Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gossip as medical research

In my post on April 17 (Medicine on the frontier), I wondered how, in more primitive times, people learned that certain plants or certain compounds had medicinal qualities. "How did they discover the healing properties of things like cocoa butter, alum and slippery elm?" I asked. "How did someone learn to turn plants into medicines?" Not until after I finished my May 3 post (Gossip can save your life) did the answer come to me.

On May 3 I wrote about Jared Diamond's speculation in The World Until Yesterday that people in traditional hunter-gatherer cultures tend to be more talkative than those in modern societies because gossip is their only way of passing on vital information, information that might save their lives. This is how people learned to avoid dangers. Anything could be important, and so everything was talked about in great detail.

Later it came to me this would apply to medicines as well. If one person experimented with some concoction that seemed to relieve a stomachache or heal a sore, that information would be passed on. Others would try the same thing, perhaps with variations. Nothing could be written down if they had no written language, so the results of these experiments would have to be passed along through gossip and remembered by someone. Older people with long memories could have been valuable members of any tribe.

Then a couple of days ago I came across this line while reading State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: "They think this place is some sort of magical medicine chest, but for the most part the treatments here consist of poorly recorded gossip handed down throughout the ages from people who knew very little to people who know even less." The speaker in Patchett's novel  is Dr. Swenson, who has devoted her life to medical research in Amazonia.

With enough time, enough people and enough gossip, it was possible to make some notable medical discoveries. Many of the remedies found and passed on in this way are still in use today.

Even now many of us use gossip to pass along medical information, although in an age when reliable medical information is readily available through official sources, such gossip is probably not as helpful as it once was.

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