Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics I


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

As first discussed in this previous post, Dr. Randy Jirtle makes the provocative assertion that epigenetics presents a unique possibility for unifying the life sciences. Jirtle then suggests that epigenetics also provides a bridge between the social and the life sciences. I believe that the epigenetics presents another possibility for unification in still yet another domain: environmental ethics.

Environmental ethics is the study of the moral relationship of human beings to our natural environments. There are a number of different orientations within environmental ethics—individualism versus holism, intrinsic versus instrumental value, extensionism, sentientism, shallow versus deep ecology, biocentrism, ecocentrism, pragmatism, and so on. In the end, though, all these ethical perspectives, for all their myriad differences, ultimately revolve around two basic poles: anthropocentricism (prioritizing the wants and needs of humans over non-humans) and non-anthropocentricism (prioritizing the wants and needs of non-humans).

These two ethical orientations appear to be obviously and fundamentally irreconcilable. In this post, however, I propose the reconciliation of these seemingly irreconcilable orientations through epigenetics.

Epigenetics is just one aspect of what is being called the Extended Synthesis,[1] which is the updating of current evolutionary and developmental theory often referred to as the Modern Synthesis. Despite its venerable history and contemporary hegemony, a growing number of shortcomings and outright failures of the Modern Synthesis have recently been identified which challenge its seemingly unshakable foundations (e.g., “somatic mosaicism” discussed here). Given the prevalence of the discourses of genetics and evolution in contemporary life, these substantial challenges to the Modern Synthesis have significant consequences for our conceptions of what it means to be human, and what is our place in—and ethical obligation to—the rest of the world in which we live. Thus, the main purpose of this post is to highlight the implications for environmental ethics of epigenetics.

From a scientific perspective, the central ‘dogma’ of modern genetics as enunciated by Nobel laureate Francis Crick [2] is that information can emanate out of DNA but not back into the DNA; in other words, at a fundamental level modern genetics only allows a very narrow and limited human-environment interaction which excludes the immediate environment and ecology as causal factors in evolution. Likewise, both the anthropocentric and the non-anthropocentric orientations of environmental ethics are constructed upon the uniquely Western philosophical concept of the self [3] which also presupposes as distinct a separation between this self and its environment as does modern genetics.

What is not well known, though, is that both the science-based Modern Synthesis of genetics and evolution and the philosophy-based modern Western concept of self share the same intellectual history and thus share many of the same basic ontological commitments. For this reason, tracing the history of the modern Western philosophical conception of self traces important aspects of the history of the Modern Synthesis as well, and vice versa. For the same reason, just as epigenetics presents such fundamental challenges to our understanding of evolution and of the function of genes, epigenetics likewise challenges many of our most deeply held traditional philosophical and ethical ideals.

A Brief History of the Self

The noted anthropologist Clifford Geertz is widely known for his work on different conceptions of personhood.  Geertz describes the uniquely Western view of the self as referring to “a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background.”[4]  What is important about this description of the self in the context of this post is that this language is quite similar to the language used to describe the nature of genes and their influence in the Modern Synthesis, which speaks to the ancestry shared by the self and the gene.  Again, this shared ancestry has important consequences for environmental ethics.

There is a long history of how this concept of self was formed, which also demonstrates just how much the discourses of the Modern Synthesis are indebted to the evolution of the self in Western thought.  To wit, Geertz also writes that however obvious and self-evident this construal of a bounded individual self may seem to us Westerners, it is actually “a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.”[5] For example, in an analysis of the historical evolution of the notion of personhood in human thought, the sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss contrasts this modern Western idea of a bounded self with the ultimately boundless self elaborated in the ancient Upanishads, the philosophical basis of what became both Hinduism and Buddhism.[6] In the Upanishads, any references to an individualized self are ultimately subsumed within all that is so that there is no ultimate separation between the self and everything else. This identification of the self as both a subject that observes and as a part of the object that is observed [i.e., nature and ultimate reality] has been called the “one great contribution to human thought” from the Upanishads.[7]

This ultimate dissolution of the self within a greater whole is particularly relevant in the context of this post because of the different environmental ethics that result from different concepts of the self. If there is no distinction between the self and the environment (or the internal and the external), the ethical obligations are significantly different than if there are these distinct boundaries. As writes another commentator on this concept of self in the Upanishads, “the harmony between man and nature and the unity of both with the intelligible source seemed to be the motive for this identification. The chief merit of this identification was that the whole universe was traced to one unifying principle and the phenomenal world was not dichotomized into nature and man.”[8]

However, environmental ethics as currently conceived are not based on a holistic idea of self, but rather the insular uniquely Western self mentioned before premised upon clear separations between humans and non-humans, and between humans and nature. Even the nonanthropocentric ethics are also based on the same dichotomizations of human selves and nature as the anthropocentric viewpoints, and so the ostensible differences between these two perspectives are not as drastic as they first appear. Likewise, for all the reasons discussed above, any contributions from modern genetics to these environmental ethics reinforce these same basic distinctions; at the very least, modern genetics does nothing to challenge the ethical distinctions drawn between what is human (and just what is internal) versus what is nature (or external). Again, this is not surprising given the common ontological roots of both the modern concept of self and the insular central assumption of contemporary genetics.

However, the results emerging from epigenetics do at once challenge both the scientific boundaries asserted by genetics, and the philosophical boundaries upon which contemporary environmental ethics are constructed. These findings from epigenetics link us as humans ever more tightly to each other and the environments in which we live and act, in many cases even erasing many of the boundaries we have constructed between ourselves and our environments. This ever tighter coupling of ourselves with our environments and with each other as revealed via epigenetics precipitates a fundamental reconceptualization of our basic political and environmental obligations.

As discussed here, the father of modern epigenetics C.H. Waddington also highlights this dichotomization of organism and environment as evidence again of the “exaggerated atomism” which is the “gravest defect” not just of modern genetics but of modern science as a whole. Because in the end “organism and environment are not two separate things,” Waddington optimistically proposes epigenetics as a means of “healing” this unwarranted and ultimately unscientific separation of ourselves from our environments.[7] In this way, as the means of healing this rift, epigenetics has its significant implications for environmental ethics and, ultimately, for environmental policies.

Subsequent posts will discuss this common intellectual heritage between contemporary genetics and the modern conception of self in more detail, and further develop the ethical implications of the challenges to both from epigenetics.

I am curious to hear what you think so far. 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.

[1] Pigluicci, M. and G. Muller. 2010. Evolution: The Extended Synthesis. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[2] Crick, F. 1970. “Central Dogma of Molecular Biology.” Nature 227: 561-563.

[3] Cheney, J. 1989. The Neo-Stoicism of Radical Environmentalism. Environmental Ethics, 11(4), 293-325; Weston, A. 1996. Before Environmental Ethics. In E. Katz, & A. Light (Eds.), Environmental Pragmatism. New York: Routledge:139-160.

[4] Geertz, C. (1975). From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding. American Scientist, 63, 47-53.

[5] Geertz, C. (1975). From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding. American Scientist, 63, 47-53.

[6] Mauss, M. 1985. A category of the human mind: the notion of person; the notion of self. In The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History. New York: Cambridge University Press:1-25.

[7] Lanman, C. 1897. The Message of the World’s Religions – V. Brahmanism. In L. Abbott (Ed.), The Outlook (Vol. 56). New York: The Outlook Company: 789-792.

[8] Mathur, D. C. 1972. The Concept of Self in the Upanishads: An Alternative Interpretation. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 32(3), 390-396.

[9] Waddington C.H. (1953). The strategy of the genes. London: George Allen & Unwin: xi; 188-9.


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