Epigenetics and Public Policy: The Tangled Web of Science and Politics

The cover art for my forthcoming book Epigenetics and Public Policy: The Tangled Web of Science and Politics has been approved, and a tentative release date set (February 2017).

Stay tuned here, as I will post excerpts and work in progress as I finish the writing of this book.


“This book comprehensively considers the political implications of the emerging science of epigenetics in specific policy domains, addressing the intersections of epigenetics with cancer, obesity, the environment, and the law. Author Shea Robison carefully navigates the messy history of genetics and epigenetics in order to explore what changes in public policy might come in the age of a new scientific frontier. Readers will understand how new findings in epigenetic research and increased acceptance of epigenetic science may lead to paradigm shifts in cancer prevention and treatment, significantly different policy solutions for combating obesity, and revised statutes of limitations and laws regarding civil and corporate liability and wrongful life.”

The first section of the book details the current state of the science of epigenetics.

In the second section I detail the political history of epigenetics going back to the 1800s. This history is inextricably intertwined with both the scientific development of genetics and with many of the most important political movements of the 19th and 20th century, from the rise of Progressivism in the United States, to the Cold War. This often overlooked historical context is critical for understanding both the science of epigenetics and the implications of epigenetics for contemporary public policy.

In the final section I discuss these policy implications of epigenetics in the context of specific policy domains such as obesity, cancer research, and environmental policy. In particular I use a policy narrative approach to analyze the different ways epigenetics challenges existing policy narratives in these domains, and suggest how epigenetics can introduce novel narratives into these policy domains. I also have a chapter on the potentially profound implications of epigenetics for the law.

Epigenetics and the Extended Synthesis


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

Epigenetics is just one aspect of what is being called the Extended Synthesis of evolutionary biology[1], in distinction to what is referred to as the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology. This Modern Synthesis is the fusion of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian evolution as interpreted through the theory and practice of population (i.e., statistical) genetics[2]. This integration of ideas is called the Modern Synthesis because until the synthesizing work of Theodosius Dobzhansky and others during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution were actually competing and seemingly irreconcilable paradigms[3].

The major tenets of the Modern Synthesis can be summarized as 1) that populations contain genetic variation which arises by random (i.e., not adaptively directed) mutation and recombination; 2) that populations evolve by changes in gene frequency through random genetic drift, gene flow, and especially natural selection; 3) and that most individual phenotypic effects are very slight, so that most phenotypic changes are very gradual[4].

The most salient aspects of the Modern Synthesis in the context of this post are first, the emphasis on populations and not on individuals in describing variation; second, the emphasis on randomness as the source of variation; third, the lack of adaptiveness (i.e., lack of responsiveness to the immediate environment) which results from this assumption of randomness as the source of variation; and, finally, that phenotypic variation is very slight and very gradual. Epigenetics poses significant challenges to each of these basic. assumptions

While each of these tenets was derived through scientific methods, for all their scientific pretenses each of these assumptions have a long non-scientific history which predates their incorporation as tenets of the Modern Synthesis. These tenets and their attendant assumptions constitute a very specific ethical framework which allows certain interpretations of behaviors and outcomes and excludes others. However, this framework and these ethical implications of these scientific assumptions are often not recognized as such. What is this underlying ethical framework of genetics and what are the politics which result from this framework will be discussed, but the main point is that these ‘scientific’ assumptions are actually the doorway through which ethics and politics steal into the henhouse of science.

The Extended Synthesis in one sense, as indicated by the name, is properly understood as the extension of the Modern Synthesis and not its replacement. As explained by Massimo Pigliucci:

Let me again be clear on a fundamental point underlying this whole discussion: one can reasonably argue that none of this contradicts any tenet of the [Modern Synthesis], although it seems to me at least reasonable to concede that the new concepts and empirical findings…may eventually force a shift of emphasis away from the population genetic-centered view of evolution that characterizes the [Modern Synthesis][5].

In this sense at least the Extended Synthesis and its constituent parts are not fundamental challenges to genetics. In particular, according to Pigliucci, this shift of emphasis merely involves the incorporation into conventional genetics and developmental biology of concepts such as evolvability, phenotypic plasticity, epigenetics, complexity and the nonlinearity of adaptation in high-dimension adaptive landscapes[6].

