When it Comes to Epigenetics, How Much Fun is Too Much? Comment and Reply

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by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

This post began as a simple reply to a comment from Alison M to this post about epigenetics and drug discovery, but suddenly bloomed into a full-fledged post of its own. Below is Alison M’s original comment in italics for purely aesthetic purposes, followed by my reply (and I think Alison is actually responding to more than one post here, including this one about epigenetics as a possible bridge between the sciences):

TBH, I don’t think that combining the fields [genomics and epigenetics], at least at this point, would be beneficial to either. Both are still in discovery, and the known mechanisms of action of genetics and epigenetics are different enough that they might not ever be appropriately combined. Epigenetics needs to be better presented, especially to the public, so that it doesn’t fall prey so much to magical thinkers – not only for the sake of understanding, but also so that its legitimacy can be embraced by other scientific fields.

In this, some researchers do themselves no favors. Even Dr. Jirtle has some articles on his site that present ideas that look more like speculation than hypotheses. These are good for getting attention, but what I see among laypeople as a result is the wrong kind of attention. Bruce-Lipton-level wrong kind of attention.

Thanks to Alison M for taking the time to post her comments.

First, I definitely appreciate her point about both fields still being in discovery mode, and how the known mechanisms of both genetics and epigenetics are possibly different enough to defy unification even in the future when they have both ‘matured’ so to speak. However, one of the questions I still have about this integration of epigenetics and genetics is ‘But why not?’ (How is that for an emotional/unscientific reply? Having said that, I think I have more than merely emotional responses to support this question)

In this post and this post I discuss the first divergence of epigenetics and genetics in the 1920s, which had both scientific and less-than-scientific components to it, and in this post and this post I discuss some of the political (i.e., non-scientific) reasons for the subsequent…stigmatization (for lack of a better word) of epigenetics until fairly recently. My question through all of these posts is what if these circumstances were different during these  pivotal times?

Just as biological evolution can take many different trajectories depending upon initial conditions and random events (e.g., killer asteroids, etc.), so can the evolution of science. Given the influence of these non-scientific influences just mentioned, it is easy to imagine alternative circumstances in which epigenetics and genetics evolved together at this relatively early stage of both their developments such that today there are no disciplinary boundaries between what we call genetics and epigenetics as Dr. Jirtle proposes. Forgive my philosophyspeak for a moment, but there are no “ontologically objective”[1] reasons that genetics and epigenetics are mutually distinct fields; in fact, there would seem to be more reasons for them being unified than being distinct fields. However, given the path dependent nature of both biological and scientific evolution as discussed here, because these fields diverged when and how they did, epigenetics now represents some pretty fundamental challenges to genetics in both methods and conclusions (e.g., transgenerational inheritance). Again, though, there is no objective reason this should be—all we know is that this is the case now.

Finally, I wholeheartedly support the suggestion that epigenetics needs to be presented better than it currently is. The core of my dissertation—soon to be made Flesh, so stay tuned—is discussion and analysis of the different narratives of epigenetics that are emerging in major media outlets. I have posted elsewhere about the impact of epigenetics in the sciences and academia relative to the mass media for public consumption, as well as about some of the current misconstruals and misinterpretations of epigenetics amongst the general public, precisely because such misconstruals bring the wrong kind of attention and distract from what epigenetics actually is and does. In my professional career—and personally, because I am just fascinated by this stuff—I am concerned with the political implications of epigenetics both in terms of policies based on epigenetics as well as the internal and external dynamics of the science of epigenetics. This is why I also think more rigorous and sound presentation of epigenetics within the scientific community and to the general public is critically important—though by no means does the careful use of terms and definitions guarantee anything, as we can all think of instances of the misappropriation of genetics despite the best efforts of geneticists, from the insipid use of genetics, such as “DNA Love Connection?”[2] to the truly scary uses, such as the eugenics movements of the early 20th century.

