More Than Just Science I: The Challenges of Epigenetics to our Traditional Ethics


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

Part I: The Declaration of Independence

I hope that after reading the title of this post you are quite skeptical and asking yourself ‘What could epigenetics possibly have to do with the Declaration of Independence?’ By the end of this series of posts, though, you will see that the answer to this question is ‘Much more than you might think,’ though probably not how you might think.

To be clear at the outset, I am not about to propose that epigenetic events in the lives of the Founding Fathers were somehow a cause for the Declaration of Independence or anything of that sort. As discussed here and here, there are already far too many facile and misconstrued interpretations of both genetics and epigenetics, and I do not want to contribute further to the confusion about what is epigenetics.

Instead, this connection stems from the concept of personhood reflected by the language of the Declaration of Independence as a seminal statement of modern personhood, and the challenges of epigenetics to this concept of what is a person. The particular conception of personhood expressed in the Declaration of Independence, especially as it pertains to legal and political and ethical issues, is still the basis of our contemporary concept of what it means to be a person. Although well over two hundred years old, this concept of personhood to us today still feels—as stated in the Declaration itself—self-evidently true. However, as discussed here, this is not the only possible way that persons can be conceptualized and situated within their environments, nor is this particular concept of self the outcome of random processes, but rather is the product of very specific historical and cultural processes.

Given the importance of the Declaration of Independence as a seminal moment in the subsequent formation of the political and legal institutions of the United States, it represents a unique platform upon which to demonstrate the significant implications for contemporary public policies from these fundamental ethical challenges from epigenetics.  Also, the unique historical placement of the Declaration of Independence serves to indicate just how fundamental are these challenges from epigenetics.

As discussed in more depth in other posts, the mechanisms of epigenetics present a number of fundamental challenges to this historically contingent conception of personhood, particularly as challenges to the ethics derived from this definition of personhood (discussed in regards to autism and mother blaming here).  For most people the current debates over epigenetics are merely a function of differences in scientific interpretation, in particular between conventional genetics and the emerging science of epigenetics, and are therefore resolvable through scientific means; I believe that these differences in scientific interpretation actually reflect much deeper ethical commitments masquerading as scientific positions—as evidenced, for example, by the ideological uses of and reactions to epigenetics before and during the Cold War discussed here and here.  To the extent that these differences are reflective of underlying ethical commitments, these ‘scientific’ debates will not be resolvable through science at least until these underlying value judgments are acknowledged and made explicit.

Epigenetics and the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal”

These challenges of epigenetics to conventional ethics and politics are best illustrated in regards to the famous opening of the Declaration of Independence attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The most relevant clause for the purposes of this post is “that all men are created equal.” Usually this phrase is invoked to justify the extension of rights to an ever-expanding circle of claimants (i.e., if all men—now generally interpreted to mean humans—are created equal, then all those now designated as humans are therefore deserving of these unalienable rights). Instead of this usual emphasis on the definition of ‘men,’ the relevant concepts in regards to the challenges of epigenetics to our conventional ethics involve what it means to be created equal, and how this pertains to the subsequent rights to Liberty.

Thomas Jefferson did not compose these words out of thin air; rather they are a reflection of the intellectual currents of the time in which Jefferson wrote them. As discussed in previous posts, these intellectual currents themselves are the product of a long cultural history extending all the way back to the Ancient Greeks. By the time of the American Revolution, this history had produced the conception of persons born as tabula rasa (or ‘blank slates’), by which is meant that individuals are born with no prior capacities or preconceptions but rather start anew from birth, which is the root of their self-evident equality.

This idea of newborns as blank slates has its roots in Aristotle’s theories of biology and psychology as filtered through St. Thomas Aquinas’ medieval Christian theology of the soul discussed in part here, but credit for the modern incarnation of this concept is usually given to the empiricism of John Locke (1632-1704). For Locke, persons are born as “white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas,” so that all our knowledge comes only from experience. Combined with the Thomist distinction between “substances” (which exist necessarily and essentially) versus “accidents” (which accrue to substances) in regards to soul and the body,[1] this notion of a blank slate was extended to also include our physical composition so that human persons are also born free of physical influences from the environment. This mental and physical independence from preexisting circumstances is an integral aspect of the distinctly Modern view of the autonomous rational individual born with the basic identity of the human species but still free to define the content of their character.

