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


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

Part IV: Bridge

The historical evolution of the uniquely Western concept of persons as individual and ultimately autonomous beings is well-covered territory. As detailed in previous posts, this concept is neither inevitable nor the only such concept possible; rather, it is the product of specific historical and cultural processes.  These processes have resulted in our contemporary understanding of these individual persons as the ultimate legal, ethical and political focus of contemporary society.

What is much less well-known is just how much genetics is also a reflection of this same cultural history, and shares many of the same fundamental assumptions.  That the science of genetics is inextricably tied to this philosophical history likely strikes many as either nonsensical or trivial because as a product of modern science genetics exhibits the patina of scientific objectivity which appears to negate these historical and cultural influences.  However, what is exposed through comparison with epigenetics, in addition to the obvious differences in scientific interpretation, are the inherent ethical commitments of conventional genetics—which are a reflection of the prevailing ethics of our time—against which epigenetics proposes its own unique ethics.  In this way epigenetics constitutes both a scientific and an ethical and political challenge.

However, as the scientific and ethical and political are all knit from the same cloth, the scientific and ethical challenges are ultimately the same.  While modern scientific methods on their own—in a vacuum, as it were—would eventually achieve an appropriately scientific resolution to the disagreements between genetics and epigenetics, science is not ahistorical and is not exempt from the prevailing politics and ethics of its time.  Because the influence of these non-scientific biases are often not recognized as such, scientific positions often function as unconscious proxies for these underlying ideologies, and ideological differences cannot be resolved through science but are only resolved through politics.

In such circumstances, for the methods of science to work to their intended effect the scientific claims must be untangled from the underlying ethics as much as possible so that scientific problems can be treated scientifically and ethical claims can be dealt with politically.  Thus, an important aspect of any science should be to untangle the scientific from the ethical, and the recent reemergence of epigenetics presents a unique opportunity to do this in regards to genetics in particular and the life sciences and biology in general.

This proposition that sciences like genetics are deeply influenced by the ideologies of their time and can actually be proxies for competing worldviews likely sounds ludicrous to contemporary geneticists who presumably see themselves as engaged in purely scientific investigations.  As most geneticists are unaware of the philosophical foundations and the ethical implications of their work, it is easy to see how from their perspective they are obviously and sincerely engaged in a values-free scientific endeavor.  However, ignorance of these ideological influences does not equal exemption from their effects.  The colorful history of epigenetics vis-à-vis genetics before and during the Cold War provides its own demonstration of the influence of ideology on genetics and epigenetics, and the aftershocks are still being felt to this day as this political history is one of the primary reasons epigenetics is only now—decades after the end of the Cold War—finally (re)emerging as a valid field of research.

While not all—or even most—scientific claims made in either genetics or epigenetics have deep ethical implications, as a whole each discipline points towards significantly different ethical conclusions.  Just as geneticists should be aware of the underlying philosophical and ethical commitments of their work, so must epigeneticists—and for very practical reasons.  At this relatively early stage in the emergence of epigenetics, recognition of the fundamental ethical challenges presented by epigenetics will help epigeneticists and proponents of epigenetics to understand much of the often significant resistance to epigenetics which seems out of proportion to the actual scientific claims being made.  Understanding these ethical implications contributes to a better understanding of the narratives which are developing around epigenetics, or how epigenetics is being portrayed both within the scientific community and to the public. These narratives will have elements of the science of epigenetics, but will be largely political and ethical in nature.

The Politics of Politics and Epigenetics

In the previous posts in this series, the Declaration of Independence is cited as a specific example of the political importance of this conception of autonomous individuals as the ethical focus.  The Declaration of Independence was also used as a platform to illustrate the basic assumptions of genetics which mirror these political assumptions.

The next step is to elaborate the political ethics which result from epigenetics.  This demonstration will be conducted in the context of the concept of the right to Liberty described in the Declaration of Independence.  Political theorists have identified two main aspects of this Liberty, positive and negative liberty (basically, ‘freedom from…’ and ‘freedom to…’).  The modern liberal politics and ethics expressed in the Declaration of Independence are premised upon very specific configurations of these liberties; if the configurations of these liberties are changed, then so also are the resulting politics.