However, this point of view does not consider the ethical implications of these extensions of conventional genetics. At the level of science, it is probable that these ideas can eventually be incorporated into the theoretical structure of genetics without too much difficulty, but this does not consider the possible ethical and political issues that might be involved. In fact, there are likely far more science-based reasons for their inclusion than for their exclusion, which actually makes the exclusion of fields like epigenetics from genetics that much more of a puzzle: If there are so many science-based reasons for the inclusion of epigenetics within genetics, why has it been so maligned for so long? A plausible answer is that there are even stronger non-scientific reasons for this exclusion of epigenetics, and my working theory in this post is that these non-scientific reasons are a function of key differences in the ‘hidden’ ethical commitments of epigenetics and conventional genetics. Thus, again the focus of this post is on first revealing the unseen ethical commitments behind conventional genetics, then elaborating the ethical commitments of epigenetics, and analyzing the political implications of these new ethical challenges presented by the (re)emergence of epigenetics.

Also, at this point I do not know if the other components of the Extended Synthesis share the same background ethical commitments as epigenetics and therefore constitute a coherent ethical whole as does the Modern Synthesis, or if the ethical commitments of these different components are unique from each other, or much else about the ethical landscape of the Extended Synthesis. My assumption is that the underlying ethics of these other components of the Extended Synthesis will at the least be more similar to those of epigenetics than of conventional genetics, but this is work that will have to wait.

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

Also, if you find these thoughts I’ve shared interesting and worthwhile, Like this post, Reblog it, or Tweet about it using the buttons below.

[1] Pigliucci, M. & Muller, G. (2010). Evolution: The Extended Synthesis. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[2] Mayr, E. (1980). The Evolutionary synthesis: perspectives on the unification of biology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[3] Burian, R. (2005). The Epistemology of Development, Evolution, and Genetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. See also Bowler, P. J. (1983). The Eclipse of Darwinism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press; Bowler, P. J. (1988). The Non-Darwinian Revolution. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; Bowler, P. J. (1989). The Mendelian Revolution. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; Depew, D. J., and B. H. Weber (1995). Darwinism Evolving : Systems Dynamics and the Genealogy of Natural Selection. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; Gayon, J. (1998). Darwinism’s Struggle for Survival: Heredity and the Hypothesis of Natural Selection. Translated by M. Cobb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Provine, W. B. (1971). The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

[4] Futuyama, Douglas (1986). Evolutionary Biology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer: 12.

[5] Pigliucci, Massimo (2007). “Do We Need an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis?” Evolution 61(12): 2743-2749.

[6] Pigliucci, Massimo (2007). “Do We Need an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis?” Evolution 61(12): 2743-2749.

When it Comes to Epigenetics, How Much Fun is Too Much? Comment and Reply


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

This post began as a simple reply to a comment from Alison M to this post about epigenetics and drug discovery, but suddenly bloomed into a full-fledged post of its own. Below is Alison M’s original comment in italics for purely aesthetic purposes, followed by my reply (and I think Alison is actually responding to more than one post here, including this one about epigenetics as a possible bridge between the sciences):

TBH, I don’t think that combining the fields [genomics and epigenetics], at least at this point, would be beneficial to either. Both are still in discovery, and the known mechanisms of action of genetics and epigenetics are different enough that they might not ever be appropriately combined. Epigenetics needs to be better presented, especially to the public, so that it doesn’t fall prey so much to magical thinkers – not only for the sake of understanding, but also so that its legitimacy can be embraced by other scientific fields.

In this, some researchers do themselves no favors. Even Dr. Jirtle has some articles on his site that present ideas that look more like speculation than hypotheses. These are good for getting attention, but what I see among laypeople as a result is the wrong kind of attention. Bruce-Lipton-level wrong kind of attention.

Thanks to Alison M for taking the time to post her comments.

First, I definitely appreciate her point about both fields still being in discovery mode, and how the known mechanisms of both genetics and epigenetics are possibly different enough to defy unification even in the future when they have both ‘matured’ so to speak. However, one of the questions I still have about this integration of epigenetics and genetics is ‘But why not?’ (How is that for an emotional/unscientific reply? Having said that, I think I have more than merely emotional responses to support this question)

In this post and this post I discuss the first divergence of epigenetics and genetics in the 1920s, which had both scientific and less-than-scientific components to it, and in this post and this post I discuss some of the political (i.e., non-scientific) reasons for the subsequent…stigmatization (for lack of a better word) of epigenetics until fairly recently. My question through all of these posts is what if these circumstances were different during these  pivotal times?

