Why Epigenetics and Politics? The Response

To begin my response to this excellent comment on a previous post, I think I need to point out a couple of different aspects of my approach to epigenetics (which I explain in much more detail in my book) that are germane to the questions asked and observations made in this critique.

In general, there are two main emphases for my interests in epigenetics: the scientific side, and the political/philosophical aspects. These are necessarily related to each other in many different ways (e.g., the political and philosophical aspects would not exist without the scientific work being done in epigenetics, just as politics has had a substantial influence on the development of the science—again, a major focus of my book), but they can also be quite disconnected from each other in different contexts (e.g., political uses can be made of the science which ignore important findings or critical assumptions).

Given how intertwined the science and the politics can be, though, it is often difficult to separate them and their effects or influences in different domains, but this is the crux of much of my approach. In this sense, on the one hand, some of my arguments are contingent on the eventual validation of controversial scientific issues, such as true transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. On the other hand, just the revelation of enhanced interconnectivity with each other and with our environments via epigenetics introduces substantial political complications, not to mention just the possible political uses to which even invalid interpretations of epigenetics could be put.

Epigenetics and policy

Regarding the observations about the low likelihood of policies to restrict individual choice based on scientific or medical research as evidence against the notion that epigenetics might have a substantial effect on public policies, in a pure bolt of serendipity, just after I read this comment someone posted an extensive thread on my Twitter feed loaded with references on just this issue of ‘crack babies,’ and particularly about the differences in framing and policy narratives due to politically salient issues such as race (here: http://bit.ly/2KQHWFh). I also did a quick Google search on “criminalization of drug use during pregnancy” (http://bit.ly/2wrpvE4), which came up with 31,900,000 results about all the different ways that this kind of thing is actually a substantial focus of public policy and government action.

While on the one hand it might be that—for now—there are not any formal criminal laws about mothers for their actions during pregnancy, there are still multiple ways in which this is very much a concern of the State, and in which scientific research and medical evidence directly informs policy. For example, from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in 2011 (and reaffirmed in 2014):

Although no state specifically criminalizes drug abuse during pregnancy, prosecutors have relied on a host of established criminal laws to punish a woman for prenatal substance abuse. As of September 1, 2010, fifteen states consider substance abuse during pregnancy to be child abuse under civil child-welfare statutes, and three consider it grounds for involuntary commitment to a mental health or substance abuse treatment facility.[1]

Likewise, another more recent article describes how prenatal drug use is now considered child abuse in 23 states, and how in 2014, Tennessee passed a “fetal assault” law that criminalized drug use during pregnancy based on the ruling of a district court judge that such actions constituted “substantial risk of harm to a minor,” which decision was subsequently endorsed by a federal level U.S. Attorney as valid precedent for sentencing guidelines.[2] There are also laws in most states dictating that physicians can or even must release the drug test results of expectant mothers to law enforcement without the authorization of the mothers, and so on.

And all this is just in the domain of drug use during pregnancy—for example, more broadly, there are an increasing number of legal actions being brought by children against their parents based on ‘wrongful life’ claims which I detail more extensively in my book, and which I excerpt here. As such, I think this comment greatly underestimates the number of different ways that policy happens and thus the potential for the timbre of these laws and policies to change in reaction to emerging scientific evidence like epigenetics—especially when that evidence can be used to affirm preexisting biases or realize politically expedient outcomes.

These kinds of policies are already being made and promoted under the more conventional understanding of genetics, in which biological cores are assumed to be more or less fixed, such that things like prenatal drug use constitute ‘accidents’ on this fixed biological substrate.[3] My primary interest in these areas pertaining to epigenetics is how much these public and State responses might change in response to valid—or even invalid—information that this biological substrate is not as inviolate as has been assumed? The history of the development of the science of genetics with the virtual exclusion of epigenetics until quite recently, which is a main focus of my book, repeatedly demonstrates changes in politics and policy coincident with changes in the science, and vice versa. As such, these kinds of contemporary questions are just extensions of this history.

In addition, given the current state of affairs, I am curious about the urgency and the manner with which such issues might be addressed in the light of something like true transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. If these kinds of policies are being promoted now, when the only ‘victim’ being implicated is the one fetus, what kinds of policies could result from the exponential expansion of this circle of ‘victims’ to include multiple generations? If there are significant costs to be borne in the future from this exponential expansion of the scope of impact, there will inevitably be political conflicts over who should be morally and fiscally responsible for those consequences. And so on. There are obviously no solid answers to these questions yet, given the state of both the science and contemporary public policy, but my project is to begin to ask these questions now in the case that the science of epigenetics begins to make its way into the public policy domain.

