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 Adaptation: Ethics in Evolution


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

A forthcoming paper titled “Holocaust exposure induced intergenerational effects on FKBP5 methylation” by Rachel Yehuda and many others is sparking considerable debate about epigenetics, mostly—according to my Twitter feed, at least—as critiques of this paper. I do not have access to the Yehuda paper, and so I am unable to discuss the appropriateness of its methods or the validity of its conclusions, but luckily that is not what I find most interesting about the responses evoked by this paper. Instead, given my focus on the politics and ethics of epigenetics, what I find of particular interest is a blindspot regarding the ethical implications of conventional evolutionary theory revealed by some of these critiques of this paper.

Epigenetic inheritance and the Holocaust

The takeaway of the Yehuda paper, according to the authors, is that they have been able to demonstrate for the first time the “transmission of pre-conception parental trauma to child associated with epigenetic changes in both generations, providing a potential insight into how severe psychological trauma can have intergenerational effects.”

The trauma in question is direct experience with the Holocaust, and the authors claim to show that the Holocaust survivors in their sample demonstrated significantly more methylation at a specific DNA base in the gene compared to controls, and that the offspring of these survivors showed significantly less methylation at that same site than control offspring. The gene in question is the FKBP5 gene, which has been associated with depression and stress responses, and a previous paper by Torsten Klengel et al. (2013)[1] has shown that traumatized individuals show decreased methylation at this site. Therefore, the causal chain suggested by Yehuda et al. is that the experiences with the Holocaust of one generation increased the methylation at this gene, which resulted in the decreased methylation at this site in their offspring who now exhibit the methylation patterns of being exposed to trauma without having been exposed to the original trauma of the Holocaust.

Epigenetics and the ‘adaptation’ blindspot

So why has this paper attracted so much criticism? And what is the blindspot?

On the one hand, there are a number of methodological and interpretive issues with the paper which are already addressed in other critiques. That being said, most of these issues seem like science-as-usual which can—and should—be addressed through improved experimental design and replication. One particularly relevant critique in this regard, titled “Over-interpreted epigenetics study of the week,” is by John Greally from the Center for Epigenomics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. As an epigeneticist, Greally clearly does not have an issue with epigenetics or epigenetic inheritance per se; rather, his concerns are primarily with the methods and the interpretation of the results of the Yehuda et al. paper. Thus, these kinds of critiques, which can be very pointed, criticize but do not call into question the core concepts behind the Yehuda paper.

However, other critiques of this paper use these methodological and interpretive issues as a platform from which to dispute the validity and the value of the concept of epigenetic inheritance itself. These are the kinds of critiques of epigenetics and epigenetic inheritance which reveal the critical blindspot which originally prompted this post.

The best example of this blindspot is found in the critique of the Yehuda paper by the well-known evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne[2]. While Coyne’s extensive list of critiques of Yehuda et al. mirror those of Greally, Coyne continually couches these critiques in the context of asserting the inutility of epigenetic inheritance for adaptation. For example, even as Coyne concedes that “while environmental epigenetic modification of genes is known to exist, and even to be passed on for one or two more generations,” he qualifies this admission with the assertion that this kind of modification is not common, and “is not known to be the basis of any adaptations that have evolved in organisms.” In fact, Coyne continues, epigenetic modification are excluded “in principle” from being a factor in adaptive evolution. “While this is still a form of inheritance,” Coyne writes, “it’s not one that’s especially reliable given the vagaries of physiology.” What would make epigenetic modification more reliable, and therefore more worthy of study according to Coyne, is if they were proven to be directly transmitted via germ cells. However, Coyne concludes, “that doesn’t appear to be the case in this study.”

This lack of contribution of epigenetic modification to adaptation appears to be for Coyne the sine qua non of the validity of a concept: A biogenetic process is useful to the extent that it can be identified as contributing to evolutionary adaptation; to the extent it does not contribute to adaptation, it is not useful. To wit, even while admitting that “the authors are not arguing that this kind of inheritance plays a role in evolution,” Coyne still uses his critiques of their paper to discount the value of epigenetic inheritance as a concept worth researching because it does not play a role in evolution.

Epigenetics isn’t ‘Adaptive’? So What

So what? Even allowing for the sake of argument that these epigenetic modifications are not stable enough to eventually cause changes in DNA sequence [which I am not conceding, as a number of papers have suggested different ways these epigenetic modifications can prepare the way for eventual changes in DNA [3]], this Coyne-ian standard overlooks or disregards the mounting evidence that the environment is affecting gene expression in significant ways—perhaps not significant on a geological timescale as to change gene sequences, but significant on a human scale not only today but for our foreseeable future.

