Genetics and Epigenetics Come Home from the War

Excerpt from my forthcoming book Epigenetics and Public Policy The Tangled Web of Science and Politics to be released February 2018 by Praeger

As discussed before, prior to World War II there were substantial geographical differences in the approach to and the understanding of genetics: There was the more European emphasis on embryology and on the processes of biological development which focused on the environment of the genes, in contrast to the emerging American focus on the genes as ultimately controlling development and heredity. These were the two main currents of biology that Waddington, with his feet planted firmly in both streams, attempted to combine through his postulation of the epigenotype and epigenetics. Eventually, though, the American-led emphasis on molecular genetics carried the day to become the sine qua non of biology in the West, relegating embryology and development to secondary status.

This outcome is usually portrayed as the product of the inevitable and impartial progress of science, but the material effects of the Second World War and its aftermath on the particular trajectory of the science of genetics are rarely considered. When these factors are taken into account, the inevitability or incontestability of this increasingly reductive focus of genetic research—including the decades-long exclusion of epigenetic mechanisms—are brought into question.

Other voices, other rooms

For example, the development of the science of genetics in France after World War II initially followed a substantially different path than in America.[1] Although the French genetics research program eventually merged into the international mainstream of molecular genetics by the mid-1960s—in part for the reasons to be discussed in a subsequent section—this initial development of a distinct and yet still fruitful focus provides a counter-balance to the conventional story of the inevitability of the gene-centric focus of molecular genetics as we now know it.

Genetics in France, as lead by the Russo-French geneticist Boris Ephrussi, was much more focused on the combination of embryology and genetics. Ephrussi, who was appointed to the first chair of genetics in France at the University of Paris after WW II, had, like Waddington, been initially trained in embryology but had also studied genetics in America under T.H. Morgan. After the war, Ephrussi discovered the non-Mendelian inheritance of deep physiological changes in cells, and other evidence of the significance of the cytoplasm in heredity.[2] Given these empirical results, Ephrussi pushed for the cytoplasm to be a focus of French genetics specifically against the American preoccupation with the nuclear gene.[3] Ephrussi  famously expressed his dissatisfaction with the distinctly Americanized position that heredity was exclusively controlled by the genes writing that “we cannot determine the truth of a hypothesis by counting the number of people who believe it.”[4]

Regardless of the efforts of Ephrussi and others to maintain a distinct concentration for genetics research in France, they were ultimately unable to resist the rising wave of the focus on molecular genetics emanating from America—coincident with the solidification of U.S. geopolitical hegemony.

Follow the money

In this context, especially given the dramatic ascension to superpower status of the United States following World War II, the distribution of the funding for scientific research in the postwar bipolar world constitutes a significant and often overlooked factor in the development of genetics and the virtual exclusion of epigenetics.

Until the first World War, most scientific projects around the world were funded by wealthy patrons, private benefactors, or industry, with only modest support from governments. Government support for science increased somewhat through the 1800s but never constituted much of an influence. After the first World War, government funding of science increased but was still not a significant amount, and even private sources of funding support for science had dwindled (for example, in 1931, total grants from American foundations amounted to just over $50 million, by 1934 it was $34 million, and by 1940 it was only around $40 million [5]).

With World War II, though, all of this changed dramatically—especially in the United States. Vannevar Bush, an engineer and vice-president at MIT, with a one page proposal and a fifteen minute meeting with President Roosevelt in June of 1940, was able to secure the funding for the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) to coordinate scientific research on “the problems underlying the development, production, and use of mechanisms and devices of warfare.”[6] The NDRC was then superseded a year later by the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), also overseen by Bush, which by 1946 was allocated in excess of $536 million from the Emergency Fund of the President for projects of all kinds, including the Manhattan project to develop the first atomic weapons.[7]

In the waning days of WW II, Bush submitted a report to President Roosevelt called “Science: The Endless Frontier” in which Bush proposed the continued funding of science by the government at wartime levels, but without the shackles of military utility.[8] In particular, Bush identified what he called “basic research,” or “research in the purest realms of science” without concern for direct application, as the proper focus of the government funding of science. “Scientific progress on a broad front,” Bush wrote, “results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.”[9] However, Bush also explicitly painted this scientific superiority in the light of maintaining national security, as the best defense against aggression. Congress eventually agreed with Bush, and created the National Science Foundation according to his recommendation.

As detailed extensively by Daniel Greenberg, Bush’s insistence on federal patronage for the definition and advancement of scientific knowledge in the United States was a dramatic departure from previous funding practices, which eventually came to characterize federal science policy after World War II—bringing with it substantial political and ethical concerns.[10] The scale of the government funding of science only escalated after the onset of the Cold War, quickly becoming the new norm as universities competed for this funding to fuel “the steepest expansion of higher education in American history (if not the whole world).”[11] For example, by 1953 the federal funding in the U.S. for ‘basic’ research alone was over $256 million, and federal research contracts constituted more than 90% of the annual operating budget of MIT.

