The history of eugenics in early 20th century science must be addressed because of the sheer magnitude of its influence in the science and the politics of this era, its relation to the science of genetics that was to come, and because it provides such a strong example of the guiding model of this book of the inextricable connections between ideology, politics, and biology.
While 16,000 views over three years are clearly not Kardashian numbers, it exceeds my expectations by literally 8888% (I did the math). So I want to thank everyone who has visited the Nexus of Epigenetics and who will visit in the future. Stay tuned for my forthcoming book, Epigenetics and Public Policy: The Tangled Web of Science and Politics, to be released January of 2018. If you like the blog, you are going to LOVE the book.
The convergence of political ideology and biology in the work of Waddington helps to explain the development of his conception of the epigenotype, and of epigenetics as the scientific study of this epigenotype. Likewise, this convergence of biology and ideology is equally pertinent for understanding the development of the science of genetics as we now know it, which until the last decade or so more or less excluded epigenetics from serious consideration.
This divergence between embryology and genetics appears to have occurred for legitimate scientific reasons, but also as “a struggle for power and authority.” These disciplinary differences coincided with the eventual sides taken in the Second World War. That genetics ultimately emerged as the hegemonic victor in science just as the U.S. emerged as the global hegemon after the war, is not merely coincidental.
One specific and particularly intriguing example of these differences in the content of the natural science of the 1800s due to social class and ideological inclination is the contrast in the description of natural selection by Alfred Russel Wallace with natural selection as described by Darwin.
These hopes for a better future via Lamarckian adaptations were predicated on alterations of current environments, which in turn required sweeping social and political changes. As such, Lamarckism became a fundamental aspect of many of the rationalist (i.e., secular) progressive reform movements of the mid-1800s...
Waddington’s diverse background, including his unorthodox politics, will be shown to have a significant influence in his ‘discovery’ of epigenetics, and also provides clues as to why epigenetics was as ignored it was until fairly recently.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck has had as much an impact on the political history of the modern world as any biologist, perhaps save Darwin—but, notably, much of this impact is based on misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Lamarck’s actual theory of evolution.
While there are aspects of Lamarckism and contemporary epigenetics which do pertain to each other, there are substantial differences between them. Contemporary epigenetics is also not inconsistent with Darwinian natural selection, and is properly a subset of conventional genetics. Thus, the guilt-by-association intended by this association of epigenetics with Lamarckism is both misleading and not an accurate description of either.