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.


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