Epigenetics and philosophy

I also assert that there is a coherent underlying rationale for these kinds of political actions, from the legal doctrines or principles that are deployed in courts to the largely unspoken implicit assumptions of people in society at large. This turns the focus to the more fundamental philosophical issues at hand, because of the ways these political decisions reflect specific underlying assumptions about the nature of the individual, and of the relation of individuals with their environments and with each other.

In the context of the underlying philosophical underpinnings of America in particular, I will agree that the Founding Fathers did not mean equality in a genetic sense, primarily because how they conceived of biology or the inheritance of traits does not translate readily into our contemporary concepts. However, I will disagree that they meant a primarily spiritual equality, or that they intended equality as the erasure of “biological or factual inequalities” such that all persons (or even just men) should considered literally equal, though explaining this line of thought is a complicated circuit to complete.

There is a much more extensive discussion to have on this point,[4] but for now I will say that my reading of Enlightenment thought, and particularly of the nascent conception of human biology of the prevailing figures of this era including the Founding Fathers, was that the human body was much more open to the environment than we now think, but also that there was a natural hierarchy. For most of them, per the thought of John Locke, etc., the goal of refashioning government was to reconfigure the environment so that the natural tendencies of people were allowed to flourish. That said, they also thought of themselves and those of their ilk as natural aristocrats who were being stymied in their development by a monarchy, so removing those strictures would allow their class to naturally rise. At the same time, they very clearly perceived and described the common folk as naturally much less capable for tasks like government, which should be left to the natural aristocrats, though republican government would allow even these common people to more fully realize their much more limited capacities than under a monarchy.

Although this is a much different conception of biology and politics than our own, our current conceptions of ethics, politics, and of biology—which are all based on a much more atomistic conception of the individual—did develop out of this way of thinking, so there is a ‘genetic’ inheritance of sort from their thought to ours. The process through which their prevailing conceptions evolved into our currently predominant conceptions of science and politics is a major focus of my book, constituting the entire middle section. The end result, though, is the distinct emphasis on the unique conception of the individual that is characteristic of modern liberalism writ large, and the basic assumptions of the sciences which developed apace with modern liberalism and this conception of the individual.

As I go into much more detail elsewhere, to us modern liberals in the West this conception of the individual feels self-evidently true, so much so that its underlying assumptions are now practically invisible to us. However, all of this is very much a contingent product of a specific intellectual and cultural history. Other cultures, for example, developed with much different conceptions of the individual—and therefore of society—resulting in much different ethical, political and even scientific traditions. These fundamental philosophical differences were the focus of my research as a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Comparative and East Asian Philosophy in Hong Kong—in particular regarding the unanticipated congruencies between East Asian conceptions of the individual and the scientific knowledge coming out of epigenetics.

For example

One area which aptly illustrates these political and philosophical complications from epigenetics is in the reprogramming of the parental genomes after fertilization. It is well-established that the genes of embryos undergo waves of ‘washing’ to ostensibly remove the epigenetic markers of the parents, or the residue of their environmental exposures and other experiences, thereby rendering a now pristine genome (i.e., one returned to its original condition).[5] To assert the congruence of this conception of a washed genome with the Lockean conception of people being born as Blank Slates, to then be constructed through their own experiences and not as the product of the experiences of their predecessors, does not seem as much of a stretch suggested in this comment, especially given the common history of these ideas. That this Lockean conception of people as fundamentally free and independent individuals is a cornerstone of modern liberalism also seems an uncontroversial assumption.

As such, any complication of the understanding of the biology on this point is equally a complication of one of the basic premises of modern liberalism. Work being done in epigenetics is suggesting and now even showing that not all of these epigenetic markers are always being scrubbed or reset during these stages, and that other epigenetic errors are accumulating and propagating during these processes, resulting in significant gene-level defects in development, but not from alterations of DNA sequences.[6] Work is also being done to link these types of early epi-genetic anomalies to health outcomes later in life, along the lines of the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) hypothesis.

