Lawrence David was presented with an unusual project by his advisor when he was a student: to study his own feces for a full year.
By Jeffrey Billman
There’s no way to spend half an hour talking with Jenny Tung and not come away with the unmistakable sense that you’ve encountered one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet. She’ll speak quickly, words forming in a rapid-fire progression, explaining what are, to her, rudimentary concepts, but, to you—if you’re a journalist whose academic background is in social science—are strange and foreign ideas.
Yet you grasp the gravity of what she’s saying. It’s not so much the granular details that matter. What matters is the fact that the work Tung and her colleagues are doing could fundamentally change how we understand societies and health and longevity.
In September, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation named Tung, a thirty-seven-year-old evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, one of twenty-six 2019 fellows, an honor that comes with an unrestricted $625,000 “Genius” grant. (Tung was one of two North Carolinians to become a fellow this year; the other is an artist in Yancey County.)
The foundation said it awarded Tung the fellowship because her research has “important implications for human health. While associations between socially induced stress and negative health outcomes have long been observed in humans, her findings suggest there is a causal link between social and environmental adversity and poor health.”
To explain: We know that, on average, wealthier people live longer than poor people. There are a lot of potential causes: They have better health care. They smoke less. They’re more likely to exercise and have access to more nutritious foods. They’re less likely to live in environmentally hazardous neighborhoods.
Tung’s work flips our notions of causality on their heads. Sure, those factors matter. But, in studies of baboons living in the wild in Kenya and rhesus monkeys in captivity, she and her team have shown that poverty—diminished access to resources—and lower social status actually affect us on the genomic and cellular level.
In essence, the research indicates that those on lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder tend to have poorer immune systems, rendering them more susceptible to adverse health conditions and early death. And research with captive monkeys suggests that the health effects can be reversed by assigning the lower-ranking monkeys to a higher status.
That’s part of the reason why the MacArthur Foundation sees so much promise in her work.
Tung started out as an undergraduate at Duke in 1999. She planned to be a doctor, but those plans were derailed early on, when she took a course on evolution and social behavior. She was drawn to genetics and their role in quality-of-life determinants.
These things were often studied from the perspective of social sciences, she thought. Why not study them through the lens of life sciences?
“If there are direct relationships between social conditions and how our organs and tissues and cells function, then that’s a biological function,” Tung says. “That’s the framework. The how and the why.”
Unlike social sciences, life sciences allowed for experimentation and the manipulation of social environments (albeit not with humans). Here, baboons proved especially useful. They are social animals that don’t live nearly as long as humans—about eighteen years, on average. But that’s long enough to track changes in lifespan. And the baboon group in Kenya has been monitored by scientists for decades, which made it ideal for this kind of generational research.
What she’s discovered is that baboons born into early-life adversity—during droughts, or whose mothers died, or who were socially isolated—tend to live ten years less than their peers. In most cases, the cause of death isn’t clear, nor is it clear whether the baboons died for the same reason.
But what is clear, Tung says, is that “social adversity is toxic to all kinds of systems.”
The rhesus monkeys might provide a hint as to what’s going on. In lower-status and socially isolated monkeys, genes that are involved in the defense against viruses crank up, leading to molecular inflammation and eventually obliterating cells—a “defense mechanism gone wild,” as Tung puts it.
“The work we’re contributing to helps clarify a lot about how social interactions could be causal to the outcomes we care about,” she says.
There are many questions still to be answered, and the practical implications of Tung’s work still need to be developed.
A utopian future in which there are no social stressors seems unlikely, Tung says, but improving children’s social environments could have a significant effect on their long-term health. She’s also looking at the UK’s recent decision to add a Minister of Loneliness, aimed at giving isolated elderly people someone to talk to.
And she hopes her research might eventually help explain why some people seem more vulnerable to adverse conditions than others.
As for what she plans to do with the Genius money?
“My immediate plan is to try to finish this semester without drowning,” she told the INDY earlier this month. “[The grant] comes with this onus to do something. I need to think about it.”
Story originally published by Indy Weekly on Dec. 17 , 2019.