Epigenetics and the geopolitical history of the 20th century


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

While there is a growing acceptance of epigenetics, there is still a lot of skepticism from within conventional genetics about the claims emerging from epigenetics. The most common rejoinders against the significance of epigenetics are either that the findings of epigenetics are novel but inconsequential, or that epigenetics has always been an accepted part of the conventional understanding of modern genetics and therefore does not pose any significant challenges[1]. These are two related but significantly different propositions.

Of these two propositions, the former is much less troublesome. Whether the findings of epigenetics are consequential or not is, or at least should be, resolvable through science-based trial and error—either the findings from epigenetics make substantive contributions to subsequent research, or they do not. In this context, the balance of evidence appears to be shifting more and more in favor of the validity and consequentiality of epigenetics[2]. However, whether epigenetics have always been a part of the accepted dogma of conventional genetics and therefore does or does not contradict the orthodoxy of genetics is more of a historical and philosophical question. While resolving the historical aspects of this question are, in principle, easily resolvable (e.g., what does a review of the relevant history reveal?), the resolution of the philosophical aspects of this question are much more problematic–this is the point where the guiding model of this project becomes most relevant.

Lost history?

As discussed elsewhere, there is an extensive common history between epigenetics and genetics going back to even before the emergence of modern genetics with the rediscovery of the findings of Mendel. This often agonistic history is marked by the rise of genetics coincident with the almost wholesale aversion to, and even open hostility towards, epigenetics. Beyond the significant internecine interdisciplinary disputes of the 1920s and 1930s, an open hostility towards epigenetics is manifest in the often overt blackballing of many epigeneticists which peaked during the late 1940s and early 1950s. An even more telling indicator of the extent of the professional indifference to epigenetics, though perhaps much less acute than the blackballing of epigeneticists, can be seen in the veritable lack of publication of epigenetics-focused research in scientific journals for decades, until fairly recently when this publication rate has risen at an exponential rate.

The contemporary justification for this until recent dismissal of epigenetics is along the lines that during these early years the empirical claims about epigenetics had been fed through the mill of science and ultimately rejected, thereby excluding epigenetics from any subsequent consideration. In this sense, epigenetics was perceived as similar to phlogiston theory from 17th century physics: a temporarily useful but ultimately rejected scientific diversion. The major wrinkle in this story, though, is that these previously dismissed claims from epigenetics are now being verified and extended through practically the same science as genetics. This revival is quite distinct from the comparison with phlogiston (how many physicists are currently working on the reinvigoration of the theory of phlogiston, compared to the number of people now working in epigenetics?).

That these claims of epigenetics which were dismissed and discounted as scientifically irrelevant for so long but are now being substantiated by the same science that previously denounced them suggests, per the guiding model of this project, that these earlier claims were likely decided on other than scientific (i.e., political and ethical) grounds. Again, while the political underpinnings of this attitude towards epigenetics are perhaps most apparent during the interwar and early Cold War periods, the philosophical roots of this scientific and political resistance to epigenetics and to epigenetics-like frameworks go back centuries. These are the roots which make the emergence of epigenetics a potentially profound political event.

A charitable account of these depictions of epigenetics as either not consequential or already orthodox is as the result of an unintentional myopia, and not as intentional misconstruals of this history. This lack of attention to—or even awareness of—the philosophical and historical roots of a science is a relatively recent post-Newtonian development in which the results of a natural science are taken as proof enough of their validity, requiring no other considerations of context or justification[3]. Before the successes of Newton came to define science-as-such[4], thereby fomenting the ultimate split between science and philosophy, science and political and ethical philosophy were considered as parts of a whole[5]. In fact, even Newton considered his work to be as much ethical and philosophical as scientific (e.g., as Newton describes his own approach to his work: “When I wrote my Treatise about our System, I had an Eye upon such Principles as might work with considering Men, for the Belief of a Deity; nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that Purpose”)[6]. This avoidance and even ignorance by contemporary geneticists of the historical and philosophical roots of their discipline is therefore understandable given the history of science, but the causes and the consequences of this forgetfulness are significant indeed.

Separated at birth?

In terms of the development of the normal science of genetics[7], if epigenetics had been incorporated into the modern synthesis of genetics as it was developing in the early 20th century, the empirical discrepancies introduced by epigenetics that are now so problematic would likely have been resolved long ago. Instead, conventional genetics developed through the 20th century along the particular trajectory that it did—which trajectory excluded or disqualified substantial aspects of epigenetics—to eventually ossify around a set of presumptions about the natural world. It is to these reified assumptions that epigenetics now presents the significant challenges that it does. To explain why genetics developed the presumptions that it did requires the inclusion of the political and ethical history of the West up to this time as well.

20th century geopolitics and (the absence of) epigenetics

Over the same period that the science of genetics was developing into what it is today, the politics and ethics of this time were likewise undergoing their own significant developments.  Per the guiding model of this project, these developments in genetics were necessarily congruent—or at least congruent enough— with the developments of the prevailing politics and ethics, and vice versa.

The necessity for this basic congruence between science, politics and ethics is practically tautological: To the degree that any one of these elements begins to diverge too far from any of the other elements, adjustments must be made to either the diverging element or to the other elements to bring them all back into a basic congruency. These adjustments can take many forms (e.g., theoretical ‘saving’ moves[8], political or ethical innovations, etc.), but these adjustments must and will take place. To propose that a widely embraced science would be allowed to remain indefinitely at odds with the prevailing ethics and politics, or that a politics and ethics would remain indefinitely at odds with the science without adjustment, strains logical credulity.