To this end, @EpiExperts and @EpgntxEinstein recently recommended a very cogent commentary in the form of a review of an incredibly interesting-looking book[3] on this issue of the recent popularization of epigenetics (not to mention the blog post which kicked this whole thing off). While the author of the article proposes a definition of epigenetics that is perhaps too restrictive for my tastes, I still appreciate the effort to rein in the ‘Bruce-Liptonizing’ of epigenetics as Alison M wrote in her comment (and no offense intended to Bruce Lipton, whom I do not know and who I assume is a wonderful and well-intentioned and sincere person).

In the end, although I appreciate the almost intoxicating excitement that comes from witnessing the emergence of a field of research like epigenetics, at this point more caution in the description, interpretation and popularization of epigenetics is probably better than less…but hopefully not so much caution that it takes all the fun out of it.

[1] By which is meant phenomena which are ‘observer-independent’ (from Searle, John R. The construction of social reality. Simon and Schuster, 1995: 9-10)

[2] Special thanks to @AlexisCarere for bringing this gold mine of an example of genetics gone awry to my attention

[3] Weissmann G. (2012) Epigenetics in the Age of Twitter. Bellevue Literery, New York, NY.

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4 thoughts on “When it Comes to Epigenetics, How Much Fun is Too Much? Comment and Reply

  1. Darn. Every time I open my mouth, I get in trouble! However, you drew my attention on the same day that I had read several articles romanticizing the Lamarckian potential of epigenetics – even a couple of good ones that used that hook for clickbait and then got serious well past the point that someone with confirmation bias would stop reading.

    Just as a point of information, Bruce Lipton is a biologist who tells credulous audiences that you can change your DNA with the power of thought. “Believe yourself healthy,” as it were. I regularly run into people online who buy into this, and many of them think that epigenetics is the thing that can make this work. They get all excited for the wrong reasons, and that sometimes makes it hard to get excited for the right ones.

    In fact, my first exposure to epigenetics was via people like this, which is why I regarded it as woo until I’d poked around and found the real science being done. As it is with most life sciences, most of what had been found was interesting and exciting, but not earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting, cliche-busting breakthroughs. But try to tell it to the people who WANT TO BELIEVE and expect absolute, definitive answers from science (or else it’s wrong. . .) That is definitely not fun.

    Ironically, many of the people who oppose the study of genetics because they think it’s deterministic are perfectly OK with the idea that they can blame all their problems on what their mother ate or whether they got enough love as a child because epigenetics. I recall an interview at a science festival with Dr. Jirtle and Eric Couchesne and another researcher whose name escapes me at the moment, during which the moderator kept trying to get them to talk about how we could take what we had learned from a handful of experiments on lab animals and use it to a. control our own gene expression or b. sue someone for messing our gene expression up. They very patiently tried to explain the limitations of the findings and why they were valuable on their own. Over and over and over. Most of the people discussing the talk were completely on board with the moderator, that, say, agouti mice changing their color and size in response to maternal behavior meant that forcing parents to love their children more would make us evolve into superhumans.

    I think that most sciences are vulnerable to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. The quality of science education and science journalism kind of makes that a given. Epigenetics needs to tread carefully, because it fills a need for sCAM artists to explain why their implausible treatments or products could be “scientifically proven to work.”

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  2. My spouse and I stumbled over here by a different internet address and thought I might check items out. I like what I see so i am just following you. Appear forward to checking out your web page again. cedcedfbaeek

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  3. Thanks for following and for stopping to leave a comment. There are many sources for the science of epigenetics out there, but my focus – in addition to a number of posts on the science, is on the history and politics of epigenetics. I will be posting more on the narratives of epigenetics in the mass media and on the challenges of epigenetics to our conventional politics and political philosophies over the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned for that. What brought you to my web page? Let me know of any questions you have or ideas for posts you would be interested in, and I’ll see what I can do.

    Thanks again.

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