Epigenetics, ethics and the evolution of science


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

In this post and others, the historical, cultural and philosophical underpinnings of the scientific assumptions of genetics are discussed. 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, as described encyclopedically by Daston and Galison (2007)[1], this conception of scientific objectivity is itself a product of the same historical and cultural processes which have shaped our contemporary politics and ethics, and is therefore just as contingent as our politics and our ethics.

Daston and Galison do not address the field of genetics in their analysis of the history of scientific objectivity, but both the modern concept of genes and the practice of genetics are prototypical examples of the epistemology and the ethos of modern scientific objectivity identified by Daston and Galison. How genes and genetics embody this concept of objectivity and its accompanying ethos also demonstrates how the scientific challenges of epigenetics to genetics are at once also challenges to the prevailing ethics of contemporary society.

The self and scientific objectivity

What lends contemporary science much of its current power is its objectivity. Objective in this sense is the ostensible removal—as much as possible—of any traces of the subjective individual(s) conducting the science: The less the presence of the individual scientist is a factor in the results of a scientific experiment, the more faithfully does the experiment reflect nature, the more replicable it is by other scientists, and so on.

In their discussion of the evolution of this concept of objectivity which so epitomizes contemporary science, Daston and Galison draw the critical connection between what constitutes knowledge with what is the accompanying conception of self: “The answer to the question ‘Why objectivity?’ lies precisely in the history of the scientific self to be eliminated”[2]. In other words, change the composition of this subjective self conducting a science, and the resulting scientific objectivity also changes.

This objectivity is also based upon a specific concept of the self. Just as this modern self has not always been the prevailing concept of self, as discussed here and here, the accompanying concept of scientific objectivity has likewise not always been the prevailing concept of scientific objectivity. In particular, Daston and Galison contrast the Enlightenment views of the self with the conceptions of the self that began to form after the transformative work of Immanuel Kant, and how these changes in conceptions of the self manifested as changes in the accepted definitions of scientific objectivity.

Daston and Galison use Kant as a reference point for these changes, and as an authoritative mouthpiece, but they are also careful to allow that whether Kant was actually the source of these changes in the conceptualization of the self is immaterial for their purposes; what is important is that Kant was at the very least a “precocious philosophical witness” of these changes “that reverberated with seismic intensity in every domain of nineteenth-century intellectual life, from science to literature”[3].

These differences in the assumptions about what constitutes the self and how this self gains knowledge (e.g., science) have direct relevance to how genes have been defined and conceptualized, and what are the implicit ethical commitments of genetics, and therefore why epigenetics presents the scientific and ethical and political challenges that it does.

The Enlightenment self

Citing various primary sources, Daston and Galison detail how during the Enlightenment era the self became perceived as a network or “skein of threads”[4] centered on an origin “as a spiderweb is centered on the spider”[5]. Personal identity was similarly conceived as “fragile as cobweb, guaranteed only by memory and the continuity of consciousness”[6]. As such, “the self was imagined as permeable, sometimes too permeable, to its milieu, a self characterized by receptivity rather than assertive dynamism”[7]. The “sovereignty of reason” located at the origin of this network—which is the seat of the self—“was always under threat from within (the vagaries of imagination and the uprisings of the branches of the network) and without (the barrage of sensations registered by the receptive network)”[8]. This Enlightenment concept of a passive, impressionable, malleable self is perhaps best embodied through John Locke’s concept of persons born as tablua rasa, or “white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas” upon which sensations from the external world are impressed[9].

Science and ethical behavior in the Enlightenment

The scientific ethos of this concept of self and its accompanying epistemology can be characterized as such: Because of the inherent passivity of this Enlightenment self as a permeable and impressionable network of competing influences, achieving truth-to-nature for Enlightenment scientists “required that they actively select, sift and synthesize the sensations that constantly flooded the too-receptive mind”[10]. Allowing oneself to be overwhelmed and carried away by the cacophony of sensations of the natural world as it is was “to be at best confused”[11], which is a moral and intellectual failure. In other words, the objectivity of the Enlightenment scientist was to interpose their selves—understood as the reasonable centers of the web of impressions which constitute their consciousness—into the flow of sensations from their external worlds

The ethics which were produced from this concept of self can be characterized as such: Good character—like good science—was seen as first overcoming this natural passivity by acting upon the world rather than being acted upon by the world[12]. Good character was also manifest in the balancing of this constant influx of stimulus from all the branches of this network by the reasonable center[13]. In contrast, bad character—like bad science—resulted from either an excess of passivity and impressionability or from this reasonable center being overwhelmed by all these other influences, manifest as supine acquiescence  to authority, or a surfeit of imagination, or other flights of irrationality[14].

