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American Journal of Biological Anthropology







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Wiley Periodicals LLC


At no time in recent history has the topic of disease, epidemics and pandemics been more at the forefront of public conversation than it is now. Previously, the threat of epidemics such as Ebola, the 1918 influenza epidemic, and the plague, were commonly framed as “back then” or “over there.” Perhaps COVID ended the public's delusion. For biological anthropologists, however, the perspective has differed appreciably. Pandemics and epidemics are viewed as integral and repeated aspects of human existence, and the kindling to start an outbreak of gargantuan proportion has been delicately stacked for centuries (if not millennia). If the public (or anyone, for that matter) still clings to the notion that epidemics are “back then” (or maybe done) or “over there” (or affects ‘other people’) please READ. THIS. SPECIAL. ISSUE. Here, the co-editors Andrew Wooyoung Kim and Sabrina Agarwal and invited authors offer insightful and innovative approaches towards understanding disease, epidemics and pandemics, past and present. They offer multiscalar approaches and grapple with complex sampling and methodological biases. They also lay foundations for future research.

This special issue makes clear what biological anthropologists know, the medical field has lost, and the public overlooks: the importance of adopting a holistic approach when exploring disease. The tenet is not new. In the 1870s, amidst intense rivalry between Louise Pasture who espoused the germ theory of disease, Antoine Béchamp, a French doctor known for his expertise in cytology, biochemistry and physics, proposed that disease naturally occurred as a chemical reaction (akin to fermentation) and was associated with “the terrain”; that is, internal and external environments influencing natural biochemical processes. Bechamp wrote, “the experiment showed me that in parts subtracted from the living animal, the microzymas being no longer in their normal conditions of existence, produced therein chemical alterations, called fermentation, which inevitably led to tissue disorganizations…” (Bechamp, 1911:46). Decades later, in spite of the unilateral adoption of germ theory and the commensurate rise of the pharmaceutical industry that espoused a reductionist view that human disease is caused solely by pathogenic invasion and that, in fact, there is a magic bullet to end disease, Rene Dubos quipped that, “A virulent microbe reaches a susceptible host, multiplies in its tissues and thereby causes symptoms, lesions, and at times death. What concept could be more reasonable and easier to grasp? In reality, however, this view of the relationship between patient and microbe is so oversimplified that it rarely fits the facts of disease. Indeed, it corresponds almost to a cult—generated by a few miracles, undisturbed by inconsistencies and not too exacting about evidence” (Dubos, 1955: p. 31–35). Biological anthropologists agree.


Author Posting © The Author, 2023. This is an open access article published in the American Journal of Biological Anthropology, Volume 182, Issue 4, Pages 635-637.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.