Notably, Locke was also a significant influence on the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers.  The pivotal phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence is actually a paraphrase from Locke, as are many other parts of the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents, so much so that Locke’s political philosophy is often honored as the “foundation of liberal democracy.”[2]  Importantly, Locke’s political philosophy was interwoven with his epistemology as described above, and vice versa, such that invoking one of these aspects of Locke’s thought necessarily invokes the others.  Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson were well aware of this relationship and embraced both the political philosophy of Locke and the biological and psychological theories of personhood upon which this political philosophy was premised.

The political implications of this proposition of humans born as blank slates were literally revolutionary: If knowledge is gained only through experience, then—regardless of the circumstances into which a person is born—no one is born with special intellectual endowments.  All people are essentially born equal, and inequality only arises as a result of preexisting social and economic conditions to which the newly born had not consented. Given this lack of consent among essentially equal persons, existing social arrangements need not be taken as given but can rather be disputed and reasoned out and agreed upon through mutual consent by the parties involved.  As the neuroscientist Steven Pinker writes in his book-length treatment of the history of the Blank Slate, this notion “undermined a hereditary royalty and aristocracy, whose members could claim no innate wisdom or merit if their minds had started out as blank as everyone else’s,”[3] which helps explain why Lockean epistemology and political philosophy were so highly regarded by the American revolutionaries.

When this concept of persons born as blank slates is combined with the very specific legal definition of persons as individuals distinct from the things and other persons around them—as expounded in Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765)[4]what emerges is the prototypical independent and autonomous self of modernity.  The Commentaries have exerted a remarkable influence over the trajectory of modern Western thought coincidental with the spread of the British Empire[5]; in the United States the Commentaries have been credited with shaping “all our formative documents – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the seminal decisions of the Supreme Court,” ranking “second only to the Bible as a literary and intellectual influence on the history of American institutions.”[6]  As discussed here, Blackstone’s Commentaries represented the distillation of centuries of moral philosophy and legal reasoning specifically demarcating the bounds of personhood and locating ethical responsibility within this autonomous individual person-as-actor.

As mentioned before, the concept of equal, independent and autonomous persons indicated in the Declaration of Independence is still the basis of our contemporary ethics and jurisprudence and politics (e.g., the mantra ‘one man, one vote’ as the desiderata of political self-expression in contemporary liberal democracies).  As discussed in these other posts, because of a long common intellectual history, these philosophical assumptions about the independence and autonomy of persons also mirror many of the scientific assumptions about the independence and autonomy of genes—in particular Watson and Crick’s central ‘dogma’ of molecular biology, that information only flows out of and not back into DNA,[7] and the Weismann Doctrine, that variation cannot be inherited.[8]  As epigenetics challenges these scientific assumptions of genetics, it likewise challenges these deeply entrenched philosophical assumptions about what it means to be a person, which has significant implications for contemporary ethics and politics.  This is how epigenetics relates to the Declaration of Independence in a number of very fundamental ways.

The next post in this series will address the ethical and political challenges introduced by the research in epigenetics in the context of the concept of modern personhood as epitomized in the Declaration of Independence.  These ethical and political implications also help to explain the longstanding antipathy towards epigenetics (discussed here and here) which has only recently begun to give way as epigenetics is becoming more and more accepted as a valid and viable field of research (as demonstrated here and here).  However, if the scientific debates are ever to be resolved, then the ethical components of these challenges from epigenetics must also be recognized and addressed; otherwise the scientific debates will interminably circle around and around as unrecognized proxies for the underlying ethical positions.

I am curious to hear what you think so far. Leave your comments or questions 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] For example, in the Summa Theologica when Aquinas writes that “We must assert that the intellectual principle which we call the human soul is incorruptible. For a thing may be corrupted in two ways—‘per se,’ and accidentally. Now it is impossible for any substance to be generated or corrupted accidentally, that is, by the generation or corruption of something else.”

[2] Steven Pinker (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.

[3] Pinker (2002).

[4] William Blackstone (1765/2002). Commentaries on the Laws of England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[5] J. Austin (1880). Lectures on Jurisprudence or the Philosophy of Positive Law. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street: 362-366.

[6] William D.Bader (1995). “Some Thoughts on Blackstone, Precedent and Originalism”. Vermont Law Review 19(5).

[7] Francis Crick (August 1970). “Central dogma of molecular biology.” Nature 227(5258): 561–3

[8] E.J. Steele (2000). “The Evidence for Lamarck.” Quadrant 364(3): 47 – ­56.

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