Epigenetics and Ideology


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

In a previous paper I discuss at length the more immediate practical political implications of epigenetics via its impact on the two dominant causal narratives in obesity policy: the salience of individual responsibility versus the influence of environmental or institutional factors. In particular I detail how epigenetics complicates the alleged opposition of these two narratives by incorporating elements of both narratives resulting in the (as yet potential) production of novel narratives about obesity. I conclude that one of the most politically significant aspects of the recent emergence of epigenetics is that in complicating the alleged opposition of these conventional narratives in the ways that it does, epigenetics also thereby opens the way for all new policy approaches to obesity.

Further, I also conclude that because the prevailing narratives of obesity are the predominant narratives in a number of other policy domains as well, these political implications of epigenetics extend well beyond just the policy domain of obesity. Therefore, the complications introduced from epigenetics into the narratives of obesity are likely to have similar reverberations in these other areas as well. In this way, these significant implications from the recent emergence of epigenetics discussed in the previous chapters apply across a broad range of policies.

However significant these practical implications of epigenetics for policy might be, they are only a reflection of much more profound philosophical challenges from epigenetics that strike at the roots of our conventional politics and ethics. These more profound challenges are the focus of my project.

Epigenetics and ideologies

For example, in the paper referred to above I detail the distinct ideological associations of these two conventional narratives, but only hint at the potential effects of epigenetics on these underlying ideological orientations themselves. Just as epigenetics complicates the supposed opposition of these narratives, epigenetics likewise complicates the supposedly opposed ideological orientations from which these narratives originate—the critical difference being the scope and the scale of the consequences from the complication of political ideologies that is introduced by epigenetics.

In this context, an ideology is to be understood as “the shared framework of mental models that groups of individuals possess that provide both an interpretation of the environment and a prescription as to how that environment should be structured”[1] or, more specifically for the purposes of this post, as the “set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved”[2]. Extensive discussion and empirical research has isolated two distinct worldviews—labeled conservative and liberal—as basic ideological orientations[3]. Subsequent research has located the origin of these ideologies in fundamental psychological[4] and possibly even physiological[5] differences between people (i.e., there are two basic ways of modeling and perhaps even perceiving the world which are adequately captured within either the conservative or the liberal rubric).

Differences along these ideological dimensions have been found across many seemingly politically irrelevant domains such as squeamishness and preferences in art or sports[6]. In the context of politics, ideological orientation has also been repeatedly correlated with significant differences in political attitudes and preferences as well as with significant differences in actual voting behaviors—corresponding to the ‘left’ (liberal) and ‘right’ (conservative) distinctions so prevalent in contemporary politics. (There are any number of other political orientations to be sure, but, as will be shown in subsequent posts, the vast majority of these are expressible as different combinations of these two ideological dimensions.)

Notably, as reviewed by Jost et al. (2009), the political content and expression of these ideologies and their juxtaposition against each other are not only consistent across the contemporary Western political world but also pertain to “age-old disputes” about the proper organization and purpose of society. In other words, the politics of the Western world have been and still are organized around the supposed opposition of these two basic ideological orientations. As a result, any legitimate challenges to either the content or the juxtaposition of these two ideologies would have significant consequences for the modern liberal political system as a whole. As will be shown, epigenetics presents just these kinds of fundamental challenges to both the content and the juxtaposition of these ideologies and therefore poses significant—if not yet recognized—challenges to the hegemony of modern political liberalism.

Epigenetics and How the West was Won

A reasonable question at this point is how does epigenetics—as a scientific practice—connect with these ideologies and their politics so as to introduce these fundamental ethical and political challenges? The answers to this question are found in the unique cultural history of the West.

First, the political and ethical commitments which constitute modern Western liberalism and its two prevailing ideologies are not random (qua unexplainable) outcomes, but are rather the product of the specific intellectual and cultural developments which constitute the history of the modern Western world. To deny the randomness of this history, though, is not to assert that this development has been inevitable or progressive or purposive in the sense of being steered towards a specific goal; rather, the trajectory which has resulted in our current state of affairs has been truly contingent in both senses of the word, as both depending upon prior circumstances but also subject to chance at certain moments. Still, regardless of this lack of inevitability, a path can be retraced back through this history which helps to explain why this history took the numerous turns that it did to produce the current configurations of ethics and ideologies and politics which constitute modern Western liberal politics today. This historical path both provides and explains the compelling political and ethical relevance of the (seemingly) sudden emergence of epigenetics.

Second, the political and ethical history of the West is, per the guiding model of this project, inextricably intertwined with the scientific history of the West, revealing the extent to which politics, ethics and science do not just overlap but are actually fundamentally joined to each other. To wit, the same political history which produced modern Western liberalism is the same history which has produced modern genetics with its (until recent) denigration of epigenetics, as discussed here and here and here. The emergence and the embrace of genetics within modern Western liberalism, while not inevitable, is also not random (in the sense of being unexplainable or accidental) but is easily comprehensible when situated within its political and ethical contexts. In the same way, the denigration and even outright denial of epigenetics for so long is also comprehensible when situated within these same political and ethical contexts: genetics dovetailed with the prevailing politics and ethics where epigenetics conflicted with these politics and ethics. By the same token, given this fundamental association of science with politics and ethics, that epigenetics is now gaining more and more acceptance within scientific circles suggests that commensurable political and ethical changes are also underway as well. The early identification of these political and ethical currents in the face of these contemporaneous changes in science is the primary purpose of this project.