Thus, to the question about how these epigenetic causes would be different from other environmental and genetic factors resulting in less than optimal outcomes, my main point in this regard in a politics and policy context pertains to the connection to the environment that is being explored or exposed by the work in epigenetics. In particular, I am interested in the potential for determining and assigning responsibility for health-related outcomes via epigenetics. We already have ways of describing and discussing inheritance of behaviors from environmental exposures (e.g., psychology), which also involves determining responsibility, and which are also usually based on this prevailing concept of the unitary individual. Likewise for genetics, although what is particularly interesting in this regard is that conventional genetics usually obviates the assignation of responsibility for such outcomes as being either indelibly fixed or random (i.e., beyond human control).

What I suggest is that we don’t yet have similar explanations in place for epigenetic-type phenomena, which are different enough from the conventional psychological and genetic explanations to require their own responses. As such, the degree to which causal connections can be established via epigenetics between the actions of persons or entities at one point in time with the health-related experiences of individuals of a subsequent time would present substantial complications for conventional politics and policymaking, at least until such responses are eventually institutionalized. My project, then, is to begin the discussion of what these political responses might or should be.

Once again, I want to thank the person who left this extensive comment on my work, which provided me this opportunity to (hopefully) explain and justify why I think the political implications of epigenetics are a worthy topic for discussion, even at this early moment in the emergence of the science involved in epigenetics. I hope I was able to answer at least some of her questions.

[1] Substance abuse reporting and pregnancy: the role of the obstetrician–gynecologist. Committee Opinion No. 473. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Obstet Gynecol 2011;117:200–1.

[2] https://www.drugaddictionnow.com/2017/01/20/legal-consequences-using-drugs-pregnant/; This law was also subsequently repealed, but that it was passed at all, and that the original court decision was endorsed by a federal level official indicates that such outcomes are possible, and also seem to be indicative of a growing trend.

[3] There is a very extensive discussion implied here regarding these ‘accidents’ on fixed forms that basically involves the central thrust of Western cultural and intellectual history from the Greeks through today, and particularly through Aristotle and Aquinas, that I have written about elsewhere, but which I cannot delve into at this point.

[4] I go into much more detail about this point in my recent conference paper “Radical Bodies: The Political Biology of the Enlightenment and Contemporary Political Theory” that I presented at the recent Midwest Political Science Association annual conference. The basic gist, though, is that there were at least two major streams of Enlightenment thought, the Mainstream or Moderate version, and the Radical Enlightenment. From my reading, Western intellectual and cultural history developed from out of the Moderate Enlightenment, but employed Radical rhetoric (the intellectual justifications of the American ‘Revolution’ being a prime example of this). The central point of this paper is that the primary differences between the two Enlightenments revolve around their differing conceptions of the human body. For the Moderate Enlightenment, the human body and mind (or spirit or soul) were increasingly conceived as atomistic and autonomous. From out of this conception of individual unity and autonomy, I assert elsewhere, have developed contemporary psychology, politics, and science of genetics. In contrast, the thinkers of the Radical Enlightenment promoted a much more porous and interconnected conception of the individual, which I assert is much more congruent with recent developments across a number of sciences, including epigenetics in genetics.

[5] To wit, the point that some of these embryonic genes might be altered in some way, resulting in Down’s, Williams’, or Klinefelter’s Syndromes, seems a non sequitur in this context, as ‘pristine’ of itself does not require perfection or purity (these are synonyms, but something can be pristine qua restored to its original form and not perfect or pure). Otherwise, I would have to be asserting that equality in this sense means that everyone is born perfectly ‘normal’ at the genetic level, instead of that their genomes are presumed to be rendered as blank slates.

[6] For example, see http://genesdev.cshlp.org/content/28/8/812.full for a recent review

2 thoughts on “Why Epigenetics and Politics? The Response

  1. My apologies for the late reply (life has been busy.) I did not know that about the various regulations; thank you for the information.

    Disclaimer: a friend of mine was a crack baby. She’s a lovely person, but is constantly in pain.
    I don’t want people to end up like her, but I’m glad she exists. My first impulse is that someone who would do such a horrible thing to a baby deserves to be punished, but would this kind of legislation simply encouraged her (biological) mother to have an abortion? My friend is not suicidal; she wants to be alive, even if life is difficult.

    In general, such legislation strikes me as misguided. Getting the police involved is highly punitive (what are the effects on a developing fetus of being arrested and involuntarily committed?) and has a major negative effect on people’s ability to do the kind of productive behaviors that are associated with getting off drugs, like hold down a job or have stable housing.

    We can look at the gov’t’s history with public health programs. Some turned out better than others. Prohibition went quite badly. Everything “Opiod Epidemic” looks like it’s spiraling out of control. On the other hand, regulation on cigarette advertising has probably been beneficial; I suppose the jury is still out on the long-term effects of marijuana deregulation in some states.

