Dr. Anthony Ryan Hatch on Metabolic Dominance for 1960 Scholars Lecture

Pictured: The lecture poster.

Dr. Anthony Ryan Hatch, associate professor and Chair of the Science in Society Program at Wesleyan University, presented his talk “Fighting Metabolic Dominance: Theories and Strategies for Regime Change” on March 8 as part of the Class of 1960 lectures in Environmental Studies. Hatch offered his thoughts on breaking free of “metabolic dominance” in society, or the pervasive idea that the human metabolism can be captured and manipulated in various ways, often to surpass the body’s biological limits or attribute certain phenomena to genetics.

Hatch’s theorization of metabolic dominance, which he is currently researching along with undergraduate student researchers in Black Box Labs, an experimental research and training lab in the Science and Society Program at Wesleyan, (embed website link?)along with two undergraduate students at his institution, finds its etymological and conceptual roots in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) 2002 military biomedical program. The “Metabolic Dominance” project aimed to develop ways that humans could “overcome biological limits imposed by their environment,” Hatch said. This “supersoldier” has a lessened need to eat, sleep, breathe, or rest, the successful domination and capitulation of the human metabolism.

The scientific interest in dissecting and controlling the metabolism has existed long before DARPA’s project, however, and is one based on structures and technologies of captivity and carcerality. Hatch’s research explored “metabolic cages, which” emerged in the mid-1900s as a way for researchers to control and observe the consumption, waste, and activity of small primates and other animals.

“This is a measurement tool of scienticized living,” he said. “[It asks] What happens when you put an animal in a cage and control its every move?”

Hatch argued that the prison system functions as a metabolic cage, wherein individuals are held against their will, fed and watered according to a schedule, and allowed or restricted exercise or activity. New technologies like vitamins and supplements that provide dense calories or reduce aggression are of particular interest to prisons in order to reduce food costs and infighting and speak more directly to the idea of metabolic dominance.

He expanded the idea of metabolic dominance to explain how it helps biomedical researchers to attribute certain medical phenomena to internal biomarkers instead of social conditions and physical factors, obscuring their racialized foundation. Hatch noted that scientific attempts to isolate and measure the metabolism often relied solely on race, ignoring gender, income, geography, and other important factors. As a result, empirical research frequently came to incomplete or false conclusions about inherent metabolic qualities on a racial basis. In this way, metabolic dominance is a racialized project that uses race and ethnicity under the guise of genetics to “explain differences of all kinds.”

More expansively, Hatch viewed metabolic dominance as a significant system and idea in society that is perpetuated by capitalism, racism, sexism, and nationalism. Food and drugs, which metabolic dominance pushes through the body, seeks to diminish or expand the body’s dependency on, offer a glimpse of global power relations. Hatch argued that these regimes – “historically contingent political and economic structures and technoscientific practices” – provide a view of where power lies. Tracking the organization and “production, consumption, and waste”  of pharmaceuticals and food shows where power is concentrated or lost, and where metabolic dominance functions most effectively as a hegemonic structure.

Hatch closed his presentation by considering how metabolic dominance can be resisted. “Who benefits the system? Who wins?” he asked. To advance ethical research, scientists must break free of their occasional corporate ties and predisposition to genetically racialized assumptions. Imagining new theories and strategies for such a regime change away from metabolic dominance is difficult but possible when power is assessed and named.

Hatch is a sociologist and Associate Professor and Chair of the Science in Society Program at Wesleyan University where he is also affiliated faculty in the Department of African American Studies, the College of the Environment, and the Department of Sociology. He is the author of Silent Cells: The Secret Drugging of Captive America (Minnesota, 2019) and Blood Sugar: Racial Pharmacology and Food Justice in Black America (Minnesota, 2016). He recently appeared in the PBS documentary Blood Sugar Rising and lectures widely on health systems, medical technology, and social inequalities. He is a co-lead in the Sydney Center for Healthy Societies, a member of the Health and Social Equities Hub at King’s College London, and is a fellow in The Hastings Center. Dr. Hatch received the 2022 Robin W. Williams Distinguished Lectureship Award from the Eastern Sociological Society.

Dr. Hatch also serves on several scientific advisory boards including the Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Discovery Advisory Group and the Community Development Community Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. He is on the editorial boards of Science, Technology & Human Values and the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.

He is currently co-leader on the Race, Ethnicity, and Biohumanities theme in the Sydney Center for Healthy Societies and a member of the Health and Social Equities Hub at King’s College London. Dr. Hatch received the 2022 Robin W. Williams Distinguished Lectureship Award from the Eastern Sociological Society. Read more here.


This lecture was sponsored by the Class of 1960 Scholars Program in Environmental Studies