Friday, July 5, 2013

What do Epigenetics have to do with Conservation? (And what are epigenetics?)

by Adrian Nel - visiting PhD student from the University of Otago, brief bio at end of post.

I have an interest in both false dichotomies and non jokes (what has two paws and hangs from a tree? – a paw paw (papaya)). Both of these came together in an article in Discover (May 2013) which got me thinking. It began...

Darwin and Freud walk into a bar. Two alcoholic mice — a mother and her son — sit on two bar stools, lapping gin from two thimbles. The mother mouse looks up and says, “Hey, geniuses, tell me how my son got into this sorry state.”
Bad inheritance,” says Darwin.
Bad mothering,” says Freud.

The Discover article proceeds to lay out that for over a hundred years, those two views — nature or nurture, biology or psychology — have offered dichotomous explanations for the development and persistence of behaviours, not only within a single individual but across generations. Two scientists from from McGill UniversityMoshe Szyf, a molecular biologist, and Michael Meany, a neurobiologist (they fittingly met in a bar)have bust open the nature vs. nurture debate through their study of epigenetics. Epigenetics explores how methyl group 'cookbooks' attached to DNA tell nuclei which genes to transcribe. The two explored that these epigenes can be changed not only during foetal development, but during a lifespan, and, importantly passed from parent to child. They hypothesise for instance that children of holocaust survivors inherit not only the retold memories of traumatic experiences but their epigenetic emotional scars; more positively, they speculate that you may benefit from a boost if your grandmother was loved as a child.

Like silt deposited on the cogs of a finely tuned machine after the seawater of a tsunami recedes, our experiences, and those of our forebears, are never gone, even if they have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding fast to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioural tendencies are inherited” (Hurley, 2013). Basically, it’s not nature vs. nurture, it’s both, and interestingly intertwined ways, and as the Discover article concludes  “if the genome is the blueprint for life, then the epigenome is life's etch-a-sketch 'shake hard enough and you can wipe clean the family curse”.

How does this apply to my research and what brought me here to IRES?

The analogy of nature-nurture does not translate directly to carbon forestry in Uganda, or other conservation interventions. But let us assume for argument’s sake, that the 'nature' here relates to what practitioners perceive as the historical context of forestry governance. These are the 'experiences of our forbears', and practitioners are often wrong to assume they are mere 'context', as the epigenetics analogy shows, within which Nurture then unfolds. Let us assume also that the 'nurture' in this light relates then to the current interventions, those of the individual carbon forestry PES projects I study, framed as technical activities to address the specific, codified problems of deforestation and climate change through carbon sequestration.

The problem arises when the interventions are implemented relying solely on the 'Nurture', without seeing how the historical context (‘nature’) shapes the current program design and the context within which it interpreted and framed (‘nurture’). For example, often overlooked is the relationship between forestry and the colonial state, and the displacement and disposession that accompanied its processes of internal territorialisation.

Take a project on a protected area, as an example, in which the design of the project involves a simplistic acceptance, on the part of the private implementers leasing the land for the purposes of reforestation (which incidentally includes a carbon offset component), of the de-jure boundary of the area. The reality is however that 90% of protected areas in Uganda are contested and 'encroached', for a variety of complex reasons, and include historically unresolved and contested land claims by people in the area.

In project design documentation, these sorts of issues – and the current institutional structure – is simplistically taken as an unquestioned given, an a priori 'context' which is removed of any immediacy. This Achilles heel often ends up exacerbating existing conflicts during project implementation, and undermining the projects themselves, despite the (mostly but not always) best of intentions. There is thus an apparent disjuncture between the rationality within the system, and the irrationality of the system of contemporary forestry governance in the country.

A current interest, which has very much been spurred through interactions with CHANS lab is thinking through how my own research can be translated for practitioners in ways that draw in and make sense of socio-natural histories and 'contexts' more deeply when thinking about projects and policies. While critical studies of conservation have succeeded in establishing a dialogue with ecology and conservation biology, this intellectual production is not influencing conservation policies, design, and management in the field, and antagonisms between policies and local peoples persist (Vacarro 2013). Critical political ecology thus has much to contribute to the design of contemporary interventions in places such as Uganda, where high population growth rates and an already contested land politics repeatedly complicate conservation practise.

Adrian Nel is in the process of writing up his PhD dissertation from the University of Otago (New Zealand) on carbon forestry and forestry governance in Uganda, and is an enthusiastic visitor of the CHANS lab this summer.  He likes the fact that it is summer here, and that the inside of the house is warmer than the inside of the fridge (not so in Dunedin). 


Hurley, D. (2013) Grandma's Experiences Leave a Mark on Your Genes. Discover. May Issue 2013. Available:

Vaccaro et al. (2013). Review: political ecology and conservation. Journal of Political Ecology Vol 20:264. 

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