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Opening Pandora’s Box: Perspectives on understanding human origins and disease

Professor Steve Reid is one of the educators on the University of Cape Town’s course Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare. In this post he explores how two academics from very different fields have investigated health and disease, and why bringing them together is important.

Professor Steve Reid is one of the educators on the University of Cape Town’s course Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare. In this post he explores how two academics from very different fields have investigated health and disease, and why bringing them together is important.

mosaic of a person

Our course, Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare, touches on six topics in health but views them from unusual, or non-traditional, perspectives. In week five, we invited two academics – a geneticist and a linguist – (co-incidentally both named Raj!) to address the topic of our origins, asking them how they use disciplinary-specific tools to trace origins and then how origins might influence our health. We also asked them to look at health and disease more broadly from their different disciplinary backgrounds.

Medicine and the Arts – why bring together two disciplines?

Bringing these areas of study together is in fact part of a larger movement in healthcare that has resulted in the emerging field ‘medical humanities’, you can read our previous post explaining this field in more detail.

To put it simply – as humans, we’ve created different ways of seeing and understanding, and over time these have developed into different disciplines. So we have science. And we have art. And we have little common ground between the two. This means that in healthcare we’re left with gaps in the curriculum – namely an absence of information on how to cope with human emotions.

So when considering where we come from and how we got here, we always have to think: how exactly do we know these things? There are many different ways of answering these questions, from mythological to archaeological to biological – and using different fields to answer them may not only afford us an improved answer it might help us humanise healthcare in future.

The Human Genome Project and the implications of personalised medicine

Let’s put this interdisciplinary approach into practice: what does the recent explosion in knowledge of genetics add to what we already know through anthropology and archaeology?

On the course Professor Raj Ramesar, a geneticist from the University of Cape Town (UCT) considers what the Human Genome Project has done in mapping 3.5 billion base pairs of genes – we now know more about the genetic ‘makeup’ of human beings than ever before. But the Human Genome Project’s overall goal isn’t just to map the genome, it’s to discover the role of individual genes in order to better understand the genetic relationship to diseases. One future outcome of this genetic research could be calculating customised drugs which can best treat an individual person. This field is called pharmacogenomics – exploring and predicting how different people respond to drugs.

While there is phenomenal potential for future breakthroughs, Prof Ramesar talks about genetic research being like the ‘opening up of Pandora’s Box’. Having the power to ‘read’ a person’s genetic make-up comes with many challenging ethical and practical dilemmas that extend past the boundaries of genetics. How much does our individual DNA determine our future health, or even who we are? How much of our development has to do with genetics as opposed to the environment? These are some of the pertinent issues he asks us to contemplate.

The meaning of language

So where does linguistics come in? Well, it too looks to the past – to our origins, to better understand the world.

Raj Mesthrie, Professor of  Linguistics at UCT, explains that it is the human mind’s ability for abstract thinking which makes it possible for humans to communicate in the real world. There is a presumption that this capacity is transmitted genetically, but made possible when babies interact in the real world of human societies – ideas first put forward by the linguist Noam Chomsky.

Both linguists and geneticists are interested by how the brain acquires, stores and uses language. For linguists, human interactions and culture provide the contexts in which languages emerge over time. Tracing the origins of language Prof Mesthrie describes the way in which linguists investigate language, human origins and migratory patterns. He talks about how the specific tools of disciplines, although limited, can interpret and explore many of the same phenomena as geneticists do but with a different lens.

Linguists have no concrete data to explore the origins of language. Unlike archaeology or genetics, there is no equivalent of bones, tissue samples, buildings or artefacts that preserve ancient languages. What can be studied are the imprints of language. These imprints include written forms of ancient languages using symbols or hieroglyphics. Such symbols, however, only take us back 7000 years into human history, although it’s possible to trace origins through oral history and through understanding the existing structures of living languages.

Different perspectives – finding common ground in the arts?

Both disciplines are chasing answers from the past, but while we’re fascinated with the idea that we can know the same thing simultaneously in two completely different yet equally valid ways, as societies we package knowledge independently – it can be difficult to find a common language.

Yet perhaps there can be one – we cannot see DNA, just as we cannot see language, so we rely on the imagination of an artist to draw the molecules of DNA, and the symbols of writing to approximate the meanings of our expression. Artistic expression may give us the common ground – the creative and expressive arts allowing for an interpretation and understanding that is individual and personalised.

To explore more of these profound questions and to understand how medicine and the arts can work together, join the free online course Medicine and the Arts: Humanising Healthcare

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