Just as biological evolution can take many different trajectories depending upon initial conditions and random events (e.g., killer asteroids, etc.), so can the evolution of science. Given the influence of these non-scientific influences just mentioned, it is easy to imagine alternative circumstances in which epigenetics and genetics evolved together at this relatively early stage of both their developments such that today there are no disciplinary boundaries between what we call genetics and epigenetics as Dr. Jirtle proposes. Forgive my philosophyspeak for a moment, but there are no “ontologically objective”[1] reasons that genetics and epigenetics are mutually distinct fields; in fact, there would seem to be more reasons for them being unified than being distinct fields. However, given the path dependent nature of both biological and scientific evolution as discussed here, because these fields diverged when and how they did, epigenetics now represents some pretty fundamental challenges to genetics in both methods and conclusions (e.g., transgenerational inheritance). Again, though, there is no objective reason this should be—all we know is that this is the case now.

Finally, I wholeheartedly support the suggestion that epigenetics needs to be presented better than it currently is. The core of my dissertation—soon to be made Flesh, so stay tuned—is discussion and analysis of the different narratives of epigenetics that are emerging in major media outlets. I have posted elsewhere about the impact of epigenetics in the sciences and academia relative to the mass media for public consumption, as well as about some of the current misconstruals and misinterpretations of epigenetics amongst the general public, precisely because such misconstruals bring the wrong kind of attention and distract from what epigenetics actually is and does. In my professional career—and personally, because I am just fascinated by this stuff—I am concerned with the political implications of epigenetics both in terms of policies based on epigenetics as well as the internal and external dynamics of the science of epigenetics. This is why I also think more rigorous and sound presentation of epigenetics within the scientific community and to the general public is critically important—though by no means does the careful use of terms and definitions guarantee anything, as we can all think of instances of the misappropriation of genetics despite the best efforts of geneticists, from the insipid use of genetics, such as “DNA Love Connection?”[2] to the truly scary uses, such as the eugenics movements of the early 20th century.

To this end, @EpiExperts and @EpgntxEinstein recently recommended a very cogent commentary in the form of a review of an incredibly interesting-looking book[3] on this issue of the recent popularization of epigenetics (not to mention the blog post which kicked this whole thing off). While the author of the article proposes a definition of epigenetics that is perhaps too restrictive for my tastes, I still appreciate the effort to rein in the ‘Bruce-Liptonizing’ of epigenetics as Alison M wrote in her comment (and no offense intended to Bruce Lipton, whom I do not know and who I assume is a wonderful and well-intentioned and sincere person).

In the end, although I appreciate the almost intoxicating excitement that comes from witnessing the emergence of a field of research like epigenetics, at this point more caution in the description, interpretation and popularization of epigenetics is probably better than less…but hopefully not so much caution that it takes all the fun out of it.

[1] By which is meant phenomena which are ‘observer-independent’ (from Searle, John R. The construction of social reality. Simon and Schuster, 1995: 9-10)

[2] Special thanks to @AlexisCarere for bringing this gold mine of an example of genetics gone awry to my attention

[3] Weissmann G. (2012) Epigenetics in the Age of Twitter. Bellevue Literery, New York, NY.

Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics IV: Did Aristotle and Aquinas Discover DNA?


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics I

Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics II

Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics III

The next step in the chain of reasoning that produces both the modern self and the genome, and which also helps to explain both the scientific and non-scientific objections to epigenetics, is the elaboration of the soul in relation to the body, principally through the scholastic theology of Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225 to AD 1274).

