The Genetics of the Ethics of the Science of Genetics

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by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

To begin, the basic assumptions of the science of genetics are not unique to contemporary genetics but are actually the products of a very specific intellectual and cultural history. This history goes back all the way to the metaphysics of Aristotle as filtered through the Medieval theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and the natural and political philosophy of John Locke which had such a significant influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. From this common intellectual history were born both the philosophical concept of equally created persons as the ethical focus of modern politics as well as the scientific description of genes as pristine copies of our common human essence.

That the assumptions of genetics are contingent on these historical and philosophical precedents likely seems trivial to laypersons and nonsensical to geneticists. Genetics, as a product of modern science, exhibits the patina of scientific objectivity which appears to negate these historical and cultural influences. However, one of the unanticipated benefits of this recent (re)emergence of epigenetics is how it exposes these hidden ethical assumptions of genetics—which are themselves reflections of the prevailing ethics of our time—against which epigenetics proposes its own unique ethics. These novel ethical and political implications of epigenetics are in many ways prior to and perhaps even more significant than its scientific implications.

In other words, in posing the significant challenges to the science of genetics that it does, epigenetics also poses equally significant ethical and political challenges. The big difference, though, is that while these scientific challenges are readily apparent, these ethical and political dimensions are not—primarily because these ethical and political implications are often masked by the obvious scientific differences.

While modern scientific methods on their own—in a vacuum, as it were—would eventually achieve an appropriately scientific resolution to the current discrepancies 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 underlying ideologies, and ideological differences cannot be resolved through scientific methods but are rather contestable as politics.

That the scientific and ethical and political are all knit from the same cloth suggests two things: First, given the widespread acceptance of genetics, that the scientific assumptions of genetics dovetail well enough with the basic assumptions of our prevailing ethics and politics that there are no irreconcilable differences between them. Second, that much of the scientific resistance against epigenetics stems from the ethical exceptionalism of epigenetics[1]. In such circumstances, for the methods of science to work to their intended effect 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 component in the science of epigenetics should be to untangle the scientific from the ethical, and this post is one such effort.

Even in the ‘hard’ domains of the natural and life sciences much of the contest over the validity of epigenetics is a process of narrative formation, or an ongoing contest over how epigenetics is talked about and perceived both within and outside of its scientific contexts[2]. This is a critically important distinction to make because instead of being simply true or false, narratives are—like the epigenome itself—malleable and highly susceptible to internal and external influences at critical moments in their development.

While scientific content is obviously a key component in the formation of science-based narratives, so are the ethical and political aspects (e.g., the controversy around vaccinations and autism, or the ongoing global warming/climate change debate). For example, the coevolution of epigenetics and genetics during the Cold War was significantly influenced by the prevailing political ideologies of the time[3], the effects of which still reverberate today. However, the narratives of epigenetics during the Cold War are not the narrative of epigenetics today, and for any number of reasons what are the narratives of epigenetics today will likely not be the narratives of epigenetics tomorrow.

Awareness of the malleability of narratives and of how this process of narrative formation works could be invaluable for practitioners and proponents of epigenetics in influencing or nudging the emerging narrative of epigenetics towards more conducive and politically acceptable forms. This post is one part of a greater project to flesh out the political and ethical implications of epigenetics. My working theory in this project is that many of the scientific criticisms of epigenetics are ultimately political and ethical in origin, and that these scientific disagreements will not be resolved until these underlying ethical complications from epigenetics are at least acknowledged and addressed. Elaborating these ethical challenges from epigenetics through an analysis of fundamental concepts in political philosophy is the primary purpose of this post.

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 the role of some of these additional non-scientific factors in the acceptance of or resistance to epigenetics.

I am curious to hear what you think. 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] Bruner, Jerome. 1991. “The Narrative Construction of Reality.” Critical Inquiry 18 (1): 1–21; Roe, Emery. 1994. Narrative Policy Analysis: Theory and Practice. Durham, CT: Duke University Press; Jones, Michael D. and Mark K. McBeth. 2010. A Narrative Policy Framework: Clear Enough to Be Wrong? The Policy Studies Journal, 38(2): 329-353.

[3] Sapp, J. (1994). Symbiogenesis in Russia. In Evolution by association a history of symbiosis. New York: Oxford University Press; Gaissinovitch, A. E. (1980). The origins of Soviet genetics and the struggle with Lamarckism, 1922-1929. Journal of the History of Biology, 13(1),1-51; DeJong-Lambert, William. 2007. “The Cold War Politics of Genetic Research.” Presented at The7th Annual Havighurst Center for Russian & Post-Soviet Studies International Young Researchers Conference, Miami, OH; Graham, L.R. (2004). Science in Russia and the Soviet Union. A Short History. Series: Cambridge Studies in the History of Science. Cambridge University Press; Wrinch, P. N. (1951). Science and politics in the USSR: the genetics debate. World Politics, 3(04), 486-519; Adams, M. B. (1991). “Through the looking glass: The evolution of Soviet Darwinism.” In New Perspectives on Evolution, edited by L. Warren and H. Kropowski, New York: Wiley-Liss, 37-63.

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4 thoughts on “The Genetics of the Ethics of the Science of Genetics

  1. […] This assumed isolation of our biological essences—although arrived at through scientific processes—has significant, though often overlooked, ethical implications. The elaboration of these ethical implications will be the focus of subsequent posts, such as Epigenetics and the Extended Synthesis and The Genetics of the Ethics of the Science of Genetics. […]

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