Epigenetics as a Bridge Between the Natural and the Social Sciences?

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by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

As I say in the introductory page of this blog, my interest in epigenetics is both in the science but also in the historical, political and philosophical aspects of epigenetics. However, while the science is already extensively discussed and debated in academic journals and the blogosphere, these other more political and philosophical implications of epigenetics are not yet being addressed to the extent they warrant given the scope of epigenetics. As discussed below, epigenetics provides a unique bridge between the natural and the social sciences for unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary cooperation. As I say in the tagline to this blog, I am setting up this blog as a place to conduct these next-level discussions.

Luckily, I am not alone in recognizing the need for such discussions. Randy Jirtle, one of the most prominent epigeneticists working today, also recognizes this bridging capacity of epigenetics.

In this video Q&A, Jirtle notes the expansive reach of epigenetics and its ability to unify the natural and life sciences, observing that “the umbrella of epigenetics basically covers in effect every biological field we have – every one of them,” and that “epigenetics isn’t simply influencing the way we study biology—it is in fact becoming biology. That is the beauty of epigenetics. It is inseparable from the study of life.” Jirtle concludes the video with his prediction that “at some point, we will not even really have a field of epigenetics because you will not be able to do biological research without doing this, so it might not even have a name any more; its just biological research.”

In this Q&A with Jirtle posted by Nancy Barrand of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Jirtle also remarks upon the explosion of interest in epigenetics in the sciences (a topic I have also addressed in this post and this post), observing that “the field of epigenetics is growing exponentially with the number of papers published in this field doubling about every three years—a rate that is three times that for science in general.” Jirtle locates the impetus for this exponential growth of interest in epigenetics in its inclusive nature as “increasing numbers of scientists from other disciplines, such as epidemiology, neurobiology, psychiatry, psychology, and the social sciences, are realizing the critical importance of environmental epigenomics in human health and disease,” and that as a result “over 12,000 papers were published this past year in epigenetics, many of which described the social and behavioral aspects of epigenetic programming.”

What do you think: Is epigenetics capable of unifying the biological sciences and the social sciences? If so, what would it take? If not, why not? In this post, I compare the publication rate of articles on epigenetics in the sciences and academia with the rate of exposure in the mass media and observe a significant lag. What will it take for awareness of epigenetics to crossover from the sciences to the general public? Finally, to paraphrase Karl Marx, does epigenetics contain the seeds of its own destruction in that eventually the field of epigenetics itself will disappear and become the backbone of the biological sciences?

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

Also, if you find these thoughts I’ve shared interesting and worthwhile, Like this post, Reblog it, or Tweet about it using the buttons below.

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