In other words, the political and ethical relevance of epigenetics does not depend on whether these modifications are ‘adaptive’ in the sense of modifying the genetic sequence (which is itself a very specific and unique definition of adaptation). If there are factors in the environment which affect gene expression through epigenetic modifications to manifest as positive or negative health outcomes in actual people, by almost any ethical standard these factors are or should be investigated to the fullest extent possible. To blithely dismiss the relevance of such processes, especially in the face of mounting empirical evidence, because they—theoretically—do not produce changes in DNA sequence seems akin to denials of global climate change or refusal to vaccinate based on political ideology or religious conviction.

Epigenetics and evolution

I can imagine a reasonable response from Coyne and other similarly-minded people that he/they are just speaking about epigenetics in regards to evolution in particular, whence the emphasis on genetic adaptation, and that of course epigenetics is valid and worthwhile in these other contexts. Even so, though, I would suggest that the gene-centric focus on evolution still has a blindspot about epigenetics, with significant repercussions for human well-being and values.

As Coyne points out in his critique of the Yehuda paper, even epigenetics have a genetic basis. According to Coyne’s own logic, then, this epigenetic responsiveness to the environment would only have evolved because it conferred actual adaptive benefits.The adaptiveness from the intergenerational transmission of information about the environment of parents to their offspring—however transitory—is not only easy to imagine but also the only reason these epigenetic mechanisms would have evolved in the first place. Therefore, to dismiss or discount the importance of epigenetics in evolution is a curious position for an evolutionist to take, and really only makes sense in the context of an almost religious focus on gene sequence as the only relevant parameter.

Epigenetics, evolution and ethics

However, the acknowledgement of an important role for epigenetics in evolution introduces significant ethical challenges to the detached focus on long-term genetic adaptation characteristic of conventional evolutionary studies. When the environment is relatively static, epigenetic responsiveness is likely not as much of a factor in evolution, nor that much of an ethical concern, functioning more as a temporary adjustment to ongoing conditions. But what if the environment changes in such a way and with such rapidity that what would otherwise be normal epigenetic adaptation manifests as potentially maladaptive phenotypes, which have an effect not only on the quality of life in the present and near-future but therefore also (potentially) in the long-run as well?

This is, I believe, the current state we find ourselves in, in which our environment has changed so rapidly and in such specific ways that these once beneficial epigenetic modifications are now resulting in uniquely maladaptive phenotypes. For example, industrial scale chemistry, the Plastic Revolution, and other accoutrement of our contemporary era, which have emerged only within the past hundred years or so, have introduced specific chemicals into our environments which interact with our genes via these epigenetic mechanisms in particularly pernicious ways. To assert that these mechanisms lack relevance or value because of their theoretical lack of effect on geological-scale processes smacks of either wanton disregard or sincere but myopic ideology.

Again, this is not to uncritically defend the Yehuda et al. paper which originally prompted this post, or to excuse any shortcoming of any other research in epigenetics. Methodological and interpretive flaws in any of these studies should be recognized and mitigated as much as possible, but this is just science. Rather, I hope I’ve been able to show that theoretical assumptions—such as an almost religious emphasis on genetic adaptation as the ultimate standard of value—have meaningful implications for our politics and our ethics beyond ‘just’ the science.

Sometimes the lines between science and values are very clear. Epigenetics muddies these boundaries to an unprecedented extent. The increasing weight of empirical evidence from legitimate research in epigenetics shows that we are much more closely connected with our immediate environments than we’ve previously assumed in ways which would seemingly also affect our evolutionary fitness, and which seem to demand an ethical response on both levels (i.e., the immediate and the long-term). Maybe epigenetics plays a role in genetic adaptation, and maybe it does not, but regardless epigenetics is changing our ethical environment at least as much as it shows our environment is changing us.

What do you think? How much does science also obligate us to act? At what point are we culpable for the knowledge we make? I am curious to hear your thoughts. 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] Klengel, T. et al. 2013. Allele-specific FKBP5 DNA demethylation mediates gene-childhood trauma interactions. Nature Neurosci. 2013 Jan;16(1):33-41. doi: 10.1038/nn.3275. Epub 2012 Dec 2.

[2] Holocaust trauma: Is it epigenetically inherited?

[3] References and links forthcoming

The Reception of Epigenetics: More like Mendel or Darwin?


My name is Shea Robison.

(Follow me on Twitter at @EpigeneticsGuy and see my academic profile at Academia.edu)

As is well known, Darwin’s theory of evolution presented fundamental challenges to many of the prevailing core beliefs and values of the mid-1800s. These fundamental ontological challenges account for the significant scientific and ecclesiastical opposition which greeted the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Similarly, the foundations of modern genetics which emerged in the early 20th century also presented scientific, political and ethical challenges of its own. I assert that contemporary epigenetics likewise presents equally fundamental challenges to the prevailing politics and ethics of our time, but with a twist.