Isaiah Berlin is the political philosopher credited with first making this distinction between positive and negative liberty.  In his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin discusses the importance of this distinction and of the different weights given to the different concepts of liberty within different political ideologies.  Upon these distinctions, according to Berlin, hinge the differences between totalitarian political systems such as Marxism (and Leninism, Stalinism, Maosim, etc.) and modern democracies and libertarianism.

The balance of these liberties which are recommended from the findings of epigenetics is the extent to which epigenetics is going to be compatible or not with contemporary politics, which in turn will influence how epigenetics is received within these contemporary politics.  This is the importance of the philosophical connections between genetics and the modern liberal ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence detailed in previous posts.  There is a remarkable—and definitively not random—coincidence between the underlying assumptions of modern liberalism and genetics which helps to account for the ease of assimilation of genetics and genetics-based policies within contemporary politics.  In contrast, as discussed by Mark A. Rothstein in a recent article in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics,[1] because epigenetic marks are distinct from genetic mutations in a number of fundamental ways[2] “the threshold issue will be whether, as a matter of ethics and law, it is appropriate to engage in ‘epigenetic exceptionalism.’”  Given the unique scientific challenges raised by epigenetics, such as the possibilities for rapid adaptation and transgenerational inheritance, the configuration of the liberties and the resulting ethics recommended from epigenetics may not be compatible with conventional politics; then again, perhaps they are.  What the politics of epigenetics are or may become is yet to be seen, but elaborating the different possibilities at this early stage of the emergence of epigenetics is my project.

Even though my primary domain in this project is largely philosophical, my goal is very practical: To provide practitioners and proponents of epigenetics with the tools they need to better understand what has happened with epigenetics, what is happening with epigenetics, and what could happen with epigenetics.  My working theory in this project is that this potential legal and ethical (i.e., political) exceptionalism of epigenetics is one of the primary sources of resistance against epigenetics, and that many of the scientific criticisms of epigenetics are at a fundamental level also political and ethical in origin.  Even in the ‘hard’ domain of science much of the contest over epigenetics is a process of narrative formation.  This is a critically important distinction to make because narratives are—like epigenetics itself—malleable and highly susceptible to internal and external influences at critical moments in their development.  What was the narrative of epigenetics during the Cold War is not the narrative of epigenetics today, and for any number of reasons what is the narrative of epigenetics today may not be the narrative of epigenetics tomorrow.  Knowing this, and knowing how this process works, could be invaluable for practitioners and proponents in influencing or nudging the emerging narrative of epigenetics in the right directions for widespread acceptance.

In the next post I will (finally) elaborate the configuration of positive and negative liberties recommended by the results emerging from epigenetics.  This will help to begin to answer this question as to what are the ethical and legal—and therefore political—implications of epigenetics, and therefore what is the compatibility of epigenetics with conventional politics.  There may actually be no incompatibilities, in which case there are no fundamental impediments for the assimilation of epigenetics into conventional politics; my intuition, though, primarily based on its scientific challenges to conventional genetics, is that epigenetics is exceptional enough that there will be fundamental incompatibilities.  Even so, these incompatibilities may be resolvable through a tweaking of the narrative of epigenetics.  Thus, the negation or identification of these fundamental ethical and political incompatibilities is an important step in the eventual assimilation of epigenetics.

I am curious to hear what you think so far. Do you see the practical merits of this project? Or is this just so much navel-gazing? 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] Mark Rothstein (2013). “Epigenetic Exceptionalism.” Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 41(3): 733-736.

[2] Per Rothstein (2013): 1. The frequency of epigenetic changes is much higher than mutations in DNA sequences; 2. Susceptibility to epigenetic change is a function of exposure, dosage and developmental stage; 3.Genetic mutations are irreversible while epigenetic changes are or may be reversible; 4. Epigenetic changes are tissue-specific; and 5. Epigenetic changes can be species-specific.

Epigenetics Minority Report Part I: Epigenetics, blame, precrime and politics


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

If you picked up the movie reference in the title to this post, you are likely (hopefully) asking yourself “Minority Report? And epigenetics? Really?”  The answer to this question is “Yes…perhaps,” but while the reference is meant in fun, this connection between epigenetics and Minority Report raises some serious points for discussion.

