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Epigenetics and Indigenous Australia

Epigenetics and Indigenous Australia

This project aims to investigate how epigenetics is being received by Indigenous Australians, and to identify the potential risks and opportunities that narratives of biosocial damage entail. This project will offer an understanding of the relationships between Indigenous health and epigenetics that will help Indigenous researchers, policymakers, and government bodies make well-informed decisions about the application and direction of this new science. The research will make a significant contribution to understanding how the interplay of biology, race, and society unfold at the intersection of different knowledge systems and at the forefront of technological progress.

Epigenetics is described as ‘dangerously fashionable’ (Boutwell & Barnes 2016) and is attracting intense international interest in research and the media. Epigenetics concerns how social environments influence human biological processes, and how those environments become embodied as biological patterns that have an impact on health and disease in adult life and across generations. Scientists and social scientists have enthusiastically noted how epigenetic principles appear to dissolve the boundaries between the ‘social’ and ‘biological’ domains of human life, and it has been praised as a progressive, anti-eugenicist science that has the potential to mobilise political will toward remedying social inequalities that have resulted in poor health. This potential partly explains the widely positive reception epigenetics has received from Indigenous scholars, who see it as aligning with Indigenous knowledge and supporting their explanations for intergenerational trauma and ill-health. But epigenetic knowledge also has the potential to intensify the ‘re-biologisation’ of race through notions of biological difference and transgenerational damage, especially when applied in a settler colonial context such as Australia.

Drawing on the tools of anthropology and postcolonial science and technology studies (STS), we will investigate why and how Indigenous Australian life scientists, and more broadly researchers, policymakers, and public media are embracing epigenetics, and its potential benefits and pitfalls. The research will generate important knowledge on the politics of epigenetics in Indigenous Australia, and will make a significant contribution to international debates on reshaping the relationship between genes and environment in the 21st century.

There are four specific aims:

  1. To investigate how the science of epigenetics is being employed by Indigenous and non-indigenous researchers working in Indigenous health, and researchers, policymakers, and the public media to understand the developmental and intergenerational transmission of ill-health in Indigenous communities;

  2. To explore the promise and pitfalls of epigenetic understandings of transmission for Indigenous forms of knowledge, including early life experiences and historical trauma;

  3. To contribute to scholarly debates on the political consequences of body/society entanglements and new notions of biological and ‘racial’ difference in settler colonial contexts, and;

  4. To provide timely and valuable knowledge to Indigenous health researchers and policymakers to ensure Indigenous people receive the maximum benefits of any research on epigenetics.


Project funding

This project is funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant (DP190102071)


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