As I discuss in more detail in other posts, changes in biological understanding such as those presented by natural selection, genetics and epigenetics have a direct connection with changes in politics and ethics. I discuss and illustrate these connections of biology with politics and ethics via the guiding model of my project:


Thus, the differences in scientific understandings of biology presented by each of these ‘advances’ in science present equally important political and ethical implications. To this end, there are important differences in the circumstances of the emergence of each of these significant changes in the prevailing understanding of biology, and in their commensurate impacts on the prevailing politics and ethics, and in the impacts of these prevailing politics and ethics on these changes in biology. In particular, while Darwin’s theory provoked—and still provokes—considerable opposition, as do epigenetics, the reception of the modern theory of genetics has been remarkably smooth. For many, this is merely evidence of the self-evident ‘rightness’ of genetics. However, the history and recent (re)emergence of epigenetics suggests that ease of acceptance is not necessarily the sine qua non of scientific validity. Elaborating these differences in reception between Darwinian evolution, genetics and epigenetics is an important step in predicting what could be the political and ethical impacts of epigenetics today and in the future.

Politics, Ethics and Darwin

Even before the publication of Origin in 1859, the reactions to Darwin’s ideas were immediate, international and intense. As evidenced by the Scopes trial in 1921, the religious reactions against Darwinian evolution were still boiling over sixty years after the publication of Origin, and these reactions against the implications of Darwinian evolution continue to the present day in the ongoing debates over the teaching of evolution in public schools.

As described by the American philosopher John Dewey in his 1910 essay on the influence of Darwin, “the ‘Origin of Species’ introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion”[1] And this has clearly been the case. Notably, though, few of these reactions against Darwinian evolution also include opposition to genetics; instead, Darwinian evolution is usually the sole focus of these ideology-based critiques (i.e., how many school boards have banned the teaching of genetics on religious grounds?).

Darwin, Christianity and Genetics

In fact, if the available evidence supports any conclusion, that conclusion is that genetics is also compatible with the basic assumptions of Christianity[2]. Given the extent to which modern Western society is a product of the history of Christianity only provides further support for a fundamental congruency between genetics and the political and ethical assumptions of modern Western liberalism [3].

To wit, some of the most strident opposition to Darwin’s theory came from the ecclesiastical perspective, including ecclesiastically-affiliated scientists. For example, Adam Sedgwick, one of the founders of modern geology and one of Darwin’s early instructors, after reading an advance copy of Origin wrote that the “point blank issue” that Darwin and his theory deny—but which is actually the “crown & glory” of organic philosophy—is that “there is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical.” “You,” Sedgwick writes to Darwin, “have ignored this link; &, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it.” The repercussions of breaking this link as Darwin proposes, which Sedgwick first thanks God is not possible, is that humanity “would suffer a damage that might brutalize it—& sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history”[4]. These comments from Sedgwick provide just one example of the well-known negative reactions to Darwin’s theory [5], most of which revolve less around the science and—per the guiding model of my project in Figure 1—are more concerned with the political and ethical implications of Darwin’s theory of biology.

However, the emergence of modern genetics—which is itself a synthesis of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian natural selection—with its emphasis on genes as the carriers of biological essences and of evolution as a gene-focused process generated new causal narratives which differed significantly from what were the prevailing narratives of the early 20th century. An important point of departure, though, is that while the Modern Synthesis did present some significant challenges to the political and ethical conventions of the early 20th century, it did not provoke the same reactions as Darwinian evolution. In fact, I have been hard-pressed to find any evidence of the kinds of censorious reactions against genetics like those of Sedgwick cited before.

The best explanation I can give for this marked lack of reaction, per the relationships diagrammed in Figure 1, is that the assumptions of the science of genetics were already more or less congruent with the assumptions of the prevailing politics and ethics. This congruence facilitated the acceptance and propagation of the Modern Synthesis beyond the weight of the scientific evidence in its favor, which was not as overwhelming in its favor as it now seems in hindsight. In fact, one tantalizing possibility suggested by Figure 1 is that one of the reasons for the sudden acceptance of the synthesis of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian evolution—which until then had been competing explanations—was because it allowed just such a reconciliation of the science with the politics and ethics.

Epigenetics and Darwinism?