(The Steven Spielberg movie Minority Report released in 2002 and starring Tom Cruise was actually an adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick short story The Minority Report from 1956.  Dick was an eccentric—über-eccentric—author of science fiction who has had twelve of his stories and novels turned into movies, from the seminal sci-fi classic Bladerunner to the early ‘90s Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall to the laughable-but-can’t-look-away Paycheck starring Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman)

In brief, the plot of the story and the movie center around Precrime, a system of law enforcement and criminal justice in which people are apprehended and punished for crimes they have not yet committed but which they would commit if not prevented.  This foreknowledge of as yet uncommitted crimes is provided by three psychics called “precogs,” or precognitives, who through genetic mutations can see into the future.  At the commencement of the story and the movie, this system has practically eliminated crime in society.

In both the story and the movie the main character is a Precrime officer who intercepts a precognition that he is going to murder a man in the near future (in the movie, this is a man unknown to the officer).  As a Precrime officer he knows he will soon be picked up by Precrime and imprisoned for the rest of his life for a crime he has not yet committed.  The subsequent action of the plot is driven by the officer avoiding apprehension and trying to find out why the precogs foresaw him committing this most serious of crimes for which he does not yet feel any intent.

As with most stories about prediction of the future, this one also raises questions about free will versus determinism: If your future is predicted with accuracy, are you bound to fulfill this future?  Or is there any latitude in the realization of this future?  An additional aspect introduced The Minority Report regards the ethical issue of the justice of punishing someone for a crime they have not yet committed, but which they (probably) will—akin to the hackneyed question what would you do if you had a time machine and traveled back to post World War I Austria and encountered a struggling young artist named Adolph Hitler.  Both of these aspects of this story are extraordinarily relevant to serious discussions of epigenetics.

Epigenetics and Precrime

What brought this comparison of Minority Report and epigenetics to mind for me was when @EpiExperts Tweeted about a recent spate of articles about epigenetics which mentioned the potential for ‘mother blaming’ in reference to the results of research on epigenetic inheritance.  @EpiExperts Tweeted links to two such stories:

“Blaming moms: How miscommunication on epigenetics is a threat to women’s health”

and “The New Science of Blaming Moms”

noting that these concerns about mother blaming are being voiced in the absence of any proof that any such attributions are actually being made by epigeneticists, and asking the question “Is #Epigenetics the first preemptively blamed science?”

This issue of preemptive punishment raised by @EpiExperts is applicable to epigenetics in a couple of important ways.  First, there is this question of whether epigenetics itself is being judged for a ‘crime’ it has not yet committed (i.e., mother blaming in this instance).

In an ongoing conversation, @EpiExperts has posted links to still other articles about this mother blaming, again expressing concern and a little bewilderment that people—in particular non-epigeneticists—are somehow painting epigenetics with this particular brush  For most people like @EpiExperts who are either working epigeneticists or somehow otherwise involved in the nuts and bolts of epigenetics, the science of epigenetics is the primary concern.  For these practitioners, the validity of the scientific results is understandably the only reasonable standard by which epigenetics is and should be judged.  The reality, though, is that the science is only one part of the equation of how and why scientific discoveries are disseminated and eventually accepted as legitimate.

Politics—both within and external to the practice of science—plays as significant a role as science in the acceptance of any scientific research, and narratives play a significant role in politics.  An emerging field of research in public policy studies—called, aptly enough, Narrative Policy Analysis—demonstrates how important narratives are in political processes[1].  Narratives are stories with “a temporal sequence of events unfolding in a plot that is populated by dramatic moments, symbols, and archetypal characters that culminates in a moral to the story”[2].  Importantly, these narratives need not be true or false to be effective; rather, according to NPA, it is the ability to evoke emotional responses that determines the “truthiness” (to quote Stephen Colbert), or the political effectiveness, of these narratives.

Whether scientists like to acknowledge this or not, science is also a highly political and politicized enterprise, and narratives are as important in science as they are in any other political process.  Narrative analyses have been applied to a number of different policy areas, but not yet to epigenetics.  However, as will be shown, narratives have and will have significant implications for the acceptance of epigenetics.

