local, national and international scales. Awareness of genetics as a potentially harmful science spread through Indigenous organisations in the mid 1990s after the U.S. National Institutes of Health attempted to patent a virus found in the blood of a Papua New Guinean man, and the Human Genome Diversity Project attempted to collect DNA samples from indigenous peoples, who they called ‘Isolates of Historical Interest’, from around the world (Reardon 2005). The U.S.-based NGO Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism was formed in response.

Although genetics has transformed in the ‘post-genomic’ age (a term used for the period after the human genome was sequenced), its reputation among Indigenous peoples continues to be strained. Genetics is often seen as deterministic and victim-blaming, diverting attention and resources from social and political causes of ill-health, reinforcing ideologies of Indigenous inferiority within Western science, facilitating the theft of genetic biological resources and knowledge, and as the source of inflated, unjustified hype that offers little or no benefit to Indigenous people (TallBear 2013).

Adding the prefix ‘epi’, however, makes a big difference. Epigenetics describes changes to the genome that effect gene expression and regulation without changing the order of the base pairs – A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s – that make up the gene sequence. Environmental influences in the womb, in early childhood and throughout life have effects on gene expression that can cause or prevent disease. In animal models, these effects have been shown to be inherited through the generations, although this has not yet been proven in humans. Epigenetics has been hailed as demolishing the boundaries between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’, showing that genes are not necessarily our destiny. Historically, it can be linked to earlier beliefs that the environment shapes the body and that these effects are inherited (called ‘soft inheritance’ in contrast to the ‘hard inheritance’ of Mendelian genetics (Meloni 2016).

In the last few years, epigenetics has struck a chord within Indigenous scholarship and Indigenous media. Compared with the fear of genetics, the embrace of epigenetics is remarkable. Indigenous scholars, writers and leaders from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada have expressed enthusiasm for epigenetics as a biological mechanism that explains, as a report on Indigenous health by the Australian Medical Association put it in 2013, both the effects of early life on disease risk and “inter-generational Indigenous disadvantage.”

The appeal of epigenetics in Indigenous circles is partly a reflection of general epigenetic hype within science and the media. There are also some unique features of what we might call ‘Indigenous epigenetic hype’. Most prominently, epigenetics is seen to align with Indigenous world views. Although Hudson and colleagues have argued that genetics aligns with Indigenous knowledge, it is far more common to see genetics in opposition to Indigenous knowledge. By contrast, epigenetics seems a perfect fit.

As Justin Mohamed, Chairman of the Australian National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, said at the aforementioned launch, “in many ways the science backs up what’s long been known.” In a similar vein, Red Cliff Tribe of Wisconsin Ojibwe member Mary Annette Pember writes, “Folks in Indian country wonder what took science so long to catch up with traditional Native knowledge.” Within Indigenous scholarship, Isaac Warbrick and colleagues explicitly argue that epigenetics is aligned with a non-western, Maori epistemology of health.

The perceived affinity between epigenetics and Indigenous knowledge is a welcome change from the mistrust and antagonism that has often featured in engagements between science and Indigenous peoples. But it doesn’t mean that applying epigenetics to Indigenous health and social issues will necessarily lead to good science or good policy.

We see this disconnect between the perception and the reality of the science in a field where Indigenous knowledge perhaps most powerfully intersects with epigenetics: transgenerational trauma. For a growing number of Indigenous and non-indigenous scholars, epigenetics provides a biological explanation for inherited effects of colonial trauma, stretching back to the first impacts of colonization on Indigenous peoples.

“Many present-day health disparities can be traced back through epigenetics to a “colonial health deficit,” the result of colonization and its aftermath,” comments Bonnie Duran, Director for Indigenous Health Research at the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington. A Canadian report entitled “Aboriginal Peoples and Historical Trauma: The process of intergenerational transmission” lists epigenetics, along with physiological, psychological and social processes, as mechanisms by which trauma is passed down to offspring. In the academic literature, one highly-cited paper in particular is used as evidence of the epigenetic effects of what is called Historical Trauma (HT), such as Residential Schooling and the Trail of Tears, across multiple generations.

The enthusiasm for the idea of epigenetic inheritance has preceded the science. Most of the existing evidence is from animal models, and large longitudinal studies will be needed to decipher human processes of epigenetic inheritance. Big questions about mechanisms remain unanswered. To take one example: are epigenetic changes primarily passed down through the germline cells (egg and sperm) or recreated in each generation by exposure to the same social conditions? The answer will shape what ‘epigenetic’ health interventions might look like.

Whatever the future insights of epigenetic science turn out to be, for the moment the science is far more complicated and uncertain than the transgenerational trauma literature implies. This might not be a problem, except that it is only a matter of time before research applications start to flow in to investigate epigenetics and Historical Trauma. There will always be scientists ready to benefit from epigenetic hype and win grants. Given the checkered history of research in Indigenous communities, we should carefully question whether such research will benefit the victims of colonization.

Although breaking down the barrier between genes and environment sounds progressive, epigenetics may not necessarily translate to egalitarian social policy. As Sarah Richardson and colleagues have argued, epigenetics has the potential to intensify the blame on parents, and mothers in particular, for children’s wellbeing, shifting responsibility away from the societal factors that are far beyond maternal control. Similarly, epigenetics could increase the already unrealistic pressure on Indigenous parents to overcome the structural barriers their children face.

The lessons of history show that ‘soft inheritance’ can accompany regressive social policies like eugenics. Maurizio Meloni reminds us that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many scholars believed that environmental effects on the body were inherited, and some groups experienced racial degeneration due to the ‘racially poisonous’ environment they lived in. We need to be aware that epigenetics could be used for racist agendas that work against Indigenous health and well-being.

The poor health and social status of Indigenous populations the world over mean that any new investments in research need to be made wisely. There may be real potential for epigenetics to benefit Indigenous people, but we must ensure that hype doesn’t hijack the agenda.

Meloni, M 2016, Political Biology: Science and Social Values in Human Heredity from Eugenics to Epigenetics, Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Reardon, J 2005, Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.
TallBear, K 2013, Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, University of Minnesota Press.


Emma Kowal is Professor of Anthropology in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University, Melbourne and Deputy Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Genomics at the Australian National University. She is the author of Trapped in the Gap: Doing Good in Indigenous Australia (Berghahn, 2015). You can find all her publications on her academia page and her tweets @profemmakowal

Image Credit: DNA representation, Andy Leppard