In contrast, I assert that the ontological assumptions of contemporary epigenetics represent a fundamental break from the basic ontological commitments which inform contemporary society, similar to those presented by Darwinian natural selection. In this context, the position of epigenetics vis-à-vis the prevailing politics and ethics of contemporary society is likely much more similar to that of Darwinian evolution in the 1860s than of the emerging science of genetics in the early 1900s. While there may have been some resistance to genetics on political (i.e., ideological) and ethical (e.g., religious) grounds in the early 20th century, genetics produced nowhere near the antagonistic response to Darwinian evolution in the 1800s or epigenetics today—at least in the West. As has been discussed elsewhere, the reception of genetics in the Soviet Union, while initially quite positive, quite suddenly turned negative and for openly ideological reasons. In the West, though, with the possible exception of France [6], genetics has enjoyed a somewhat charmed life, moving quite rapidly from disputed scientific hypothesis to almost universally accepted convention.

Again, the operative question is why genetics has trod a much smoother path even than its counterpart in the Modern Synthesis, the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection? And then what do these differences in reception say about the rocky history of epigenetics and about the prospects for epigenetics in the future?

The Road(s) Ahead for Epigenetics

According to the guiding model of this project, for epigenetics to become widely accepted and to exert an influence on public policies there must be an eventual even if uneasy reconciliation between the science of epigenetics and the prevailing ethics and politics. This reconciliation must occur either through modifications of the politics and ethics to become more congruent with the innovations introduced by epigenetics, or through modifications of the science of epigenetics to become more congruent with the politics and ethics, or through some homeodynamic adjustments of all three components. We have the benefit of hindsight as to how this dynamic has already played out in regards to both Darwinian evolution and the Modern Synthesis with the politics and ethics of their time; the outcome of this dynamic in regards to epigenetics remains to be seen.

In the context of this history and the relationships revealed by Figure 1, there are at least three potential avenues that can be taken at this point: That contemporary politics and ethics are already changing to be congruent with these novel assumptions introduced by epigenetics; that these contemporary politics and ethics are not changing and will not change as needed to become congruent with epigenetics; or that epigenetics and the prevailing politics and ethics will all change together so as to become congruent with each other.

In the first case, as the politics and ethics continue to change the science of epigenetics will be increasingly incorporated into contemporary politics. In the second case, the science of epigenetics will be increasingly hounded to the brink of irrelevance or extinction—as epigenetics had been until relatively recent. In the third case, some of the aspects of epigenetics which contradict these prevailing ethics and politics will be modified to conform while some of the other aspects of the politics and ethics which contradict the findings of epigenetics will likewise be modified to conform to epigenetics, though what these homeodynamic changes might be is difficult to predict at this point.

At this early stage in the (re)emergence of epigenetics, any of these outcomes is plausible. Regardless, just as the narratives of evolution and genetics from the Modern Synthesis began to influence public policies in distinct ways even before the codification of the Modern Synthesis, e.g., the influential eugenics movements of the early 20th century [7], so also may the emerging narratives of epigenetics already be introducing unanticipated wrinkles into contemporary public policy discussions.

Thus, one focus of my project–as discussed here in regards to the policy narratives of obesity–is to empirically analyze the implications for policy of these new challenges from epigenetics via the emerging narratives of epigenetics, as compared to the conventional narratives of obesity in particular. As such this project constitutes an important early point of reference for future discussions of the state of epigenetics, and of its political and ethical implications.

I am curious to hear your thoughts. Are there important similarities between the receptions of Darwinian natural selection and epigenetics? 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] Dewey, John. 1910. “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy.” In The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy, and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

[2] Branch, Glenn. 2013. “Bad Science: Genetics as Misread by Creationism.” GeneWatch 26(4). http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/genewatch/GeneWatchPage.aspx?pageId=504 (May 6, 2015); Lester, Lane P. 1995. Genetics: Enemy of Evolution. Creation Research Quarterly 31(4); Lester, L. P. (1998). Genetics: No friend of evolution. Creation Ex Nihilo20(2), 22.; Moore, J. A. (2002). From Genesis to genetics: the case of evolution and creationism. Univ of California Press; Moore, J. A. (2002). From Genesis to genetics: the case of evolution and creationism. Univ of California Press; Morris, J. 2000. Why Can’t Geneticists See the Obvious Evidence for Creation in the Genetic Code? Acts & Facts. 29 (10).

[3] Hannam, J. (2011). The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution. Regnery Publishing; Moritz, J. M. (2012). The War that Never Was: Exploding the Myth of the Historical Conflict Between Christianity and Science. Theology and Science,10(2), 113-123; Stark, R. (2014). How the west won: The neglected story of the triumph of modernity. Open Road Media; White Jr, L. (1967). 4. The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. Science, 155(3767), 1203-1207.

[4] Sedgwick, Adam. 1859. Adam Sedgwick to Charles Darwin, November 25. In Darwin Correspondence Project. https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/entry-2548.

[5] Desmond, A. J. and James Richard Moore. (1994). Darwin. WW Norton & Company.

[6] Gayon, J., & Burian, R. M. (2004). National traditions and the emergence of genetics: the French example.Nature Reviews Genetics5(2), 150-156.