In defining the fundamental nature of persons, Aquinas and other scholastic theologians of his time borrowed heavily from Aristotle for their definitions of basic terms such as substance, form and matter as they pertain to the soul and the body. ‘Matter’ in this Aristotelian sense should not be understood in the purely tangible sense that we understand today, but rather as “that which has the potentiality to be actualized into an existent entity,” while ‘form’ is to be understood as “the inherent principle which makes the existent entity what it is.”[1] In other words, matter is not of itself real because it cannot exist by itself without this form, and this form is only actualized through matter. ‘Substance’ is therefore neither form nor matter, but rather the combination of the two which results in a determinate individual able to exist independently.[2]

This Aristotelian typology was applied by Aquinas and the other scholastic theologians to explain the soul as the source of physical individuation which constitutes an individual person distinct from its surroundings and from other persons. In Aquinas’ own words—in language remarkably reminiscent of the description of genes in the Modern Synthesis—not only is the soul “the primary actuality of a physical bodily organism,”[3] the soul is also “a substance in the manner of a form that determines or characterizes a particular sort of body,”[4] to the extent that “it is impossible that a soul, one in species, should belong to animals of different species.”[5] In other words, “the type of essence (soul) instantiated defines what type of entity the particular entity is—it defines the natural kind to which the individual belongs,”[6] such that for Aquinas and the other scholastic theologians living substances were distinguished by their souls, which imbued them with their basic species-specific attributes.[7]

The conceptual similarities between this theological soul—which is the seat of our contemporary ethics—and scientific DNA—which is the focus of contemporary genetics—are, I hope, at least apparent at this point. These conceptual similarities between our ethics and our science, because they share the same ontological roots, are also are the locus of the challenges of epigenetics to both our contemporary ethics and genetics.

For example, if you substitute ‘DNA’ for ‘soul’ in Aquinas’ own words you get “[DNA] is the primary actuality of a physical bodily organism” and that “[DNA] is a substance…that determines or characterizes a particular sort of body,” and that “it is impossible that [DNA] one in species, should belong to animals of different species.” By way of comparison, the definition of DNA given on Nature magazine’s Scitable website is as a substance which “a human, a rose, and a bacterium have in common…along with every other organism on Earth,” but also which “ultimately determines each organism’s unique characteristics.”[8] Likewise, the entry for DNA on simple.wikipedia describes how “DNA stores information that tells the cells how to create that living thing,” and how “parts of this information that tell how to make one small part or characteristic of the living thing – red hair, or blue eyes, or a tendency to be tall – are known as genes.”[9] The only basic aspect of DNA that is not mentioned by Aristotle and Aquinas is how it is inherited; this will be addressed in subsequent posts.

That the roots of this form/matter ontogeny which at once both produced the modern self and the modern genome extend all the way back to Aristotle, prompted Max Delbrück, one of the founders of molecular biology and a Nobel laureate himself, to suggest the appropriateness of a posthumous Nobel prize for Aristotle “for the discovery of the principle of DNA.”[10] Others have also remarked upon the deep conceptual similarities between this Aristotelian and Thomist concept of the soul and DNA. Thomas Jackson, in an article published in The Guardian newspaper, observes how well our contemporary concept of genes reflect these ancient and Medieval ideas:

“Most of all, though, Aquinas would have been entranced by the idea of genes. If ever there were an Aristotle-friendly idea this is it. Genes illustrate both of Aristotle’s two fundamental principles. One is that immaterial forms do not exist in some nebulous heaven, as Plato thought, but are embedded in material things themselves. This is exactly what we find in genes.”

Jackson also observes how our modern concept of genes reflect “Aristotle’s other big idea,” which is “act and potency”:

“Everything is potentially the something else that it is already ordained to be. Bronze becomes statues, not primroses, live humans become dead ones, not alarm clocks. The whole essence of genes is that they are potentially the actual things that they already in some essential sense are. Genes are potentially phenotypes and phenotypes are activated genes.”

Jackson does not pursue the implications of this congruence between this theological concept of the soul and the scientific conception of genes, but the molecular biologist and bioethicist Alex Mauron does in an article in Science titled “Is the Genome the Secular Equivalent of the Soul?” In this article Mauron writes:

“With the complete human genome sequence now at hand the notion that our genome is synonymous with our humanness is gaining strength. This view is a kind of “genomic metaphysics”: the genome is viewed as the core of our nature, determining both our individuality and our species identity. According to this view, the genome is seen as the true essence of human nature, with external influences considered as accidental events…Part of the prima facie plausibility of our genome as the definition of our humanness comes from the blending of ideas of nature, stability, immutability, and genes – if a trait is in the genes, there is nothing that can be done about it.”[11]

With these last observations of Mauron, we are getting closer to explaining—at least in part—the roots of the antagonism against epigenetics often observed from geneticists, as well as the implications of epigenetics for environmental ethics. There are a couple of other important coincidences between this theology of souls and the science of genes which are relevant to the challenges presented by epigenetics which will be discussed in more depth in the next post in this series.