The post-Kantian self

Distinct from this passive and permeable network self of the Enlightenment which is shaped by its environment, Kant  proposed a concept of self as an autonomous center which imposes order onto the world around it both by vetting all perceptions “like callers at the door”[15] and by projecting its assumptions outward onto the world.

Kant began from the proposition that sensations do not of themselves cohere into the perception of objects, much less into concepts. If order is observed, this awareness of order among the objects and sensations ‘out there’ therefore necessarily presupposes an ordering consciousness ‘in here’ that precedes perception[16]. Likewise, if this consciousness is imposing an order, it must also be ordered itself “as a necessary precondition for fusing raw sensations into coherent experience”[17]. Kant then asserts the necessity for this ordering and ordered consciousness to also be a consistent synchronic and temporal “unity of consciousness” across the many sensations and experiences being experienced[18]. Thus emerges the concept of the self as a unified and consistent fundamental entity which expresses itself through a faculty Kant calls the will.

Science and ethical behavior after Kant

This new concept of self has moral and scientific and political implications. In particular, as Kant writes, “freedom in the practical sense, is the independence of the will of coercion by sensuous impulses”[19]. Rational morality, according to Kant, is the subjection of this autonomous will to objective moral laws—objective meaning “free from all influence of contingent grounds”[20]. However, for this will to be actually free and therefore actually moral, the will cannot be simply subject to the law “but subject in such a way that it must be conceived also as itself prescribing the law”[21]. Obedience to these non-contingent universal a priori moral laws, regardless of incentives or benefits, is the root of Kant’s deontological moral philosophy. In other words, in contrast to the diffused and permeable self of the Enlightenment, Daston and Galison describe this emerging Kantian moral self as “monolithic and tightly organized around the will [and] posited as free and autonomous (literally ‘giving the law to itself’)”[22].

The scientific ethos associated with this concept of an active and autonomous self (and its accompanying epistemology) can be distinguished from the Enlightenment ethos as such: There is an objective world ‘out there,’ but perception of this world is always mediated through the senses and this ordering consciousness, and therefore this world is never knowable as it is in itself. Because this post-Kantian self “was viewed as overactive and prone to impose its preconceptions and pet hypotheses on the data,” the appropriately objective scientific approach is now one of “self-denying passivity”[23]. In other words, “the only way for the active self to attain the desired receptivity to nature was to turn its domineering will inward—to practice self-discipline, self-restraint, self-abnegation, self-annihilation, and a multitude of other techniques of self-imposed selflessness”[24]. This is the dispassionate scientific objectivity we recognize today.

Ethical Isomorphisms?

As described above, each of these different conceptions of the self also have their own unique epistemology and ethos. These two concepts of self are also each conceptually isomorphic with either genes or the epigenome. The significance of these conceptual isomorphisms is that they demonstrate some of the unique ethical commitments of genetics and epigenetics which are often obscured as scientific differences.

For example, the monolithic, tightly organized, active and autonomous post-Kantian self is a very apt description of the genes. Within the Modern Synthesis genes are conceived of as “information, blueprints, books, recipes, programs, instructions, and further as active causal agents as that which is responsible for putting the information to use as the program that runs itself”[25]. These genes as active causal agents—as exemplified most prominently by Richard Dawkins’ popularization of “selfish” genes, for which organisms are merely vehicles[26]—are identified as both the focus and the impetus of evolution[27]. Further, as expressed by the “central dogma of molecular biology”[28], information necessarily only flows from the gene outwards and not from the environment back into the gene such that genes are functionally isolated and therefore independent from their immediate environments. Thus, genes are post-Kantian as they are also tightly organized, unitary, active and autonomous agents which are likewise the authors of their own laws.

The Enlightenment self as an open, permeable, embedded network of influences with a coherent center but also constantly in flux is a very apt description of the contemporary epigenome. Epigenetic mechanisms are described in contemporary sources as “nongenetic cellular memory, which records developmental and environmental cues”[29] through responses to signals which “come from inside the cell, from neighboring cells, or from the outside world (environment)”[30]. Notably, the changes in phenotypes (i.e., appearances, behaviors, health outcomes, etc.) in reaction to the environment are produced as the result of “several converging and reinforcing signals” that are fundamental for the this ability of both cells and the epigenome as a whole to “‘remember’ past events, such as changes in the external environment or developmental cues”[31]. These scientific descriptions of cellular epigenetics and of the epigenome as a whole sound very much like the “cobweb” self of the Enlightenment “characterized by receptivity rather than assertive dynamism”[32], constantly bombarded by impulses from within and without, whose continuity is guaranteed “only by memory”[33].