[7] Adams, M. B. (ed.). 1990. The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia. New York: Oxford Univ. Press; Harper, P. S. (1992). Huntington disease and the abuse of genetics. American journal of human genetics, 50(3), 460; Scales-Trent, J. (2001). Racial purity laws in the United States and Nazi Germany: The targeting process. Human Rights Quarterly, 23(2), 260-307; Sofair, A. N., & Kaldjian, L. C. (2000). Eugenic sterilization and a qualified Nazi analogy: the United States and Germany, 1930-1945. Annals of internal medicine, 132(4), 312-319.

The History of Epigenetics and the Science of Social Progress


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

The importance of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and of Lamarckism in the contemporary debates about epigenetics and genetics is difficult to overstate, primarily because one of the most common epithets used against contemporary epigenetics is that it is ‘Lamarckian’, which distinction is deemed sufficient to dismiss any subsequent discussion. As discussed here, such references demonstrate fundamental misunderstandings of both Lamarckism and epigenetics. The contemporary indictment of epigenetics qua Lamarckism, though, is quite helpful in revealing the underlying political and ethical commitments of genetics.

As I discuss here, the scientific flaws of Lamarckism—which, although numerous, are also understandable in its historical context—are actually of little relevance for contemporary epigenetics. What is relevant is that Lamarckism is invoked so often as a conversation-stopper [1] about contemporary epigenetics. The guiding model of my project helps to explain why these unsubstantiated epithets are being used against epigenetics, as a means to protect the often unrecognized underlying political and ethical commitments of genetics. This post will use the experiments of August Weismann to demonstrate how this has worked in the past.

Weismann v. Lamarck?

The scientific rationale for the rejection of Lamarckian inheritance—and, by extension, much of contemporary epigenetics—is largely provided by August Weismann’s experiments on whether mutilations of parents (i.e., cutting off the tails of 22 generations of rats) could be passed on to their offspring. (Similarly, the repeated need for circumcision in Jewish populations is still often offered as anecdotal proof for the rejection of the inheritance of acquired characteristics [2].)

From his experiments Weismann postulated a tissue barrier that protects those cells involved in sexual reproduction (germline cells) from environmental influences registered in the cells which constitute the body of an organism (somatic cells). This barrier is what prevents Lamarckian inheritance. With the support of experiments by Castle and Phillips in 1911 of the transplantation of albino guinea pig ovaries into non-albino guinea pigs which appeared to verify empirically that adaptations of such characteristics were not heritable [3], Weismann’s Barrier soon gained widespread acceptance and still constitutes a central assumption of the conventional orthodoxy of genetics as an inviolate barrier against the transmission of acquired traits [4]. Notably, there have been significant modifications of this concept since Weismann, but the contemporary articulation of this barrier is still that there must necessarily be some kind of barrier which prevents the transfer of genes from the somatic cells to germline cells [5].

However, there are a couple of substantial issues with both the history and the science of this concept. First, according to E.J. Steele, these experimental protocols did not accurately reflect the mechanisms of inheritance as theorized by Lamarck and thus were not actually a valid test of Lamarckism [6]. Second, the results of these experiments were obviously only deductively valid (i.e., while these experiments showed that the specific mechanisms of tail generation may not be subject to transgenerational inheritance, it is logically invalid to infer that these results definitively disprove the possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics in general). Yet the results of these experiments were promulgated as definitive disproof of the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Even Weismann himself admitted that his justification for this barrier was based on almost pure speculation only tenuously informed and supported by empirical evidence [7]. To be fair, Weismann also declared that his intent was to speculate so as to spur further research in this area, and acknowledged that his ideas were likely woefully incomplete and would require much experimental work to verify or disprove. Regardless, this concept was quickly accepted as being presumptively true without much of the empirical work Weismann recommended be done.

While subsequent research has largely supported the assumption of Weismann’s Barrier, the actual physical grounding of this barrier has not been established until quite recent [8]. Notably, as the actual make-up of this barrier is just now being verified, this same work is also establishing that there is no such inviolable barrier per se, but rather a collection of mechanisms which prevent the transmission of acquired traits [9]. At the same time, work in this area is also providing evidence that genetic material does cross this supposedly inviolable soma-germline ‘barrier’ [10], that genes may be transferred both vertically (between parents and offspring) and horizontally (i.e., between unrelated organisms) [11], and that there are epigenetic mechanisms which do allow the inheritance of environmentally induced characteristics [12].

The look before the leap

So why did Weismann, one of the most respected experimental scientists of his time, see fit to engage in such speculative theorizing to derive his crowning achievement? And why did a concept with so little initial empirical support so quickly attain the status of a presumptively true assumption to become a cornerstone of contemporary genetics that only now is being questioned?