One coincidence mentioned by Mauron is the emphasis both Aristotle and Aquinas place on substance versus accidents in the formation of things, and its corollary in genetics of Crick’s central ‘dogma’ of molecular biology which details how information emanates out of but not back into DNA. The other coincidence is the idea of souls as essences which precede and endure after the dissolution of the individual body, which has its genetic corollary in the transmission of the genome through inheritance.

For now it is enough to say that one of the fundamental challenges of epigenetics to conventional genetics involves the inheritance of environmental ‘accidents.’ While conventional genetics allows that environmental influences may affect the expression of the genome, these accidents are supposedly discarded via processes such as genomic imprinting, rendering a pristine copy of the form or soul of the species to the next generation. Research in epigenetics, though, demonstrates that in certain contexts these accidental influences are not erased and are actually passed on to subsequent generations—in Thomist/Aristotelian terms, the pure form of the soul becomes accidental, which cannot be within the ontological framework erected to support this notion of the soul; in genetic terms, traits acquired during the life of an organism are inherited, which within the ontological framework erected around modern genetics also cannot be. In both cases, substantial changes are required to incorporate this new evidence from epigenetics.

Is there substance to these historical connections I am drawing between the development of this ‘self’ as the seat or our ethics and the genome and genetics? Or is this just historical happenstance? What further support is needed to validate this connection? What do you think?

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

Also, if you find these thoughts I’ve shared interesting and worthwhile, Like this post, Reblog it, or Tweet about it using the buttons below.

[1] J.P. Moreland and Stan Wallace, “Aquinas versus Locke and Descartes on the Human Person and End-of-Life Ethics,” International Philosophical Quarterly (Vol. Xxxv, No. 3 Issue No. 139 Sep. 1995).

[2] Aristotle. Metaphysics: 1029a28

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, trans. K. Foster et al (London: Kegan Paul, 1951), II.1. 233.

[4] Ibid. II.1. 221

[5] Thomas Aquinas. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros. 1981), I.76.2.

[6] J.P. Moreland and Stan Wallace, “Aquinas versus Locke and Descartes on the Human Person and End-of-Life Ethics,” International Philosophical Quarterly (Vol. Xxxv, No. 3 Issue No. 139 Sep. 1995).

[7] Mauron, A. “Is the Genome the Secular Equivalent of the Soul?” Science 291.5505 (2001): 831-832.

[8] http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/DNA-Is-a-Structure-that-Encodes-Information-6493050

[9] http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetics#DNA

[10] Delbruck, M. “Aristotle-totle-totle.” Of Microbes and Life. Ed. J. Monod and E. Borek. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. 50-55

[11] Mauron, A. “Is the Genome the Secular Equivalent of the Soul?” Science 291.5505 (2001): 831-832.

Early Life Nutrition, Epigenetics and Programming of Later Life Disease


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

Early Life Nutrition, Epigenetics and Programming of Later Life Disease

Author: Mark H. Vickers

Journal: Nutrient

Publication Date: June 2, 2014

Affiliation: Liggins Institute and Gravida, National Centre for Growth and Development, University of Auckland, 85 Park Road, Grafton, Auckland 1142, New Zealand

Policy Implications: This paper is a review of the human and animal studies of epigenetic changes in early development – many of which can be passed on to multiple generations – which manifest as metabolic conditions later in life. Some of the conditions in the studies which are cited which contribute to increased incidence of metabolic disorders in later life are maternal nutrition and paternal obesity at the time of conception. Therefore, the most obvious policy implications from the research cited in this review are for obesity policy: That circumstances such as maternal nutrition and paternal weight – which are ostensibly under the control of the parents – are found to be such significant factors in the subsequent metabolic diseases of their offspring provides support for obesity prevention policies which focus on the behavior and choices of the parents. However, this focus on the choices and behaviors of parents as a matter of policy raises all sorts of personal liberty and individual freedom issues which would also need to be addressed, especially in  political cultures like that of the United States which emphasize individualism and personal responsibility.