The sheer magnitude of the funding available for science in the U.S. at this historical moment after World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War is especially extreme when compared with the situation in Europe where, for example, as part of the Marshall Plan the U.S. was in the process of spending $12 billion ($120 billion in current value) to rebuild the infrastructures and economies of Europe. In other words, at this crucial historical moment in the development of the science of genetics, substantial financial resources for scientific work were readily available to those involved in promoting a distinctly molecular and atomistic focus for genetics. In contrast, those who were developing alternatives to this molecular focus in Europe not only had to conduct their work within demolished infrastructures being rebuilt with substantial material support from the U.S., but also had to appeal to external sources primarily from the U.S.—where molecular genetics was the emerging consensus—for much of the funding for their scientific work.[12]

The road not taken

Again, in the context of the development of the orthodox science of genetics, which practically excluded epigenetics for so long, the question of who had access to money and resources for research and who did not is very much a live issue. While the gene-centric focus of molecular genetics is now often perceived as the obvious and inevitable victor over other potential alternatives, these financial factors, combined with the geographical, political, and ideological factors discussed before, instead describe a drastically lopsided playing field.

All this is not to say that mainstream genetics is therefore invalid, to be replaced by epigenetics (if anything, I hope this history has demonstrated just how inseparable are genetics and contemporary epigenetics). Rather, this is to suggest that the ascendance of the molecular emphasis of genetics that developed from out of this historical moment—including the decades-long omission of epigenetics—was contingent on many other factors beyond purely scientific considerations which influenced the science and the research of this time. Had it not been for this particular convergence of factors, the science of genetics which resulted after World War II may have been significantly different, even potentially incorporating epigenetic mechanisms into its basic theoretical frameworks sixty years or more before the recent explosion of interest in epigenetics. If epigenetics had been incorporated into the orthodoxy of genetics at this earlier time, as it very well could have been given other circumstances, then not only would it not be as controversial as it is now, but we would also already be sixty years beyond the advances in our understanding of gene function which we are just now gaining from the recent work being done in epigenetics.


[1] Burian, R. M., Gayon, J., & Zallen, D. (1988). The singular fate of genetics in the history of French biology, 1900–1940. Journal of the History of Biology21(3), 357-402.

Burian, R. M., & Gayon, J. (1999). The French school of genetics: From physiological and population genetics to regulatory molecular genetics. Annual Review of Genetics33(1), 313-349.

Gayon, J., & Burian, R. M. (2004). Timeline: National traditions and the emergence of genetics: the French example. Nature reviews. Genetics5(2), 150.

[2] Ephrussi B. (1953). Nucleo-cytoplasmic relations in micro-organisms: their bearing on cell heredity and differentiation. Oxford.

[3] Sapp, Jan. (1986). Inside the Cell: Genetic Methodology and the Case of the Cytoplasm. In The politics and rhetoric of scientific method: Historical studies (Vol. 4), Schuster, J. and Yeo, R.R. eds. Springer Science & Business Media.

[4] Ephrussi (1953); This line by Ephrussi was actually a paraphrase of an earlier comment by the philosopher of science J. H. Woodger—a close friend of Waddington and also a member of the Theoretical Biology Club at Cambridge—who wrote elsewhere that “Admittedly, some hypotheses have become so well established that no one doubts them. But this does not mean that they are known to be true. We cannot determine the truth of a hypothesis by counting the number of people who believe it, and a hypothesis does not cease to be a hypothesis when a lot of people believe it.” [Woodger, J. H. (1948). “Observations on the present state of embryology”. Symposium of the Society for Experimental Biology. 2 (Growth in Relation to Differentiation and Morphogenesis].

[5] Neal, H.A., Smith, T.L. and McCormick, J.B., 2008. Beyond Sputnik: US science policy in the 21st century. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

[6] James Phinney Baxter III, Scientists Against Time (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1946), p. 14; draft of order attached to undated, unsigned memorandum in OSRD Box 212.

[7] Stewart, Irvin (1948). Organizing Scientific Research for War: The Administrative History of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Boston: Little, Brown and Company

[8] Bush, V., 1945. Science: The Endless Frontier: a Report to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific Research, July 1945. United States Government Printing Office.

[9] Bush (1945).

[10] Greenberg, Daniel S. (2001). Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[11] Kaiser, David. (2011). The Search for Clean Cash. Nature 472 (7341), pp. 30–31.

[12] Strasser, B. (2003). The transformation of the biological sciences in post‐war Europe. EMBO reports4(6), 540-543.


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