    Gov’t nutrition policy was probably good when it gave people food stamps but quite bad when it promoted trans fats (based on nutrition “research” that was not nearly as sound as people thought it was–which should be a sobering lesson about the urge to let politicians make public policy off what they think the science says.)

    Not that my opinions count for much, but I think programs that promote healthy behaviors would be more effective and beneficial in the long run.

    But let’s look at another example. Drug use is generally limited to individual behavior, often of very poor or otherwise marginalized people. What about mining disasters, toxic waste spills, wars, etc? Perhaps the guilty parties should be made to pay–but mining companies already routinely declare bankruptcy to avoid paying for their mistakes–I doubt this behavior is going to change. Any legislation in this direction, while well-intended, seems likely to be ineffective at best.

    Of course the gov’t itself has certain obligations. What about the children of the men marched into atomic bomb blasts, or exposed to agent orange? (eg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWSMoE3A5DI) But the gov’t has so far been really bad about paying up for the damage it caused directly, much less the claims of the children of those hurt, so I’m not holding my breath on this. [“I got tortured in a Nazi POW camp and all I got for it was an accusation of going AWOL.”]

    There seems also a risk of discounting people’s present abilities based on epigenetic claims. Right now the left likes to claim things like “Native Americans suffer epigenetic trauma that makes them do badly in school and continue the cycle of violence,” but it is easy to see how this can morph into “Native Americans are helplessly destined to be dumb and violent.”

    I think the Left wants epigenetics to be a “get out of genetics free” card, but in the process they’re replicating genetic determinism, just at a different point in the organism. They’re going to be very disappointed if the results of their advocacy are the police arresting poor black women because they couldn’t afford prenatal vitamins.

    The question of what exactly the Founding Fathers (and common man) thought in 1776 is fascinating, but not necessarily relevant to current policies. Those Americans believed a wide variety of things, from Puritans (predestination) to Southern aristocrats (slavery) to affable Quakers. I suspect equality was not so much a philosophical position for the average man so much as a practical one–the man who survived by his wits in the wilderness, clearing the land, building his farm, etc., far from the civilizing and protective umbrella of the cities, was a law unto himself, enforced by violence or not at all. In essence, man was free not because he had read Locke, but because he had a gun and would shot anyone who said otherwise.

    Regardless, no matter how, erm, clean your genome is, you don’t get from genes to Lockeian blank slates. You still have genes, some good, some bad.

    Most people (even libs) acknowledge a combination of “nature and nurture” in shaping the individual. It’s only at the extremes that people start wholesale denying that genetic differences exist (“Women only do worse than men at sports because they’ve internalized norms of feminity that make them lose;” “Dog breeds are identical in temperament; any differences in behavior are entirely due to training,”) but there is always pressure on moderates not to contradict the extremes; not to mention a fear among libs that any acknowledgement of genetic differences between people or groups will embolden the conservatives.

    In this they are simply wrong–genetic differences exist; the Blank Slate is nonsense; and people who think genes influence behavior tend to be more tolerant, not less (eg https://mobile.twitter.com/SteveStuWill/status/995978801518559234/photo/1#tweet_995978801518559234 ).

    Modern liberalism cannot be saved so long as it rests on incorrect factual statements about the world. Sooner or later the results are either mass suffering (eg, the Soviet Union) or mass discrediting of the idea and the rise of a new one.

    >”We already have ways of describing and discussing inheritance of behaviors from environmental exposures (e.g., psychology),”

    Unfortunately, much of psychology is terribly broken. Priming, stereotype threat, implicit bias, Freudianism… they’re all either nonsense or have failed to replicate. The most reliable results, imo, are drug-related. Prozac works pretty well for depression; lithium works for bi-polar; risperidone lets schizophrenics lead relatively normal lives. Any drug can be abused or mis-prescribed, but the results with some of the most effective psychiatric drugs are really quite amazing. Psychology, by contrast, is at best talking with people about their problems, giving them a supportive space to vent and think things through.

    In the end, I suppose my thoughts summarize to caution. It is easy to over-estimate how much we know and toss together legislation that ends up having unexpected effects. There might be some areas where better knowledge of epigenetic effects can lead to superior policy making (various dietary/nutrition supplementation programs like the promotion of folic acid for expectant mothers, fluoridated water, iodized salt, etc., have already IMO caused great improvement in public health.)

    I hope people can be on the lookout for ways to improve life, rather than merely punish.


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