Summary: This paper is a review of the contemporary work being done on epigenetic changes in early development which manifest as metabolic conditions later in life. As such, it is a good source for recent research on this topic.

As the author writes, there is a substantial body of work in epigenetics on the effects on fetal and post-natal development of methylation or demethylation resulting from maternal nutrition, levels of maternal care, and other environmental conditions. This paper focuses on the phenotypic effects of epigenetic modifications during these developmental stages which manifest as metabolic conditions such as obesity and metabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes much later in the life cycle. The author presents evidence from human epidemiology and animal models, and discusses transgenerational epigenetic programming in particular as an example of the long-term effects of epigenetic modifications in early development.

In regards to human epidemiology, the author acknowledges that the evidence linking these epigenetic changes to metabolic diseases later in life is limited for humans, but cites evidence for the inheritance of tissue-specific DNA methylation patterns. The author also refers to studies which have found epigenetic differences between twins related to life history, and to studies on the Dutch Hunger Winter (1944-1945) cohort in which significant epigenetic changes in later life have been correlated with different early developmental stages during the famine. The author also mentions that while macronutrients have been implicated in such changes, maternal micronutrient levels (such as vitamin B12) are of particular interest, as is parental obesity at the time of conception.

In reference to the animal studies, the author cites the substantial evidence that has been gathered for the manifestation of these early epigenetic changes in later life. As cited by the author, researchers have extensively studied the effects of maternal undernutrition, restricted intrauterine growth, and paternal obesity in animals. The author also summarizes different intervention strategies studied by epigeneticists “to ameliorate or reverse the effects” of this early developmental programming. These include neonatal leptin treatments, remethylation via dietary intake, and exercise, which have all been shown to change DNA methylation in ways which reduce or prevent subsequent manifestation of these metabolism-related disorders.

Evidence of the transgenerational inheritance of acquired characteristics is perhaps the most interesting and the most controversial results of research in epigenetics. As the author notes, there is substantial evidence for both the germline and somatic inheritance of non-genetic traits, and that the transgenerational inheritance of these non-genetic traits has the potential to “result in a population-wide manifestation of a phenotype over several generations,” and that “such transmission can exacerbate the rapid onset of phenotypes such as obesity and diabetes currently observed in human populations.”  The author reviews a number of studies which show the non-genetic transmission of traits to the F1 generation, and some which show such inheritance to the F2 generation and even the F3 generation. However, the author also cites a meta-analysis of nine transgenerational studies which were carried through to F3, and that five of these studies failed to show any effect. Again, though, paternal nutrition and paternal obesity are both shown to initiate transgenerationally-inherited epigenetic changes.

Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics III: Genetics and the Rise of Christianity


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics I

Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics II

Epigenetics and Environmental Ethics IV

The previous section established the historical foundations of the concept of the autonomous ‘self’ upon which are constructed both modern ethics and contemporary genetics. This section will continue the historical elaboration of this concept, focusing on the influence of theological metaphysics on what becomes our modern notion of this self, which is the common thread between the challenges of epigenetics to genetics and to conventional ethics.

That epigenetics challenges conventional genetics is already well known and well travelled ground; that epigenetics also challenges our conventional ethics is not as well known. This topic is better suited to a book-length treatment, so the coverage in these few posts is perfunctory at best. My intention in this series of posts, though, is to provide at least a glimpse of how and why epigenetics constitutes such a fundamental challenge to both conventional genetics and conventional ethics (exemplified in this case by environmental ethics).

Science-based doubts about the claims of epigenetics are fair game, and can and should be addressed through scientific methods; but as discussed here and here and here, much of the denial of and antagonism towards epigenetics of the past decades and even today can hardly be characterized as neutral and science-based. If this hostility towards epigenetics is not based in science, then where does this hostility come from? Identifying the origin of this non-scientific hostility towards epigenetics is the purpose of these posts.

