(Originally posted on the Oneness Hypothesis blog, as part of my work as a postdoctoral research fellow with the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy at the City University of Hong Kong)
Genetics, as the study of genes and heredity, is the predominant scientific account in contemporary society of the origins of life and its development. While the basic assumptions of the science of genetics are widely known and accepted, what is much less known or even recognized are the ethical and political commitments of the science of genetics.
As I discuss extensively on my site The Nexus of Epigenetics, these ethical and political commitments of the science of genetics are exposed by the recent emergence of epigenetics. In turn, the science of epigenetics provides a unique opening for the concept of Oneness, or that all things are inextricably intertwined with, part of, or in some sense identical with each other. The concept of Oneness is most associated with East Asian philosophies such as Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism, but via epigenetics Oneness has the potential to make significant contributions to both the scientific practice of genetics and more philosophical discussions of our understanding of our place in the world and of our relationships with each other and our environments from the perspective of genetics.
As shown in the guiding model of my project, there is a necessary relationship between the understanding of biology prevalent in a society, the prevailing concept of self, the prevailing ethics, and the prevailing politics:
Each vertex in this model is in constant tension with the other vertices. As one of the vertices in this network of relationships changes, so also must the other vertices change, and in commensurate ways (The intuition behind this model is straightforward: That in the long run the prevailing understanding of biology in a society will not fundamentally conflict with the prevailing conceptions of ethics or politics, and vice versa). As such, the prevailing scientific assumptions of genetics—as the predominant biological scientific explanation of the era—are necessarily coextensive with the prevailing ethics and politics of contemporary Western society, all of which revolve around the prevailing concept of self, which in this case is of individuals as atomistic and autonomous entities. (For more background on the development of the modern liberal individual in relation to the development of the science of genetics, read this and this and this.)
In this context, the recent emergence of the science of epigenetics—if, in fact, epigenetics does present a new understanding of biology—should also pose significant ethical and political challenges commensurate with its scientific challenges.
As I will show in this series of posts, epigenetics does introduce new knowledge of biology, and therefore introduces novel ethical and political challenges as well. As I will also show, these ethical and political challenges from epigenetics provide unique connections between cutting-edge Western life science and the concept of Oneness most often associated with East Asian philosophy, and actually back again to some of the often overlooked nooks and crannies of Western philosophy. Understanding the necessity of these connections, though, requires laying some important groundwork.
What is epigenetics?
Epigenetics refers to those biological mechanisms ‘above’ the genes which influence and regulate the expression of the genes but without a modification of the underlying gene sequences [watch this video from the University of Utah for a good visual introduction of the basics of epigenetics]. In a technical sense the study of epigenetics is thus perhaps best understood as a subfield of genetics, but the results from the research in epigenetics—and the tangled social and political history of epigenetics relative to genetics—complicate this classification.
Research in epigenetics involving both animals and humans has shown the epi-genome to be quite responsive to the environment, and also that many epigenetic modifications are being passed on to subsequent generations but not via changes in genetic sequence as required by the prevailing model of genetics. The influences from the environment which are manifesting as epigenetic modifications include exposure to specific chemicals, food choices, quality of maternal care, and even stress, just to name a few. Some of the effects of these epigenetic modifications in both current and subsequent generations are being identified as both physical maladies such as cancers, heart disease, and obesity, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism, again to name just a few of the effects. [For more on the science of epigenetics, read my research summaries of recent papers on epigenetics here.]
In other words, the scientific research on epigenetics is showing not only our direct physical connections to our environments, and our environments to us, but also that subsequent generations can manifest the effects of these environmental exposures without being exposed to these original causes. In a way, epigenetics, and epigenetic inheritance in particular, introduce ontological complications similar to those of the “spooky action at a distance” of quantum mechanics. However, per the guiding model of my project, as epigenetics poses legitimate challenges to our understanding of our biology it thereby poses even more immediate and direct challenges to our prevailing ethics and politics than similar challenges in other fields such as physics.
This new knowledge emerging from epigenetics not only introduces significant challenges to conventional understandings of gene-environment interactions, but also exacerbates many of the longstanding and unresolved fractures in modern liberal ethics. The complications from epigenetics for conventional liberal ethical perspectives such as rights theories and consequentialism will be discussed in another post, as well as some of the ways the concept of Oneness is uniquely equipped to address these challenges from epigenetics in ways that modern liberal ethical theories, with their ontological commitments to individualism, are not.
Likewise, per the guiding model of my project, this also suggests that the concept of Oneness could be uniquely equipped to address these challenges from epigenetics in ways that modern liberalism is not. The potential utility of the concept of Oneness for scientific practice will also be the subject of subsequent posts as I continue to develop these ideas.
What do you think? I am curious to hear your thoughts. Leave your comments below and I will respond.
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