Epigenetics as a Political Revolution?

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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.

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2 thoughts on “Epigenetics as a Political Revolution?

  1. I applaud you for taking on these controversial topics with much thought. I’m very keen on learning more about epigenetics as we get more information in the future.

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    • Thanks for taking the time to read and post a comment. After visiting your blog, I see that we are similar in that I am also new to blogging, and like you it was mostly for my own benefit to be able to get my own thoughts out of my head to make room for new thoughts. I had no idea what to expect, but I wasn’t expecting much. I will say that I started an epigenetics-related Twitter thing (account? I’m such a noob I’m not even sure what you call these things, but it is @EpigeneticsGuy) and started posting Tweets of my new blog posts and connecting other Tweets I’d see to my blog and then suddenly this happened because of one of my Tweets about a blog post that got picked up and sent around the world. It was pretty crazy there for a while, and it was over after a couple of days and I don’t imagine it will happen again, but it sure was fun for a while. Now I average probably 10-15-20 views a day, a lot of which come through Twitter, which is still pretty cool, so I highly recommend involving Twitter with your blog.

      Also, if you are interested in epigenetics – which it sounds like you are – there are a couple of videos on my Home page that could be helpful in setting the stage, and then I have tried to link to as many external sources as I can in my posts, so browse away at your leisure and click on as many of those embedded links as look interesting to you.

      Anyway, just a word of encouragement for getting yourself and your thoughts out there. Best of luck, and have fun.

      Shea

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