I have already written fairly extensively on the rather colorful and checkered historical and political background of epigenetics, which helps explain why epigenetics is only now emerging as a recognized and legitimate field of research.  If the epigenetic mechanisms being identified now are valid, they were likewise valid eighty years ago when they were being dismissed as irrelevant.  That epigenetics has been so maligned for so long while being a valid description of nature is in large part a function of the narratives used to describe epigenetics, and these battles over narratives are highly political as well (as evidenced by the indelible association with Communism and Stalinism which tainted epigenetics for so long).  That epigenetics is now being associated with mother blaming—regardless whether this is what the science of epigenetics actually says—is perhaps just inconsequential alarmism resulting from sensationalistic reporting, or it may be the preliminary steps in the formation of the narrative of epigenetics; regardless, the outcome of this contest over the narratives of epigenetics will inevitably be highly political, and epigeneticists and those like myself who are not practitioners but proponents of epigenetics need to be aware of how the narratives of epigenetics are developing and do what we can to influence the trajectory of this development in more appropriate directions. (For example, in this paper I presented at the 2014 conference of the Association of Politics and the Life Sciences, I analyze the prevailing narratives of obesity, and the effects of epigenetics on these narratives.)

The next aspect of epigenetics suggested by Minority Report is perhaps even more portentous: Do the results from epigenetics—in particular, the evidence for the non-genetic inheritance of phenotypic traits induced by environmental influences which are being passed on through multiple generations—actually lend themselves to a sort of Precrime?  This possibility will be discussed in more detail in the next post in this series, but for now consider that epigenetics does identify the environmental circumstances of parents and even grandparents, including elective choices such as the decision to begin smoking or preferences for certain kinds of foods or even the timing of the decision to have children, as important influences in the biological development of their children and grandchildren.  If epigenetics becomes accepted as scientific fact, then it is conceivable that policies based on epigenetics could be passed which constrain the choices of individuals in current generations in order to protect the well-being of these future generations.  Now consider the possibility that these constraints on present behaviors could even rise to the level of punishments for as yet unrealized outcomes, possibly including forced feeding or even imprisonment.  In the context of The Minority Report, then, is epigenetics thus a case where science fiction could become fact?

I am not saying that these are the kinds of policies which must logically follow from the current research in epigenetics (I am not a precog, after all), but given the pattern of facts emerging from epigenetics and what is known about narratives and politics this is a plausible scenario.  However, consider the effects of these kinds of preemptive policies in a political system such as that of the United States which is premised upon such a strong emphasis on individualism and the protection of individual liberties.  It is easy to imagine the reaction to such policies as at least on a par with the public reaction against the Affordable Health Care Act (i.e., ‘Obamacare’).  Even in a less drastic scenario in which the evidence from epigenetics is used to inform less draconian policies, consider the wholesale changes in the legal structures and ethical assumptions of a society like the United States necessary to incorporate such epigenetics-based policies which locate responsibility for outcomes many generations back both in the individual choices of predecessors and in their environmental (i.e., social) contexts.  As discussed in this series of posts, and as will be discussed in the next post, these changes would have to be significant, fundamental and in some instances even revolutionary.  That epigenetics so fundamentally challenges basic assumptions of contemporary politics and ethics, and likely requires such sweeping changes to so many basic institutions, is for me one of the more fascinating aspects of the recent emergence of epigenetics which likely accounts for much of the resistance against epigenetics, but which is also not yet being recognized as such.

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] Ospina, Sonia M., and Jennifer Dodge. 2005a. “It’s about Time: Catching Method up to Meaning-The Usefulness of Narrative Inquiry in Public Administration Research.” Public Administration Review 65 (2): 143–57; Ospina, Sonia M., and Jennifer Dodge. 2005b. “Narrative Inquiry and the Search for Connectedness: Practitioners and Academics Developing Public Administration Scholarship.” Public Administration Review 65 (4): 409–23.

[2] Jones, Michael D., and Mark K. McBeth. 2010. “A Narrative Policy Framework: Clear Enough to Be Wrong?.” Policy Studies Journal 38(2): 329-353.

Epigenetics as a Political Revolution?


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

An article by Angela Saini recently published in The Observer (the Sunday edition sister paper of The Guardian UK) detailed some of the exciting and/or troubling implications of epigenetics. In this article Saini provides an excellent summation of the recent and not so recent developments in epigenetics. She also does a good job of acknowledging the significant amount of skepticism about epigenetics, as do many of the comments (some of which provide valid critiques, and some of which read more like kneejerk reactions that anything counter to the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary thought must be necessarily wrong).

