Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics III: Genetics and the Rise of Christianity


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics I

Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics II

Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics IV

The previous section established the historical foundations of the concept of the autonomous ‘self’ upon which are constructed both modern ethics and contemporary genetics. This section will continue the historical elaboration of this concept, focusing on the influence of theological metaphysics on what becomes our modern notion of this self, which is the common thread between the challenges of epigenetics to genetics and to conventional ethics.

That epigenetics challenges conventional genetics is already well known and well travelled ground; that epigenetics also challenges our conventional ethics is not as well known. This topic is better suited to a book-length treatment, so the coverage in these few posts is perfunctory at best. My intention in this series of posts, though, is to provide at least a glimpse of how and why epigenetics constitutes such a fundamental challenge to both conventional genetics and conventional ethics (exemplified in this case by environmental ethics).

Science-based doubts about the claims of epigenetics are fair game, and can and should be addressed through scientific methods; but as discussed here and here and here, much of the denial of and antagonism towards epigenetics of the past decades and even today can hardly be characterized as neutral and science-based. If this hostility towards epigenetics is not based in science, then where does this hostility come from? Identifying the origin of this non-scientific hostility towards epigenetics is the purpose of these posts.

As discussed in previous posts and as will be discussed in subsequent posts, one of the reasons epigenetics poses such a significant challenge to genetics—and provokes the disproportionately hostile reactions cataloged here and here—is because the nature of the phenomena described by epigenetics also challenges our deeply ingrained conventional ethical systems. For these reasons, and given the deep common intellectual heritage between the modern self and the modern genome described in this series of posts, much of the seemingly moral outrage against epigenetics is in fact a form of moral outrage—though it is hardly ever recognized as such.[1]

The previous post ended with the classical Roman legal concept of a person as distinct from things that can be owned by persons, and of a self composed of both a reasoning/moral capacity and a physical body which is directed in some way by this capacity. The relationship assumed to exist between persons and their surroundings is obviously an important component of environmental ethics. Our contemporary perceptions of human personhood are defined in part in distinction from our environments. These perceptions feel so obvious and self-evident to us as to be beyond question, but there is no ontological necessity to them; rather, as evidenced by the environmental ethics from the Upanishads referenced here, they are contingent on a whole tangled nest of propositions and assumptions established through a long intellectual and physical history. This series of posts lays out the framework of the nest of assumptions which underlies both our contemporary environmental ethics and modern genetics, which is why epigenetics constitutes such fundamental challenges to both.

However, the realization of the modern self upon which our ethics are based still requires its current metaphysical foundation (which provides the philosophical roots of this modern self), as well as its physical explanation (which provides the root of the gene or genome as an embodiment of this individual self). Both of these were provided—paradoxically enough, especially in the case of the science-based genome—through the scholastic theology of the Middle Ages, which combined different concepts from the ancient Greeks, classical Roman thought and a very specific form of Christianity.

Given the conception of the human ‘self’ as the center of reasoning and individuality as formulated by the classical Romans, the missing ingredient for the unity of attributes which we now call the modern self is provided by the emergence of Christianity in the Roman Empire. In his analysis of the history of personhood, Marcel Mauss identifies evidence of the trend towards unification of these different components into one self in the decision of the Council of Nicea (AD 325), which pronounced the unity of the three persons of the Trinity into one.[2] Mauss doesn’t mention it, but the decision of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), which pronounced as official church doctrine the hypostatic nature of Christ as composed of both spiritual and physical natures in one person is perhaps even stronger evidence of this tendency.[3] Regardless, these ecclesiastical decisions were either pivotal in or indicative of a trend towards consolidation of multiple natures into one personality distinct from its environments and other personalities, eventually resulting in the modern bounded, integrated, distinctly individualized self which factors so prominently in both contemporary ethics and in the science of the Modern Synthesis of genetics and evolution.

The culmination of the combination of 1) the Roman legalistic conception of persons as separate from each other and their things, and 2) the gradual addition of a moral consciousness (or what became the soul or mind), and 3) these doctrinal pronouncements regarding the unification of seemingly disparate parts into wholes was accomplished by Boethius (AD 480 to AD 524). Boethius—a particularly pivotal figure as “the last of the Roman philosophers, and the first of the scholastic theologians”[4]—provided the definitive description of a person as a naturæ rationalis individua substantia, or “an individual substance of a rational nature”[5]  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, in this official doctrinal definition of ‘person,’ naturae is a collection of properties specific to a species, rationalis indicates a uniquely human cognitive faculty, by individua is meant that which cannot be further subdivided; and substantia refers to substance in a metaphysical sense, by which is meant those things which exist in their own right, which excludes accidental causes (as Boethius also wrote, “we see that accidents cannot constitute a person”). In other words, by this point in history a human person was becoming defined as an irreducible individual substance distinguished from all other individual substances by the possession of uniquely human qualities, and insulated from accidental influences from the environment—which description is again reminiscent of how genes are described.[6]

The next step that is crucially important in establishing the connection between the modern self and the genome, and which helps to explain why epigenetics constitutes such a challenge to both conventional genetics and ethics, is the elaboration of the soul and its relation to the body, principally through the scholastic theology of Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225 to AD 1274). This will be discussed in the next section. It may seem odd that theological debates from the Middle Ages would contribute anything to contemporary genetics—ethics, sure, but the assertion that philosophy has had any such influence on science likely stretches credulity for most—but such is the case, as will be shown.

Again, this topic is better suited to a book-length treatment, so the coverage in these few posts is perfunctory at best, but hopefully I am able to sketch out these important connections between our conventional ethics, contemporary genetics, and the hostility towards epigenetics. And hopefully explaining the source of some of these other-than scientific objections towards epigenetics will help those engaged in epigenetics research and the policy discussions to present their results and recommendations in ways that make them more palatable to those not familiar with this historical background.

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] I want to be clear, though, that I am not saying that the concept of the self and the physical genome are the same (i.e., that the self is located in the genome, etc.), only that because of this common intellectual heritage they share many fundamental similarities in how they are described,and that these similarities help to explain why epigenetics is now perceived as such a threat.

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

[3] Martin Lembke, lecture in the course “Meetings with the World’s Religions”, Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, Spring Term 2010.

[4] Boethius. The Theological Tractates. London: William Heinemann, 1918. x.

[5] Boethius. The Theological Tractates. London: William Heinemann, 1918. Chapter 3.

[6] Catholic Encyclopedia Online < http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=9193>.

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