The actual genealogical connections between this Enlightenment self and the contemporary epigenome and the post-Kantian self and the gene have only yet been loosely traced. This comparison, though, suggests that as epigenetics and conventional genetics each mirror one of these different historical and philosophical conceptions of self, they each also reflect the accompanying ethical commitments of these different conceptions of self as well. Ultimately, while it remains to be seen to what extent there is a direct connection between the more open and fluid self of the Enlightenment and the contemporary epigenome, or between the fixed and atomistic post-Kantian self and the scientific definitions of genes, this foray into the history of science reveals some of the substantial differences in ethics produced by a concept of atomistic and autonomous essences versus diffuse and permeable essences.

As I discuss in more detail in this post and this postI contend that much of the current resistance to epigenetics, which is usually framed in scientific terms, is actually more a function of these unseen fundamental ethical incompatibilities than about the science. In reality, there are likely far more science-based reasons for the inclusion of epigenetics within genetics than for its exclusion, which actually makes this exclusion that much more of a puzzle, at least on scientific grounds.

Instead of fundamental scientific differences, I propose that the real challenges from epigenetics stem from the interconnectedness and openness it asserts, which run so counter to the basic ethical commitments of contemporary society. By way of comparison, the widespread acceptance and assimilation of conventional genetics likewise suggests that it shares the same basic ethical commitments as contemporary society, which ethical congruence both facilitates this acceptance but also camouflages these ethical commitments of genetics, thereby reinforcing its appearance of objective scientific value-neutrality. 

This post is therefore an effort to further establish more of the history and the parameters of these  fundamental ethical differences. Subsequent posts will further develop the unique ethics and ethical challenges from epigenetics. For even more detail, you can also read my paper-length treatment of the political implications of these fundamental ethical incompatibilities between genetics and epigenetics which I presented at the Association of Politics and the Life Sciences annual conference at Emory University in October 2014 here.

I am curious to hear what you think so far. Are these conceptual isomorphisms indicative of fundamental relationships? Or are they just coincidences? 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] Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.

[2] Daston and Galison (2007): 197.

[3] Daston and Galison (2007): 205-6.

[4] Daston and Galison (2007): 200.

[5] Daston and Galison (2007): 200.

[6] Daston and Galison (2007): 201.

[7] Daston and Galison (2007): 225.

[8] Daston and Galison (2007): 201.

[9] John Locke. 1995. Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, Book II Chapter 1 p. 59.

[10] Daston and Galison (2007): 203.

[11] Daston and Galison (2007): 203.

[12] Daston and Galison (2007): 209.

[13] Daston and Galison (2007): 203.

[14] Daston and Galison (2007): 200; 225.

[15] Daston and Galison (2007): 201.

[16] Immanuel Kant (1781). Critique of Pure Reason. J.M. Meiklejohn (trans.)  Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990: 77.

[17] Daston and Galison (2007): 201.

[18] Kant (1781): 79; Kant (1781): 77-8.

[19] Kant (1781): 300.

[20] Immanuel Kant (1785). Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Lewis White Beck (trans.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1997: 43.

[21] Kant (1785): 48.

[22] Daston and Galison (2007): 210.

[23] Daston and Galison (2007): 203.

[24] Daston and Galison (2007): 203.

[25] Moss, L. (2003) What Genes Can’t Do, Cambridge: MIT Press.

[26] Dawkins, R. (1989) The Selfish Gene, New York: Oxford University Press.

[27] Wilson, R. (2005) Genes and the Agents of Life: The Individual in the Fragile Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[28] Crick, F. “Central Dogma of Molecular Biology” Nature 227 (1970): 561-563.

[29] Guy RiddihoughLaura M. Zahn (2010). “What Is Epigenetics?” Science 330(6004), 611.

[30] http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/epigenetics/epi_learns/

[31] Roberto Bonasio Shengjiang Tu Danny Reinberg (2010). “Molecular Signals of Epigenetic States.” Science 330(6004), 612-616.

[32] Daston and Galison (2007): 225.

[33] Daston and Galison (2007): 201.


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