Medicinal Flora

Ten years ago, I worked with scientists at the American Museum of Natural History in writing a book about phylogenetics. Although it has “genetic” in it, phylogenetics isn’t principally about DNA. What it’s about is the relationship among organisms based on characteristics that are shared and not shared.

One of the useful things to come out of phylogenetic research is how to understand and predict what related organisms can do. Last week a specific example came to my attention.

Researchers studying plants used in traditional medicine performed an analysis of over 20,000 plants from three regions: Nepal, the Cape of South Africa, and New Zealand. What they found was that the phylogenetics, the relatedness of traditional medicines is very close regardless of geography.

“So what?” you might wonder. Human beings have been fooling around with plants forever—even before the discovery of agriculture. Even animals figure out how to self-medicate with plants.

What’s significant is that not just some plants but closely related plants were identified for their medicinal benefits in ecologically and culturally diverse places. One of the hallmarks of the scientific method is the replication of results. So traditional peoples made proto-scientific discoveries in the use of medicinal flora—that is, in the absence of the institutional and technological trappings of Western science.

The phylogenetic research confirms that these traditional peoples were doing science—or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the traditional practitioners and the Western scientific researchers were doing something quite similar. What the phylogenetic research adds is an understanding of the relationship among medicinal plants could help traditional practitioners improve their craft.

After all, the purpose of all this work is to heal the sick and alleviate suffering. Isn’t it?

Actually, no. What motivated the phylogenetic researchers was the need to make what they call bioprospecting more cost effective—which is the economist’s polite phrase for cheap. As you may know, pharmaceutical companies rely on the bioactivity of natural substances—principally derived from plants—in developing drugs. To find those natural substances, pharmaceutical companies follow two paths.

One path uses ethnolbiologists to understand the uses of particular plants in the practice of traditional medicine and then take the plant and the traditional knowledge back to the lab where the active ingredient is revealed and turned into a patented substance. In other words, Western-educated human beings trek to exotic places to learn what the people indigenous to that place know about medicinal flora. Then those Westerners trek back to headquarters where they unravel the biochemistry of the plants and knowledge they’ve highjacked—almost always without compensating the indigenous people. The objective, of course, is boatloads of money.

The other path leads to the same endpoint (that is, boatloads of money) but, instead of wasting all that time communing with the natives, employees scoop up plants by the truckload and simply throw a lot of biochemistry at them in a search for bioactive substances.

This latter method is the most commonly used because the ethnobiologist method is expensive. Enter the phylogeneticists who can now do quick and cheap with a computer analysis what took ethnolbiologists forever to do slogging through native lore and native lands.

It is, of course, disgraceful that natural processes have become the property of private enterprises. It is disgraceful that the knowledge of traditional practitioners is expropriated by private enterprises without compensation. And it is also disgraceful that healing the sick and alleviating suffering is a commodity produced by private enterprises in order make boatloads of money.

But the real disgrace is that the phylogenetic researchers and the teaming crowds of scientists like them fervently believe they are contributing to better medical care by extracting knowledge from traditional practices and purifying it for use in a corporate lab. It is tragic that, in order to keep receiving their grants, they use traditional practices as objects to be exploited instead of treating traditional practitioners as collaborators, as people from whom they could genuinely learn something and whom they can assist in healing the sick and alleviating suffering.

If I were one of those exploited traditional practitioners, I’d put a curse on those guys. Maybe they already have.