My particular interest in this article is when the author writes that “For decades, we have thought of our offspring as blank slates…” after which she discusses how this assumption is challenged by epigenetics. My personal and professional focus is on the history and the politics of epigenetics, and I am currently writing a series (starting here) on just this topic in the context of how epigenetics represents not only a challenge to some of the fundamental assumptions of modern genetics (which it clearly does) but also to the fundamental assumptions of modern liberalism as well.

What is not well known or recognized is how much many of the fundamental assumptions of genetics reflect the basic tenets of modern liberalism which is due in large part to their shared intellectual history—for example, as I discuss in the series mentioned before, both genetics and modern liberalism propose a Blank Slate creation of human beings which is how and why “all men are created equal & independent [and] that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable,” as originally penned by Thomas Jefferson in his rough draft of the Declaration of Independence.  However, imagine if genetics proposed something other than it does (e.g., that it already incorporated epigenetics, which does not allow such an easy isomorphism with the Blank Slate), how likely is it that genetics would be so embraced and accepted within modern liberal political cultures like that of the United States?  As discussed here and here, there are no ontologically objective reasons for genetics to not also incorporate epigenetics, and in fact there are likely more reasons for the two fields to be combined than to be separated, so they are clearly separated by assumption rather than by necessity.  This separation-by-assumption, though, prompts the question as to why the assumptions of genetics won and not the assumptions of epigenetics?  How much of this is because genetics as currently conceived mirrors these prevailing political and ethical assumptions?

Regardless, conventional genetics is constituted as it is currently constituted, with the often blanket denial of the possibility of epigenetic phenomena. What this also means, though, is that given the depth of this intellectual history in common between genetics and modern liberalism, the scientific challenges from epigenetics now also have significant implications for contemporary politics and ethics as well.  Consider that if epigenetics had been incorporated into the body of genetics eighty years ago—as it just as likely could have been, barring specific historical ‘accidents’ as discussed here and here—then none of these revelations would be particularly troublesome for either genetics or possibly for contemporary politics or ethics, as the “saving moves” necessary to resolve any apparent contradictions would already have been undertaken so as to retain the conceptual structure.  That epigenetics was excluded from conventional genetics—and often with extreme prejudice as detailed here—has produced the current often antagonistic state of affairs exemplified by quotes in the article and many of the comments to this article by Angela Saini (for example, in the article Saini cites one expert who summarizes the results of one study as “Like all other epigenetic inheritance studies, [Bestor] says: ‘There is a total lack of plausible mechanism,'” while one of the commenters dismisses Saini’s article as “Shameful hype; reincarnation of Soviet era genetics”).

In the article Angela Saini does mention some of the political and ethical implications of epigenetics, such as that “parents could suddenly find themselves responsible for passing on not only their poor genes, but also their poor lifestyles,” which raises the specter of how much influence should the government have in the lives of people in one generation in order to protect the well-being of those not yet born.  I also discuss these kinds of issues here in regards to the epigenetic causes of autism, and how epigenetics significantly muddies the waters in terms of how and to whom ‘blame’ for autism might be assigned.  In terms of political theory and philosophy, epigenetics raises significant concerns in regards to both positive and negative liberty (basically “freedom to…” versus “freedom from…”), as famously elaborated by Isaiah Berlin. If, as according to both modern liberalism and genetics, persons really are born equal and independent, then these kinds of concerns do not occur; the system is premised upon this equal and independent creation, and thus also provides the appropriate ethics and politics for originally equal and independent persons.  That these issues with transgenerational inheritance arise with epigenetics is very problematic for a political system built upon a specific configuration of positive and negative liberties (for example, as discussed here, current statutes of limitations and rights to privacy are premised upon the Blank Slate concept but the legal and ethical grounds for both of these concepts are called into serious question by the mechanisms of epigenetics); to the extent that the configurations of these liberties are changed, then so also are the resulting politics and the ethics of those politics changed.  In this sense, epigenetics can be justifiably viewed as not only scientifically revolutionary but politically revolutionary as well which helps to account for the often disproportionate reactions that epigenetics evokes, as exemplified by many of the comments to the article by Angela Saini which precipitated this post.