As discussed in previous posts and as will be discussed in subsequent posts, one of the reasons epigenetics poses such a significant challenge to genetics—and provokes the disproportionately hostile reactions cataloged here and here—is because the nature of the phenomena described by epigenetics also challenges our deeply ingrained conventional ethical systems. For these reasons, and given the deep common intellectual heritage between the modern self and the modern genome described in this series of posts, much of the seemingly moral outrage against epigenetics is in fact a form of moral outrage—though it is hardly ever recognized as such.[1]

The previous post ended with the classical Roman legal concept of a person as distinct from things that can be owned by persons, and of a self composed of both a reasoning/moral capacity and a physical body which is directed in some way by this capacity. The relationship assumed to exist between persons and their surroundings is obviously an important component of environmental ethics. Our contemporary perceptions of human personhood are defined in part in distinction from our environments. These perceptions feel so obvious and self-evident to us as to be beyond question, but there is no ontological necessity to them; rather, as evidenced by the environmental ethics from the Upanishads referenced here, they are contingent on a whole tangled nest of propositions and assumptions established through a long intellectual and physical history. This series of posts lays out the framework of the nest of assumptions which underlies both our contemporary environmental ethics and modern genetics, which is why epigenetics constitutes such fundamental challenges to both.

However, the realization of the modern self upon which our ethics are based still requires its current metaphysical foundation (which provides the philosophical roots of this modern self), as well as its physical explanation (which provides the root of the gene or genome as an embodiment of this individual self). Both of these were provided—paradoxically enough, especially in the case of the science-based genome—through the scholastic theology of the Middle Ages, which combined different concepts from the ancient Greeks, classical Roman thought and a very specific form of Christianity.

Given the conception of the human ‘self’ as the center of reasoning and individuality as formulated by the classical Romans, the missing ingredient for the unity of attributes which we now call the modern self is provided by the emergence of Christianity in the Roman Empire. In his analysis of the history of personhood, Marcel Mauss identifies evidence of the trend towards unification of these different components into one self in the decision of the Council of Nicea (AD 325), which pronounced the unity of the three persons of the Trinity into one.[2] Mauss doesn’t mention it, but the decision of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), which pronounced as official church doctrine the hypostatic nature of Christ as composed of both spiritual and physical natures in one person is perhaps even stronger evidence of this tendency.[3] Regardless, these ecclesiastical decisions were either pivotal in or indicative of a trend towards consolidation of multiple natures into one personality distinct from its environments and other personalities, eventually resulting in the modern bounded, integrated, distinctly individualized self which factors so prominently in both contemporary ethics and in the science of the Modern Synthesis of genetics and evolution.

The culmination of the combination of 1) the Roman legalistic conception of persons as separate from each other and their things, and 2) the gradual addition of a moral consciousness (or what became the soul or mind), and 3) these doctrinal pronouncements regarding the unification of seemingly disparate parts into wholes was accomplished by Boethius (AD 480 to AD 524). Boethius—a particularly pivotal figure as “the last of the Roman philosophers, and the first of the scholastic theologians”[4]—provided the definitive description of a person as a naturæ rationalis individua substantia, or “an individual substance of a rational nature”[5]  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, in this official doctrinal definition of ‘person,’ naturae is a collection of properties specific to a species, rationalis indicates a uniquely human cognitive faculty, by individua is meant that which cannot be further subdivided; and substantia refers to substance in a metaphysical sense, by which is meant those things which exist in their own right, which excludes accidental causes (as Boethius also wrote, “we see that accidents cannot constitute a person”). In other words, by this point in history a human person was becoming defined as an irreducible individual substance distinguished from all other individual substances by the possession of uniquely human qualities, and insulated from accidental influences from the environment—which description is again reminiscent of how genes are described.[6]

The next step that is crucially important in establishing the connection between the modern self and the genome, and which helps to explain why epigenetics constitutes such a challenge to both conventional genetics and ethics, is the elaboration of the soul and its relation to the body, principally through the scholastic theology of Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225 to AD 1274). This will be discussed in the next section. It may seem odd that theological debates from the Middle Ages would contribute anything to contemporary genetics—ethics, sure, but the assertion that philosophy has had any such influence on science likely stretches credulity for most—but such is the case, as will be shown.

Again, this topic is better suited to a book-length treatment, so the coverage in these few posts is perfunctory at best, but hopefully I am able to sketch out these important connections between our conventional ethics, contemporary genetics, and the hostility towards epigenetics. And hopefully explaining the source of some of these other-than scientific objections towards epigenetics will help those engaged in epigenetics research and the policy discussions to present their results and recommendations in ways that make them more palatable to those not familiar with this historical background.

