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.

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