Cultural commonalities despite diverse biologies: reflections on qinghao research (Artemisia annua L.)

    • Presentation speakers

    Cultural diversity, or even super diversity, is today a catchall. The idea that in different cultural settings different people might adopt similar practices when engaging with their social and natural surroundings has been frowned upon, and still is. It somewhat inverts the project of cultural ontologies and the cultural politics those imply. It emphasizes domain-specificity of practice, as do cognitive anthropologists. But unlike the latter, I will not search for explanations in the science of representations.   Rather, I am inspired by 17th century Chinese philosophers who spoke of shi, the propensity of things (Jullien 1995), and 20th century phenomenologists who spoke of a frighteningly similar concept, ³affordances² (Straus, Gibson, Leder, etc.), which STS has recently taken up. These concepts direct the researcher¹s attentiveness to the thing, and its thinginess, suggesting that the effectiveness of a thing is given in its material configurations and the demands those put on its surroundings.It would appear that in certain situations people interact with their environments in seemingly unmediated and direct ways that seem to respond more to the situational constellation and material condition than anything else.

    Ethnobotanists who study human-plant interrelations will be familiar with this kind of situation. An ethno-archaeological experiment of re-enacting the preparation of a recipe against so-called “intermittent fevers” by the famous Daoist alchemist-medic Ge Hong (ca 340 CE) made me acutely aware that certain technical processes have not been expressed linguistically, not because they are secret knowledge, but more likely because they are tacit knowledge or common sensical. The propensity of the thing the human being engages with ensues in a certain limited range of social practices. In this case, the recipe said one should soak the plant materials but not how long for, but based on a practical and physical engagement with these plant materials I felt I could say with certainty it needs to be over night. I later found textual evidence suggesting this, which might help convince my textually trained colleagues, but the episode suggested to me insufficient social theorising on phenomena of the kind.

    This paper will discuss the sticky issue of ³Retrospective biomedical diagnoses². If modern natural scientific research tells us a plant has antimalarial efficaciousness, what can we deduce about the propensities and affordances of the plant and what about the ailments and disorders this plant was recommended to be used for? Vice versa, what can an attentiveness to the ³material” make up of the plant in the language of the traditional medic (which relates to qi, and other natural-scientifically contested concepts) tell us not only about it, but also about us?

    Artemisinin which Chinese scientists extracted from the traditional medical drug qinghao in the 1970s finally gained recognition by the WHO in the mid-2000s as the  antimalarial drug of choice in severe malaria falciparum cases. Over two decades of intensive Western scientific research into its chemistry, physics, pharmacokinetics, clinical
    efficacy, etc. were needed to make this possible. For the critical medical anthropologist and historian this Western scientific research is useful as it helps us interpret what the ancient texts tell us about the usages of qinghao.