To contemporary ears this fundamental association of science with politics and ethics sounds absurd, as the antithesis of true science. The dissociation of science from politics and ethics is the root of our contemporary conceptions of scientific objectivity, which objectivity is often celebrated as the source of the unique explanatory power of modern science. For example, while science can and should inform politics, to even speak of politics as influencing a scientific work is to taint that science as suspect and corrupted. However, for most of Western history science and politics and ethics have been inextricably linked; only relatively recently was science unlinked from politics and ethics. As will be discussed in more depth in subsequent posts, most of the scientific breakthroughs which constitute modern Western science were also openly and intentionally ethical and political in nature, including, for example, the epoch-marking scientific advances of Isaac Newton which completed the foundations of modern science as we understand it[7]. That these scientific breakthroughs were realized with the explicit recognition of their ethical and political implications—and in many cases actually realized because of these ethical and political implications—prompts questions as to the necessity and even the validity of this alleged unlinking of science from politics and ethics which produced modern science.

As will be shown in subsequent posts, epigenetics is particularly apt as a tool to demonstrate the ultimate failure of this alleged unlinking of science from ethics and politics, and to also reveal the ethical and political commitments hidden within so much of contemporary science. Subsequent posts will fill in this scientific, ethical and political history, tracing this path from the naturalism of the early Greeks through the Christianity of St. Augustine and the physics of Newton to the liberal political philosophy of John Locke and beyond, culminating in modern genetics. The end product will show how the scientific challenges of epigenetics to genetics are isomorphic of the challenges presented by epigenetics to the prevailing ideologies and ethics and politics of our time.

I will post my thoughts as they develop. There will be some hopefully illuminating surprises along the way (for example, that before Gregor Mendel started cross-breeding his pea plants he was a physicist trained in Newtonian dynamics, and was also an Augustinian friar–given the interconnectedness of ethics and science and politics, these are not inconsequential factoids but are rather important signposts).

I am curious to hear what you think so far. 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] Denzau AD, North DC. 1994/2000. Shared mental models: ideologies and institutions. In Elements of Reason: Cognition, Choice, and the Bounds of Rationality, ed. A Lupia, MC McCubbins, SL Popkin, pp. 23–46. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

[2] Erikson RS, Tedin KL. 2003. American Public Opinion. New York: Longman. 6th ed

[3] Huntington, S. P. (1957). Conservatism as an Ideology. American Political Science Review, 51(02), 454-473; Conover, P. J., & Feldman, S. (1981). The origins and meaning of liberal/conservative self-identifications. American Journal of Political Science, 617-645.

[4] Jost, J. T., Federico, C. M., & Napier, J. L. (2009). Political ideology: Its structure, functions, and elective affinities. Annual review of psychology, 60, 307-337.

[5] Tybur, J. M., Merriman, L. A., Hooper, A. E., McDonald, M. M., & Navarrete, C. D. (2009). Extending the the behavioral immune system to political psychology: are political conservatism and disgust sensitivity really related?. Evolutionary psychology: an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behavior, 8(4), 599-616; Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., & Rees, G. (2011). Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults. Current biology, 21(8), 677-680; Smith, K. B., Oxley, D., Hibbing, M. V., Alford, J. R., & Hibbing, J. R. (2011). Disgust sensitivity and the neurophysiology of left-right political orientations. PLoS One, 6(10), e25552; Jost, J. T., & Amodio, D. M. (2012). Political ideology as motivated social cognition: Behavioral and neuroscientific evidence. Motivation and Emotion, 36(1), 55-64; Hibbing, J. R., Smith, K. B., & Alford, J. R. (2014). Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(03), 297-307.

[6] Jost JT, Glaser J, Kruglanski AW, Sulloway F. 2003. Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychol. Bull. 129:339–75 Greenberg J, Jonas E. 2003. Psychological motives and political orientation—the left, the right, and the rigid: comment on Jost et al. 2003. Psychol. Bull. 129:376–82; Jost, J. T., Napier, J. L., Thorisdottir, H., Gosling, S. D., Palfai, T. P., & Ostafin, B. (2007). Are needs to manage uncertainty and threat associated with political conservatism or ideological extremity? Personality and social psychology bulletin, 33(7), 989-1007; Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D. A., & Bloom, P. (2009). Conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals. Cognition and Emotion, 23(4), 714-725; Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D., Iyer, R., & Haidt, J. (2012). Disgust sensitivity, political conservatism, and voting. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(5), 537-544; Hoberman, J. M. (2014). Sport and political ideology. University of Texas Press.

[7] Feingold, Mordechai, 2004, The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Smith, George, “Isaac Newton”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/newton/.

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