The conventional view of science and of the history of genetics is that Weismann ‘merely’ took a creative leap which contributed to subsequent advances in our scientific understanding of biology. This may be true, but a reasonable hypothesis—per the guiding model of this project—is that there were also political and ethical impetuses which influenced the direction and the trajectory of this leap.

This hypothesis finds significant support in the context of Weismann’s bitter—and well cataloged—dispute with Herbert Spencer [13]. This dispute between Spencer and Weismann, according to Stephen Jay Gould, was the “focal point and most widely cited set of documents in the great debate between ‘neo-Darwinism’ and ‘neo-Lamarckism,’ perhaps the hottest subject in evolutionary theory of the 19th century” [14].

In this ‘debate’ Weismann disagreed vociferously with Spencer—and, by extension, with Freidrich Engels and Karl Marx and other neo-Lamarckians of this time—who used Lamarckism as scientific support for their theories of social improvement. Many of these neo-Lamarckians preferred Lamarckism for the emancipatory possibilities it offered as in contrast to the practical immutability of biological essences promoted first by conventional religion, and continued by Darwin and neo-Darwinists. Instead of organisms (and humans in particular) being fixed in their basic endowments, or subject to the grace of God or random forces for change, dramatic changes were deemed possible for these social reformers through the guidance and instruction of their environments [15].

For example, in 1891 the prominent American geologist and president of the American Natural History Museum Henry Fairfield Osborn described the social implications of these differences in biological science, writing that:

If the Weismann idea triumphs, it will be in a sense a triumph of fatalism; for, according to it…each new generation must start de novo, receiving no increment of the moral and intellectual advance made during the lifetime of its predecessors. It would follow that one deep, almost instinctive motive for a higher life would be removed if the race were only superficially benefited by its nurture, and the only possible channel of actual improvement were in the selection of the fittest chains of race plasma[16].

For these reasons, as described by Lenoir and Ross in their brief history of natural museums in England, Lamarckism was a fundamental aspect of many of the rationalist (i.e., secular), progressive reform movements of the 1800s in which “a belief in the perfectability of humankind and the self-organizing power of matter according to natural laws [was] joined to a faith in the environment as a determinant of form and character” [17]. This combination of scientific and philosophical beliefs supported the expectation that “through the appropriate social and material environment, humanity’s spiritual qualities could be molded as a prelude to political change” [18].

It was against such politically and ethically loaded ideas that Weismann and other Darwinists and neo-Darwinists set themselves. Although much of this debate was couched in scientific language about ostensibly scientific subjects, underneath much of it were competing worldviews as to the proper place of humanity on the earth and in the universe. In other posts, I have likewise written about the significant though largely ignored roles of competing political ideologies in the scientific history of genetics and epigenetics, as well as about the ideological implications of epigenetics.

In hindsight we are able to see how this dynamic has played out in the early and mid 20th century, with conventional genetics being declared the winner (i.e., the one true science) while the other combatants have been relegated as quaint relics of a bygone era (i.e., unscientific). However, the recent (re)emergence of contemporary epigenetics strongly suggests that neither the motives nor the outcomes of these ‘scientific’ debates were as pristine as they are now assumed to be.

Likewise, that these ideological influences on science in the past are as obvious as they are now also suggests that ideological influences are similarly present in science today. That most scientists working today would be offended at this suggestion that ideology has any influence in their work is understandable, but this umbrage does not mean that such influences are not operative today as well (how aware were Weismann or any of the other scientists of his time of the now obvious ideological influences on their work?).

Per the guiding model of this project, these political and ethical influences on science—and scientific influences on politics and ethics—are always present. My project is to identify the effects of these political and ethical influences on the emergence of the science of epigenetics.

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 on this page.

[1] Rorty, Richard. 1994. “Religion as a Conversation-Stopper,” Common Knowledge 3(1): 1-6.

[2] Levin, Harold. 2009. The Earth Through Time. 8th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. 133.

[3] Chiras, D. D. (2013). Human biology. Jones & Bartlett Publishers.

[4] Alexander, Richard. 1979. Darwinism and Human Affairs. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

[5] Steele, E.J. 1999. Lamarck’s Signature: How Retrogenes Are Changing Darwin’s Natural Selection Paradigm. Basic Books.

[6] Steele, E.J. 1999. Lamarck’s Signature: How Retrogenes Are Changing Darwin’s Natural Selection Paradigm. Basic Books.

[7] Weismann, August. 1892. Essays Upon Heredity and Kindred Biological Problems. Clarendon Press, 81-82.

[8] Sabour, D., & Schöler, H. R. (2012). Reprogramming and the mammalian germline: the Weismann barrier revisited. Current opinion in cell biology24(6), 716-723.