A genetics which incorporated epigenetics and its unique challenges (e.g., the interconnectedness of biological ‘insides’ and environmental ‘outsides’, transgenerational non-genetic inheritance, etc.) would also have influenced the coterminous development of the politics and the ethics of its time to reflect these novel influences from epigenetics. Instead, the science and the ethics and the politics of this time developed together—not in lockstep, by any means, but rather more along the lines of a mutually supporting homeostatic network.

By way of examples, consider the different uses of both genetics and epigenetics both between and within the different political regimes which arose during this time. Much has already been written about the juxtaposition of genetics in the Anglo-American sphere of political influence with epigenetics in the Soviet Union as reflective of important political and ideological differences. Even genetics, though, was similarly subject to significant modifications depending on political context. To wit—per Rudolf Hess’ declaration that National Socialism was “nothing but applied biology”[9]—the understanding and utilization of genetics in Nazi Germany was significantly different than in the Allied (non-Soviet) world in specific ways which reflected the prevailing political and ethical differences[10]. Even within Anglo-American sociopolitical history the newly emerging knowledge of genetics was subject to wildly different understandings and applications, perhaps exemplified best by the eugenics movements shared in common with eugenic movements in Nazi Germany[11].

In this context, and counter to the revisionist histories that the findings of epigenetics are novel but inconsequential, or that epigenetics has always been an accepted part of the conventional understanding of modern genetics, perhaps the best evidence of the novelty of epigenetics and of its exclusion from the orthodoxy of genetics is the remarkable consistency of the prevailing politics and ethics of the 20th century. This is not to say that these politics and ethics were stagnant over this time; in fact, these politics and ethics were in perpetual flux during this time, in keeping with the significant geopolitical events that mark this era (e.g., the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise and decline of fascism, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and so on). What is remarkable, though, is that given the extremity of all these upheavals the congruency between genetics and modern liberal politics and ethics was ultimately maintained (although this necessary congruency does prompt interesting counterfactuals such as how different would genetic science be if the Nazis had won World War II? Or if the Soviet Union had emerged as the winner of the Cold War?).

This dynamic consistency between genetics and modern liberal politics and ethics results from their common philosophical and metaphysical assumptions. However, these common roots are also a major reason the (re)introduction of epigenetics introduces a potential worldview—or rather a set of potential worldviews—as incompatible with the prevailing ideologies of our time as they are incompatible with the conventional understanding of genetics.

I am curious to hear what you think so far. Leave your comments below and I will respond.

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[1] Pigliucci, Massimo and Gerd Muller (2010). “Elements of an Extended Synthesis.” In Evolution: The Extended Synthesis, Eds. M. Pigliucci & G. Muller, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 4; Coyne, Jerry (2011). “Is ‘epigenetics’ a revolution in evolution?” https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/is-epigenetics-a-revolution-in-evolution/; Coyne, Jerry (2013). “More puffery about epigenetics, and my usual role as go-to curmudgeon.” https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/more-puffery-about-epigenetics-and-my-usual-role-as-go-to-curmudgeon/.

[2] For example, the emerging evidence in cancer research of the critical role of epigenetic mechanisms in tumor generation that is not reducible to or deducible from the genetic information available.

[3] Schliesser, E. (2011). Newton’s challenge to philosophy: a programmatic essay. HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, 1(1), 101-128; Schliesser, E. (2013). Newton and Newtonianism in Eighteenth-century British thought. The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century, 41.

[4] Feingold, Mordechai, 2004, The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] Cunningham, Andrew (1991). “How the Principia Got Its Name; or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously,” History of Science 39: 377-392; Grant, Edward(2007). A History of Natural Philosophy: From the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Excerpt from Newton’s letter to Peter Bentley in Holton, Gerald (1960). “Notes on the Religious Orientation of Scientists.” In Science Ponders Religion, Ed. Harlow Shapley. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts: 59); Osler, M. J. (2010). Reconfiguring the world: nature, God, and human understanding from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Europe. Johns Hopkins University Press, 159-164.

[7] Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago press.

[8] Bogen, J, and Woodward, J., 1988, “Saving the Phenomena,” Philosophical Review, XCVII (3): 303–352; Basu, P. K. (2003). Theory-ladenness of evidence: a case study from history of chemistry. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 34(2), 351-368; Massimi, M. (2007). Saving unobservable phenomena. The British journal for the philosophy of science, 58(2), 235-262.

[9] Kühl, S. (2002). Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism. Oxford University Press.

[10] Propping, P. (1992). Abuse of genetics in Nazi Germany. American journal of human genetics, 51(4), 909; Bachrach, S. (2004). In the name of public health-Nazi racial hygiene. New England Journal of Medicine, 351, 417-419; Weiss, S. F. (2010). The Nazi symbiosis: Human genetics and politics in the Third Reich. University of Chicago Press.

[11] Harper, P. S. (1992). Huntington disease and the abuse of genetics. American journal of human genetics, 50(3), 460; Sofair, A. N., & Kaldjian, L. C. (2000). Eugenic sterilization and a qualified Nazi analogy: the United States and Germany, 1930-1945. Annals of internal medicine, 132(4), 312-319; Scales-Trent, J. (2001). Racial purity laws in the United States and Nazi Germany: The targeting process. Human Rights Quarterly, 23(2), 260-307.

4 thoughts on “Epigenetics and the geopolitical history of the 20th century

  1. epigenetics in relation to some theories regarding warfare as an evolutionary phenomenon. could epigenetics redefine and ‘break’ warfare away from the evolutionary trap?


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