Ideological (i.e., non-scientific) resistance against epigenetics is nothing new, as evidenced by the treatment of epigenetics and epigeneticists before and especially during the Cold War, as detailed here and here, just as ideological uses of genetics are nothing new.  My working theory is that much of the resistance against epigenetics is—or will be—more about these political and ethical challenges than just about the science.  I do not for one second think or want to exempt the findings of epigenetics from rigorous scientific replication and testing—in fact, the more the better.  Rather, I am asserting that many of the arguments against epigenetics—just as many of the arguments in favor of epigenetics—may be couched in scientific language, but that these are often unconscious proxies for deeper ethical differences which derive from specific worldviews (for example, how much of a coincidence is it that the Soviet Union promoted epigenetics-like Lysenkoism while the U.S. and the West supported genetics? Are there aspects of each of these scientific orientations which more easily identifies them with one or the other ideological orientation?).

Without this deep ethical component, it is difficult to imagine epigenetics causing as much of a stir as it does; otherwise, the differences between epigenetics and conventional genetics would be little more than an esoteric internecine dispute between scientists.  The importance of recognizing this ethical component of this debate, though, is that until these ethical arguments are disentangled from the scientific arguments the scientific questions will likely never be resolved, and instead a redux of Cold War-esque proxy wars will be fought in academic journals and magazines and news sources, which to me is a rather disheartening proposition.

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


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

Part III: Declaration of Independence Redux

Picking up where the first post in this series left off, that the autonomy of individual persons at birth is fundamental to the political philosophy expressed in the Declaration of Independence is even more evident in Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, in which the pivotal phrase “that all men are created equal” is rendered as:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.

In this phrasing, the creation of humans as equal with each other and as independent from preexisting influences is made much more explicit, as are the rights contingent on this equality and autonomy—and, again, as discussed in the previous posts in this series this independence is not meant in some abstract philosophical sense but owing to the natural philosophy of Locke this independence is meant in a concrete psychological and biological sense.

The previous posts in this series briefly discussed the connections between this view of persons as independent beings as articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the assumptions of conventional genetics.  Other posts have documented the evolution of this relationship between the philosophical self and the scientific gene in much more detail, showing that these two ideas share a long common intellectual history going back to the Ancient Greeks.

By virtue of this shared intellectual history, these two ideas also share similar ethical commitments.  It is through these shared ethical commitments that epigenetics presents its significant challenges to contemporary ethics: While the challenges of epigenetics to the scientific assumptions of conventional genetics are understood, what is not well understood is that by challenging these scientific assumptions epigenetics is at once also challenging the ethical and political basis of contemporary society which are based on similar assumptions.  These ethical challenges are the root of much of the antagonism against epigenetics exemplified by the highly ideological interpretations of both genetics and epigenetics employed before and during the Cold War.  Without this ethical component, it is difficult to imagine epigenetics causing as much of a stir as it does; otherwise, the differences between epigenetics and conventional genetics would be little more than an esoteric internecine dispute between scientists.

Enter Genetics

The scientific corollaries of these philosophical assumptions of fundamental equality and autonomy as articulated in the Declaration of Independence are Watson and Crick’s central ‘dogma’ of molecular biology that information emanates out of DNA but not back in, and Weismann’s Doctrine that “variations within individuals are believed to hold no phylogenetic significance because such variation cannot be transmitted to the germ line”[1].  These two assumptions are the foundation of the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary theory, so-called because it is the synthesis of Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics.

In particular, the combination of these two principles results in the assumed insulation of the biogenetic core of humanity from the vagaries of the environment, and therefore of evolutionary adaptation as the natural selection of random genetic events: If the environment can have no direct influence on the genome, and “all somatic adaptive modifications within a parent’s body [are] forbidden to cross into germ cells to appear in the offspring”[2], then the only means for adaptive modifications to occur are necessarily through the selection of random mutations.

