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Doctrine of Signatures: An Explanation of Medicinal Plant Discovery or Dissemination of Knowledge?

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The Doctrine of Signatures (DOS) is found throughout the world. Most scholars dismiss it as a “primitive” or “prescientific” idea. Despite its long history, the doctrine has had little critical review. A careful evaluation of signatures suggests four things. (1) There is no evidence that morphological plant signatures ever led to the discovery of medicinal properties. Considering DOS in this manner is unproductive and largely untestable. (2) Signatures are post hoc attributions rather than a priori clues to the utility of medicinal plants. (3) It is productive to redefine signatures to include organoleptic properties associated with therapeutic value. Plants with strong odors or bitter tastes, for example, commonly are found in pharmacopoeias. (4) DOS should be considered for what it primarily is—a way of disseminating information. DOS fundamentally is a mnemonic and, therefore, is exceedingly valuable in traditional cultures.
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... More specifically, in this article, we will discuss the phenomenological dimension of our results in the light of "ecological apparency" [25,26] and "sensory apparency" [2] hypotheses, and to which we add our own novel concept of "ethological apparency. " We approach epistemology in our analysis proposing a critique and an update to the predominance of folk taxonomy in classic ethnobiological studies [24,[27][28][29][30][31][32][33], focusing instead on the principle of resemblance as a criterion for inferences about affinities between organisms [33][34][35][36] and cultural use categories [37][38][39]. The ontological perspective in anthropology, in its turn, has criticized the universality of the Western nature-culture dichotomy, especially in relation to non-Western or indigenous systems of thinking [15,[40][41][42]. ...
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... Eventually, the use of this species could also be related to the important suberization of its bark, which may symbolically be associated with the regeneration of the skin (Odonne et al., 2011(Odonne et al., , 2017. Confronting physiological or anatomical properties of the plant and the disease perceived characteristics is indeed consistent with a widely found way of memorizing and disseminating information among traditional cultures (Bennett, 2007). Complementary, the perceived toxicity of this species could also be investigated, as its extracts exhibited noticeable effect on one of the tested cell lines. ...
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... Eventually, the use of this species could also be related to the important suberization of its bark, which may symbolically be associated with the regeneration of the skin (Odonne et al., 2011(Odonne et al., , 2017. Confronting physiological or anatomical properties of the plant and the disease perceived characteristics is indeed consistent with a widely found way of memorizing and disseminating information among traditional cultures (Bennett, 2007). Complementary, the perceived toxicity of this species could also be investigated, as its extracts exhibited noticeable effect on one of the tested cell lines. ...
Article
Ethnopharmacological relevance: Leishmaniasis are widely distributed among tropical and subtropical countries, and remains a crucial health issue in Amazonia. Indigenous groups across Amazonia have developed abundant knowledge about medicinal plants related to this pathology. Aim of the study: We intent to explore the weight of different pharmacological activities driving taxa selection for medicinal use in Amazonian communities. Our hypothesis is that specific activity against Leishmania parasites is only one factor along other (anti-inflammatory, wound healing, immunomodulating, antimicrobial) activities. Materials and methods: The twelve most widespread plant species used against leishmaniasis in Amazonia, according to their cultural and biogeographical importance determined through a wide bibliographical survey (475 use reports), were selected for this study. Plant extracts were prepared to mimic their traditional preparations. Antiparasitic activity was evaluated against promastigotes of reference and clinical New-World strains of Leishmania (L. guyanensis, L. braziliensis and L. amazonensis) and L. amazonensis intracellular amastigotes. We concurrently assessed the extracts immunomodulatory properties on PHA-stimulated human PBMCs and RAW264.7 cells, and on L. guyanensis antigens-stimulated PBMCs obtained from Leishmania-infected patients, as well as antifungal activity and wound healing properties (human keratinocyte migration assay) of the selected extracts. The cytotoxicity of the extracts against various cell lines (HFF1, THP-1, HepG2, PBMCs, RAW264.7 and HaCaT cells) was also considered. The biological activity pattern of the extracts was represented through PCA analysis, and a correlation matrix was calculated. Results: Spondias mombin L. bark and Anacardium occidentale L. stem and leaves extracts displayed high anti-promatigotes activity, with IC50 ≤ 32 µg/mL against L. guyanensis promastigotes for S. mombin and IC50 of 67 and 47 µg/mL against L. braziliensis and L. guyanensis promastigotes, respectively, for A. occidentale. In addition to the antiparasitic effect, antifungal activity measured against C. albicans and T. rubrum (MIC in the 16 - 64 µg/mL range) was observed. However, in the case of Leishmania amastigotes, the most active species were Bixa orellana L. (seeds), Chelonantus alatus (Aubl.) Pulle (leaves), Jacaranda copaia (Aubl.) D. Don. (leaves) and Plantago major L. (leaves) with CI50 < 20 µg/mL and infection rates of 14 - 25% compared to the control. Concerning immunomodulatory activity, P. major and B. orellana were highlighted as the most potent species for the wider range of cytokines in all tested conditions despite overall contrasting results depending on the model. Most of the species led to moderate to low cytotoxic extracts except for C. alatus, which exhibited strong cytotoxic activity in almost all models. None of the tested extracts displayed wound healing properties. Conclusions: We highlighted pharmacologically active extracts either on the parasite or on associated pathophysiological aspects, thus supporting the hypothesis that antiparasitic activities are not the only biological factor useful for antileishmanial evaluation. This result should however be supplemented by in vivo studies, and attracts once again the attention on the importance of the choice of biological models for an ethnophamacologically consistent study. Moreover, plant cultural importance, ecological status and availability were discussed in relation with biological results, thus contributing to link ethnobotany, medical anthropology and biology.
... Thus, the observation of the effect of exudates healing wound of plants and the similarity with the exudation of human or animal wounds could be related to their wide acceptance as terapeutic resources. Bennett (2007), in his very interesting article, discusses this theory, which has an invaluable anthropological significance. ...
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