Microbiomania, rewilding, and the threat of bioprospecting: How anthropologists can help to set a more ethical research agenda in microbiome sciences
Alyssa N. Crittenden
Department of Anthropology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Scientific knowledge and commercial interest in the human microbiome are growing exponentially. As our understanding of the vital role of microbes increases, so does “microbiomania” – the fervor in which microbes are lauded in popular media and scientific press as capable of revolutionizing human health in the Global North. This wholescale shift from viewing bacterial species as primarily threatening to critical and endangered symbionts, has led to a reconsideration of the mismatch hypothesis and the urge to repopulate the gut microbiome to its “natural” state. This has meant that cross-cultural research on the microbiomes of small-scale communities is increasingly pursued by microbiologists and commercial biotech companies in an attempt to sequence “traditional” or “lost” microbes, prized commodities extoled as a potential panacea for many common ailments. Using a framework grounded in the political ecology of the body (sensu Guthman and Mansfield), I interrogate the “rewilding” movement and propose that it is based on scientific inaccuracies and is rooted in dangerous colonial perspectives that identify which bodies such “ancestral species” can be found on and in. I argue that this movement is the noble savage paradigm reimagined, where outmoded and persistent ideas are finding renewed expression across scientific domains. I reflect on my past research failures, my current community-based and community-inclusive approaches to human biological research, and call for the implementation of data collection and management practices (e.g. power sharing, profit sharing) that will mitigate human rights infractions and make for stronger science in the arena of human microbiome research.