According to the conventional story of the central dogma, “the chemical language of genetic information in the form of DNA sequences can be directly copied into complementary nucleic acid base sequences termed RNA which in turn can then be translated into a protein sequence of amino acids, a quite different chemical language.”  This chemical language is noncommutative, though, which means that “genetic information never flows in reverse from a sequence string of amino acids into a complementary sequence of DNA or RNA bases”[3].  (As detailed here, this incorruptible DNA is nearly identical in description and function to the incorruptible substance of the soul compared with the accidents which accrue to the soul-as-substance as synthesized through the medieval theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, which is also one of the historical links between the political philosophy of Locke and the science of conventional genetics.)  In addition, processes during embryogenesis such as genomic imprinting ‘wash’ the newly combined DNA clean of any markers from environmental influences that may have accrued onto the genes donated by the parents.  Thus, barring very rare—and random (i.e., accidental and uncontrollable)—genetic mutations, each person is thus born with a pristine copy of the human genome (i.e., the biological tabula rasa of Locke discussed in the previous post which is such a central component of the political philosophy exemplified in the Declaration of Independence).

Notably, the central ‘dogma’ and Weismann’s Doctrine are also the two assumptions of conventional genetics most challenged by the recent findings from epigenetics[4].  Research in epigenetics shows conditions such as autism in children result from epigenetic dysregulation in parents which is passed on to their children, and not via genetic mutations as previously thought, and that this epigenetic dysregulation is a function of the lived experiences of the parents.  Other epigenetics research also offers proof of the transgenerational inheritance of these non-genetic changes in genetic expression due to exposure to specific environmental influences, in some cases being passed on through up to four generations.  Thus, these results seriously question the validity of persons created as independent tabula rasa, which again is the root of the claim to equality and therefore to the “inherent and inalienable” rights delineated in the Declaration of Independence.  That this “undeniable” truth of equal and independent creation is shown by epigenetics to be so…incomplete…has several—and portentous—implications for the conduct of a politics based fundamentally on the original independence and autonomy of individuals.

The next article in this series will discuss these implications in the context of the concept of the right to Liberty as described in the Declaration of Independence.  Political theorists have identified two main aspects of this Liberty, positive and negative liberty[5] (basically, the concept of negative liberty deals with ‘freedom from…’, while positive liberty deals with ‘freedom to…’[6]).  Modern liberal politics and ethics, such as those espoused by the Declaration of Independence, are premised upon very specific configurations of these liberties; if the configurations of these liberties are changed, then so also are the resulting politics and the ethics of those politics. The findings emerging from epigenetics like those just mentioned introduce significant modifications of both of these kinds of liberty, which then has significant implications for the politics and ethics.  What are these modifications of positive and negative liberty, and what are their commensurate ethical and political implications, will be the topic of the next article in this series.

I am curious to hear what you think so far. Am I making the connections between the political philosophy articulated in the Declaration of Independence and conventional genetics? Or is this too much of a stretch for you? 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] Leo Buss (1983). “Evolution, development, and the units of selection.” PNAS 80: 1387-1391.

[2] E.J. Steele (2000). “The Evidence for Lamarck.” Quadrant 364 44(3): 47-56.

[3] Steele (2000).

[4] Although technically epigenetics does not disprove either the central ‘dogma’ or processes like genomic imprinting on their faces; rather the challenges from epigenetics come as complications of either the magnitude or the fidelity of these processes. Epigenetics does not so much say that information from the environment also flows back into the DNA, but that the expression of the genes in the DNA is much more responsive to the environment than conventional genetics allows, and that influences from the environment may be inherited—sometimes through multiple generations. Likewise, epigenetics does not say that genomic imprinting does not occur, but that the process is not as impervious to environmental influences as is conventionally assumed.

[5] Isaiah Berlin (1958). “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In Isaiah Berlin (1969) Four Essays on Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

Part II: Intermezzo

By establishing the historical context for the notion of personhood at the center of the Declaration of Independence, the previous post set the stage for discussion of the unique ethical and political challenges introduced by epigenetics.  Given the importance of the Declaration of Independence as a reflection of the intellectual roots of our contemporary view of personhood, and its influence in the subsequent formation of the political and legal institutions of the United States, the Declaration represents a unique platform upon which to demonstrate the significant implications for contemporary public policies from epigenetics.  At the same time, the historical timing of the Declaration of Independence also serves to indicate just how fundamental are these challenges from epigenetics, and why epigenetics provokes the deeply ideological reactions it has and still does today.

