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.


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