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

Also, if you find these thoughts I’ve shared interesting and worthwhile, Like this post, Reblog it, or Tweet about it using the buttons below.


[1] I want to be clear, though, that I am not saying that the concept of the self and the physical genome are the same (i.e., that the self is located in the genome, etc.), only that because of this common intellectual heritage they share many fundamental similarities in how they are described,and that these similarities help to explain why epigenetics is now perceived as such a threat.

[2] Mauss, M. “A category of the human mind: the notion of person; the notion of self.” The Category of the Person: Anthropology, Philosophy, History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. 1-25.

[3] Martin Lembke, lecture in the course “Meetings with the World’s Religions”, Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, Spring Term 2010.

[4] Boethius. The Theological Tractates. London: William Heinemann, 1918. x.

[5] Boethius. The Theological Tractates. London: William Heinemann, 1918. Chapter 3.

[6] Catholic Encyclopedia Online < http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=9193>.

Ben Laufer and His Comments on “Gene Sequence but not Structure?”


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

Ben Laufer, an epigeneticist specializing in the effects of fetal alcohol exposure, recently left a comment to a recent post I wrote on the costs of excluding considerations of epigenetics when sequencing genomes for diagnostic and predictive purposes.

One main point of this original post is that not only is gene sequence important in gene expression, so is the physical three-dimensional structure of the genome. This structure is determined and manipulable through the interaction of the epigenome with its environment, which is the focus of study of epigenetics. As a result, while genome-focused approaches such as genome-wide association studies (GWASs) and genome-wide complex trait analyses (GCTAs) can reveal genetic sequences associated with certain outcomes, such processes are not able to account for the physical structures of genomes which also play a significant role in genetic expression, which means these more conventional methods of genetic analysis are missing a substantial part of the story. The take home point of the article is that the inclusion of epigenetic analyses with these more standard genomic analyses would go a long ways towards revealing the biological substrates of diseases and other issues.

In his comment, Ben affirms that when it comes to analyzing genes for diagnostic or predictive purposes, conventional practice is to “look at the genetic contribution and ignore the epigenome even though it can explain that missing heritability that is written off by many as ‘environment.'” Because of considerations like those just mentioned, Laufer writes, “research needs to focus on the complete picture, which is how genetic variation reacts with the epigenome to produce our phenotypes.”

In other words, genomics and epigenetics are not – or at least should not be – competing paradigms; rather “the disciplines are so intimately intertwined that they shouldn’t be considered separate disciplines,” and that instead of a competitor epigenetics is actually “the next evolutionary phase of Genetics.” These thoughts echo the sentiments of Dr. Randy Jirtle highlighted here and here about the unifying potential of epigenetics.

Laufer also comments about the nuts and bolts future of epigenetics,  Despite all the potential for significant discoveries yet to be made in epigenetics, Laufer writes that he fears the longstanding historical hostilities directed towards epigenetics – some of which are detailed here and here and here – still deter a lot of researchers who are on career paths in the sciences from engaging in epigenetics research. Ben sees a lack of public communication as instrumental in dispelling this lingering suspicion about epigenetics, and that epigenetics can only benefit from more public resources like this blog and and Dr. Jirtle’s outreach efforts in encouraging others to be engage in epigenetics research.

I want to thank Ben for taking the time to comment on this post and to offer the insights that he does as a person actively engaged in epigenetics research. If you would like to read more about Ben Laufer and his specific research interests and his views on epigenetics, check out his Internet hub here, or his Q&A on GermlineExposures.org, which also hosts a number of other Q&As with other experts in the field.

Do you think epigenetics is a competitor with genomics or the next evolutionary phase of genetics?

Do you think more researchers should be engaged in epigenetics, or not? I appreciate the example Ben provides as a lab researcher on a career path of his own who despite the hostility often directed towards epigenetics is still able to show that research in epigenetics need not be a controversy-filled dead end, but can actually be a respected career path (see this article and this article for a rundown of the market prospects of epigenetics-focused research). What else can be done to encourage young researchers to engage in epigenetics?

I am curious to hear what you think. Leave me a comment on this or any of the other posts on this blog and I will respond as soon as I can