Again, for most people the strong reactions[1] provoked by epigenetics are just the result of differences in scientific interpretation (after all, what else would they be?), and are therefore resolvable through science.  Even the scientists themselves I imagine are largely unaware of the ethical aspects inherent in their different science-based stances.  Regardless, as discussed in a number of other posts, the different scientific interpretations between conventional genetics and the emerging science of epigenetics lend themselves to different worldviews with distinct obligations and ethics.  To the extent that these scientific differences reflect these underlying ethical differences, these ‘scientific’ debates will not be resolvable at least until these underlying value judgments are acknowledged and made explicit so that as much as possible science can debated against science, and ethics against ethics.

The first post in this series detailed some of the historical hows and whys of this particular conception of personhood that is such a fundamental—and irreplaceable—aspect of the Declaration of Independence, and how it still has such significant legal and political and ethical influence today as the platform upon which our contemporary jurisprudence and politics are still based.  This historically contingent and culturally embedded way of defining persons as independent centers of action also supplies its own specific ethics of persons as individuals ultimately responsible for their own circumstances and choices. A recent example of the endurance of this concept of personhood in contemporary American society is the popular reaction to the recent Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court granting coequal free speech rights to both human persons and corporations. The widespread popular outrage against this ruling was largely in response to the perceived misapplication of this concept of an individual human person as the only proper (i.e., ethical) bearer of political rights[2].

By way of comparison, as discussed in this post, in the Upanishads—the philosophical basis of what became both Hinduism and Buddhism—there is no ultimate separation between the individual self and everything and everyone else; as a result, the ethical obligations within this system are likewise significantly different than those articulated in the Declaration of Independence[3].  Even within Western history there have been extended historical periods in which collectives and not individuals were the legal and ethical focus—for example, the Frankpledge in Northern Europe during the Early Middle Ages[4] and the Statute of Winchester, which was “the only general public measure of any consequence enacted to regulate the policing of the country between the Norman Conquest and the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829”[5], both located legal and ethical responsibility in families or other collectives instead of individuals.  In other words, as self-evident and unquestionable as our contemporary version of personhood and the ethical structure that accompanies this concept feel to us, these are both historically and culturally contingent constructs.

These examples are extremely relevant in demonstrating the challenges of epigenetics to the ethics and politics of contemporary society, which helps to explain much of the disproportionate resistance against epigenetics.  The next articles in this series will discuss the deep intellectual connections between the view of personhood articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the description of genes in conventional genetics.  It is through these connections that the challenges of epigenetics to the conventional ethical and political structures of our contemporary society are revealed: In challenging some of the core assumptions of genetics, epigenetics likewise challenges our modern concept of what it means to be a person—ethically, legally, politically, and so on.  These challenges of epigenetics will be addressed in the context of the unalienable right to Liberty which according to the Declaration comes as a result of this equal and independent creation; to the degree that this creation is neither equal nor independent—as proposed by genetics but disputed by epigenetics—is also the degree to which epigenetics complicates these fundamental claims to the rights to Liberty.

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

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[1] See Jerry Coyne’s “Epigenetics again: will it cause a revolution in evolution?” as an example of this antipathy towards epigenetics, though even Coyne appears to be softening his stance over time (“More puffery about epigenetics, and my usual role as go-to curmudgeon”), and allowing that there might be more to epigenetics that is important and not already included in the Modern Synthesis. It also bears mentioning that it has become increasingly difficult to find the flat-out acerbic and dismissive denials of epigenetics that I encountered when I first began reading about epigenetics only a couple of years ago. When I began looking for hostile sources to cite for this endnote, I assumed they would be plentiful; instead, the best I could find were Coyne’s well-reasoned though increasingly lukewarm critiques. This relative dearth of denials is rather remarkable in and of itself given the open vituperation directed against epigenetics and epigeneticists detailed here and here.

[2] Although, as I discuss in much more detail here, those objections to Citizens United based on the perceived overextension of this concept of human personhood to corporations are mistaken as to the reasoning of the Court in this case. The Court did not rule that corporations are people in this case—although in other cases the Court has pursued this line of reasoning—only that political speech is protected speech, regardless of the source.

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

[4] William Stubbs (1906). Lectures on Early English History. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

[5] Thomas Critchley (1978). A History of Police in England and Wales. Constable.