Professor parallels plant genes, humans

Rachel Thompson

The plant kingdom has been a source of inspiration for the management of the human population, said Lesley Stern, a professor at the University of California in San Diego.

Stern spoke to the Department of Anthropology on Monday as part of this year’s seminar series, titled “Sensorium: Anthropology and the Senses.” Her lecture focused on connections between plant genetics and views of the human gene pool.

“Anthropology is a very diverse field,” said anthropology assistant professor Craig Campbell. “One of our concerns is to figure out how to link these disciplines.”

Campbell said this year’s lecture series focuses on keeping students actively engaged and considering the five senses, common points of linkage throughout the individual areas of study within anthropology.

Stern’s lecture focused not only on the sensory experiences we have through color but also on the ways that color relates to plants and humans. She discussed at length the vibrant colors of the sweet pea plant and the many genetic principles formulated from careful studies of the plant.

One major issue discussed by Stern was the parallel between plants and human ideas surrounding natives and immigrants. She discussed the ugly sides of modernity and globalization.

“I’ve always been interested in gardening, and I became very interested in these terms: ‘native’ and ‘exotic,’” Stern said. “I started writing [about] a parallel track of what was happening in my garden and what was happening in the United States and thinking of migration and immigration in terms of plants and people.”

Stern connected her discussion of native versus exotic plants to one eugenicist’s paralleled debate about immigrants as good or “bad stock.” She said Charles Goethe, a Californian eugenicist — a scientist who supports the idea of a perfect gene pool — advocated strict border patrol to keep out potential threats to the purity of the American gene pool.

However, Stern said not all eugenicists have the same negative views of immigration as Goethe did. She mentioned Luther Burbank, another eugenicist who also saw an analogy between plants and people but had more humanitarian views on how to treat immigrants.

Department of Anthropology chairwoman Kathleen Stewart said this discussion of plants brings up issues relevant to human life.

“There’s [a mix of] naturalistic and racial realities,” Stewart said. “It becomes an interesting depiction of forms of living, of how things happen, of how decisions are made.”