[9] Solana, J. (2013). Closing the circle of germline and stem cells: the Primordial Stem Cell hypothesis. EvoDevo4(1), 1-17

[10] Boyce, N. (2001). Trial halted after gene shows up in semen. Nature,414(6865), 677-677.

[11] Riley, D. R., Sieber, K. B., Robinson, K. M., White, J. R., Ganesan, A., Nourbakhsh, S., & Hotopp, J. C. D. (2013). Bacteria-human somatic cell lateral gene transfer is enriched in cancer samples. PLoS computational biology9(6), e1003107.

[12] Sharma A, Singh P. Detection of transgenerational spermatogenic inheritance of adult male acquired CNS gene expression characteristics using a Drosophila systems modelPLoS One 4, e5763 (2009); Sharma, A. (2013). Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance: focus on soma to germline information transfer. Progress in biophysics and molecular biology, 113(3), 439-446; Sharma A. Novel transcriptome data analysis implicates circulating microRNAs in epigenetic inheritance in mammalsGene 538:366-372 (2014); Sharma A. Bioinformatic analysis revealing association of exosomal mRNAs and proteins in epigenetic inheritanceJ. Theor. Biol. 357:143-149 (2014).

[13] Bowler, P. J. (1992). The eclipse of Darwinism: Anti-Darwinian evolution theories in the decades around 1900. JHU Press.

[14] Gould, S. J. (2002). The structure of evolutionary theory. Harvard University Press.

[15] Morange, M. (2010). What history tells us XXII. The French neo-Lamarckians. Journal of biosciences35(4), 515.

[16] Osborn, Henry Fairfield. 1891. The Present Problem of Heredity. The Atlantic Monthly 57, 363.

[17] Lenoir, Tim and Cheri Ross. 1996. The Naturalized History Museum. In Peter Galison and David Stump, eds., The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power. Stanford; Stanford University Press: pp. 370-397.

[18] Lenoir, Tim and Cheri Ross. 1996. The Naturalized History Museum. In Peter Galison and David Stump, eds., The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, and Power. Stanford; Stanford University Press: pp. 370-397.

Epigenetics and the geopolitical history of the 20th century


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

While there is a growing acceptance of epigenetics, there is still a lot of skepticism from within conventional genetics about the claims emerging from epigenetics. The most common rejoinders against the significance of epigenetics are either that the findings of epigenetics are novel but inconsequential, or that epigenetics has always been an accepted part of the conventional understanding of modern genetics and therefore does not pose any significant challenges[1]. These are two related but significantly different propositions.

Of these two propositions, the former is much less troublesome. Whether the findings of epigenetics are consequential or not is, or at least should be, resolvable through science-based trial and error—either the findings from epigenetics make substantive contributions to subsequent research, or they do not. In this context, the balance of evidence appears to be shifting more and more in favor of the validity and consequentiality of epigenetics[2]. However, whether epigenetics have always been a part of the accepted dogma of conventional genetics and therefore does or does not contradict the orthodoxy of genetics is more of a historical and philosophical question. While resolving the historical aspects of this question are, in principle, easily resolvable (e.g., what does a review of the relevant history reveal?), the resolution of the philosophical aspects of this question are much more problematic–this is the point where the guiding model of this project becomes most relevant.

Lost history?

As discussed elsewhere, there is an extensive common history between epigenetics and genetics going back to even before the emergence of modern genetics with the rediscovery of the findings of Mendel. This often agonistic history is marked by the rise of genetics coincident with the almost wholesale aversion to, and even open hostility towards, epigenetics. Beyond the significant internecine interdisciplinary disputes of the 1920s and 1930s, an open hostility towards epigenetics is manifest in the often overt blackballing of many epigeneticists which peaked during the late 1940s and early 1950s. An even more telling indicator of the extent of the professional indifference to epigenetics, though perhaps much less acute than the blackballing of epigeneticists, can be seen in the veritable lack of publication of epigenetics-focused research in scientific journals for decades, until fairly recently when this publication rate has risen at an exponential rate.

The contemporary justification for this until recent dismissal of epigenetics is along the lines that during these early years the empirical claims about epigenetics had been fed through the mill of science and ultimately rejected, thereby excluding epigenetics from any subsequent consideration. In this sense, epigenetics was perceived as similar to phlogiston theory from 17th century physics: a temporarily useful but ultimately rejected scientific diversion. The major wrinkle in this story, though, is that these previously dismissed claims from epigenetics are now being verified and extended through practically the same science as genetics. This revival is quite distinct from the comparison with phlogiston (how many physicists are currently working on the reinvigoration of the theory of phlogiston, compared to the number of people now working in epigenetics?).

