History, Part II: Epigenetics and the Politics of Science


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

As discussed in the previous post in this series, if epigenetics had been accepted into the mainstream of genetics at this early stage of its development, epigenetics likely would have been incorporated into the overall theoretical structure of genetics without too much disruption.  Instead, for many years the field of modern genetics disqualified epigenetics as an invalid description of evolution and biological development.  If this disqualification of epigenetics was based on primarily scientific grounds, the implications for policy of epigenetics as a scientifically discredited field would be significantly – and perhaps justifiably – discredited as well; however, if the reasons for this disqualification were primarily non-scientific, and epigenetics actually has a demonstrable basis in legitimate science, the potential impacts on policy of the recent emergence of epigenetics merits significant attention.

If science is conceived as a relatively value-neutral process of evidence gathering and hypothesis-testing, this disqualification of epigenetics is nothing more than the inevitable and necessary and justifiable result of the progressive march of science.[1]  However, according to more nuanced accounts of science like those offered by Paul Feyerabend[2] and Arthur Koestler,[3] sciences develop as they do for both scientific and not so scientific reasons.  If the history of genetics were an example of the former, epigenetics would be merely another obscure and now obsolete theory like the phlogiston theory in physics,[4] and therefore justifiably excluded from serious policy discussions.  If epigenetics is a case of the latter, though, and was disqualified for other than scientific reasons, then epigenetics could constitute a legitimate science-based challenge to modern genetics, with all-new implications of its own for public policies.

As will be shown, the history of genetics and epigenetics is described much better by the Feyerabendian view of science as a hodgepodge of scientific and non-scientific motivations rather than as a dispassionate process of generating value-neutral knowledge, which is why epigenetics is just now emerging as a significant new influence in policy.  The relevance of this non-neutral development of scientific discourses will be discussed in much more detail in subsequent posts, but the overall point is that genetics – with its longstanding exclusion of epigenetics – is no exception to this historico-political description of the evolution of scientific discourses.[5]

In a recent paper on C.H. Waddington (the ostensible father of modern epigenetics) and the history of epigenetics, Scott Gilbert discusses some of the academic, political and historical contingencies which in addition to any scientific motivations contributed to the exclusion of epigenetics from modern Western genetics and evolutionary thought.[6]

Academically, Gilbert writes, the fields of genetics and embryology – which was where most of the work on epigenetics was being done in the early to mid 20th century – had been gradually separated beginning in the mid-1920s.  The split was along the lines of focus: Genetics and geneticists focused on the transmission of hereditary traits, while embryology and embryologists focused on the expression of those traits.[7]  As an indication of the state of affairs between the two fields at this time, in an address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1937 the embryologist R.G. Harrison warned his colleagues that “now that the necessity of relating the data of genetics to embryology is generally recognized…the ‘Wanderlust’ of geneticists is beginning to urge them in our direction,” and asked whether “it may not be inappropriate to point out a danger in this threatened invasion.”[8]  In other words, embryologists were suspicious about the appropriateness of the methods of genetics for addressing developmental questions and about the imperialistic motivations of geneticists themselves, so in many ways the split between the fields appears to have been a sort of mutual decision.

One practical reason for this schism, according to Waddington, is that of the two fields genetics benefited from much simpler causal mechanisms which allowed for more straightforward experimental protocols, which facilitated experimental work in – and therefore more results from – genetics.[9]  Further, according to Gilbert, embryologists at this time “were not so much interested in genes” because from their perspective if all cells had the same genes, then genes could not be what caused the differences between cell types.[10]  Instead, in the words of one prominent embryologist of the time, “the embryologist…is more concerned with the larger changes in the whole organism and its primitive systems of organs than with the lesser qualities associated with gene action,” or, more succinctly, that embryologists were “more interested in how the embryo made a back than in the formation of the bristles on the back.”[11]

Regardless, genetics emerged out of this schism as the more prominent and respected discipline, in large part – according to Gilbert – because of the influence of the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist T.H. Morgan (1866-1945).  Although Morgan was at first opposed to Darwinian natural selection, through books like The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity (1915) and Evolution and Genetics (1925) he was instrumental in eventually synthesizing genetics with natural selection, and in enforcing the split between epigenetics and genetics.[12]  Morgan was also incredibly influential in promoting the preeminence of genetics from his prestigious academic positions at Columbia University and Caltech and as president of numerous scientific associations during this time. [13]

In addition to these methodological and academic motivations behind the split between genetics and embryology which influenced the subsequent development of each, geopolitical factors also played a significant role in this ever-widening gulf. In fact, the politics and world events of the time perhaps exerted an even stronger influence on the antipathy directed against epigenetics for so long, which contributes to why epigenetics is just now emerging as a legitimate field of research.

I am curious to hear what you think. Leave your comments below and I will respond.

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Next: Epigenetics and the Dustbin of History

Previous: A Brief History of Epigenetics

[1] Aronson, J.L., Harré, R. and Way, E.C. (1994). Realism Rescued: How Scientific Progress is Possible. London: Duckworth; Niiniluoto, I. (1980). “Scientific Progress.” Synthese 45, 427–464; Niiniluoto, I. (1984). Is Science Progressive? Dordrecht: D. Reidel; Niiniluoto, I. (1995). “Is There Progress in Science?,” in H. Stachowiak (ed.), Pragmatik, Handbuch pragmatischen Denkens, Band V. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, pp. 30–58.

[2] Feyerabend, P. (1988). Against method (Rev. ed.). London: Verso.

[3] Koestler, A. (1968). The sleepwalkers ([1st American ed.). New York: Macmillan.

[4] Conant, J. B. (1950). The overthrow of the phlogiston theory; the chemical revolution of 1775-1789. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[5] Foucault, M., & Bertani, M. (2003). Society must be defended: lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76. New York: Picador.

[6] Gilbert, S. F. (2012). Commentary: ‘The Epigenotype’ by C.H. Waddington. International Journal of Epidemiology, 41(1), 20-23.

[7] Morgan T.H. (1934). Embryology and Genetics. New York, NY: Columbia University Press; Gilbert, S.F. (1988). Cellular politics: Ernest Everett Just, Richard B. Goldschmidt, and the attempt to reconcile embryology and genetics. In Rainger R, Benson KR, Maienschein J. (eds) The American Development of Biology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[8] Harrison R.G. 1937. Embryology and its relations. Science 85:369–74.

[9] Waddington C.H. (1942). The epigenotype. Endeavour 1: 18.

[10] Gilbert, S. F. (2012). Commentary: ‘The Epigenotype’ by C.H. Waddington. International Journal of Epidemiology, 41(1), 20-23.

[11] Harrison R.G. (1937). Embryology and its relations. Science 85:369–74.

[12] Morgan, Thomas Hunt, A.H. Sturtevant, H.J. Muller and C.B. Bridges. 1915. The Mechanism of Mendelian Heredity. New York: Henry Holt; Hunt, Thomas. 1916. A Critique of the Theory of Evolution. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press; Hunt, Thomas. 1925. Evolution and Genetics. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

[13] Kandel, E.. “Thomas Hunt Morgan at Columbia University: Genes, Chromosomes, and the Origins of Modern Biology.” Living Legacies. Columbia University, n.d. Web. 11 June 2014. <http://www.columbia.edu/cu/alumni/Magazine/Legacies/Morgan/&gt;.


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