That these claims of epigenetics which were dismissed and discounted as scientifically irrelevant for so long but are now being substantiated by the same science that previously denounced them suggests, per the guiding model of this project, that these earlier claims were likely decided on other than scientific (i.e., political and ethical) grounds. Again, while the political underpinnings of this attitude towards epigenetics are perhaps most apparent during the interwar and early Cold War periods, the philosophical roots of this scientific and political resistance to epigenetics and to epigenetics-like frameworks go back centuries. These are the roots which make the emergence of epigenetics a potentially profound political event.

A charitable account of these depictions of epigenetics as either not consequential or already orthodox is as the result of an unintentional myopia, and not as intentional misconstruals of this history. This lack of attention to—or even awareness of—the philosophical and historical roots of a science is a relatively recent post-Newtonian development in which the results of a natural science are taken as proof enough of their validity, requiring no other considerations of context or justification[3]. Before the successes of Newton came to define science-as-such[4], thereby fomenting the ultimate split between science and philosophy, science and political and ethical philosophy were considered as parts of a whole[5]. In fact, even Newton considered his work to be as much ethical and philosophical as scientific (e.g., as Newton describes his own approach to his work: “When I wrote my Treatise about our System, I had an Eye upon such Principles as might work with considering Men, for the Belief of a Deity; nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that Purpose”)[6]. This avoidance and even ignorance by contemporary geneticists of the historical and philosophical roots of their discipline is therefore understandable given the history of science, but the causes and the consequences of this forgetfulness are significant indeed.

Separated at birth?

In terms of the development of the normal science of genetics[7], if epigenetics had been incorporated into the modern synthesis of genetics as it was developing in the early 20th century, the empirical discrepancies introduced by epigenetics that are now so problematic would likely have been resolved long ago. Instead, conventional genetics developed through the 20th century along the particular trajectory that it did—which trajectory excluded or disqualified substantial aspects of epigenetics—to eventually ossify around a set of presumptions about the natural world. It is to these reified assumptions that epigenetics now presents the significant challenges that it does. To explain why genetics developed the presumptions that it did requires the inclusion of the political and ethical history of the West up to this time as well.

20th century geopolitics and (the absence of) epigenetics

Over the same period that the science of genetics was developing into what it is today, the politics and ethics of this time were likewise undergoing their own significant developments.  Per the guiding model of this project, these developments in genetics were necessarily congruent—or at least congruent enough— with the developments of the prevailing politics and ethics, and vice versa.

The necessity for this basic congruence between science, politics and ethics is practically tautological: To the degree that any one of these elements begins to diverge too far from any of the other elements, adjustments must be made to either the diverging element or to the other elements to bring them all back into a basic congruency. These adjustments can take many forms (e.g., theoretical ‘saving’ moves[8], political or ethical innovations, etc.), but these adjustments must and will take place. To propose that a widely embraced science would be allowed to remain indefinitely at odds with the prevailing ethics and politics, or that a politics and ethics would remain indefinitely at odds with the science without adjustment, strains logical credulity.

A genetics which incorporated epigenetics and its unique challenges (e.g., the interconnectedness of biological ‘insides’ and environmental ‘outsides’, transgenerational non-genetic inheritance, etc.) would also have influenced the coterminous development of the politics and the ethics of its time to reflect these novel influences from epigenetics. Instead, the science and the ethics and the politics of this time developed together—not in lockstep, by any means, but rather more along the lines of a mutually supporting homeostatic network.

By way of examples, consider the different uses of both genetics and epigenetics both between and within the different political regimes which arose during this time. Much has already been written about the juxtaposition of genetics in the Anglo-American sphere of political influence with epigenetics in the Soviet Union as reflective of important political and ideological differences. Even genetics, though, was similarly subject to significant modifications depending on political context. To wit—per Rudolf Hess’ declaration that National Socialism was “nothing but applied biology”[9]—the understanding and utilization of genetics in Nazi Germany was significantly different than in the Allied (non-Soviet) world in specific ways which reflected the prevailing political and ethical differences[10]. Even within Anglo-American sociopolitical history the newly emerging knowledge of genetics was subject to wildly different understandings and applications, perhaps exemplified best by the eugenics movements shared in common with eugenic movements in Nazi Germany[11].

In this context, and counter to the revisionist histories that the findings of epigenetics are novel but inconsequential, or that epigenetics has always been an accepted part of the conventional understanding of modern genetics, perhaps the best evidence of the novelty of epigenetics and of its exclusion from the orthodoxy of genetics is the remarkable consistency of the prevailing politics and ethics of the 20th century. This is not to say that these politics and ethics were stagnant over this time; in fact, these politics and ethics were in perpetual flux during this time, in keeping with the significant geopolitical events that mark this era (e.g., the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the rise and decline of fascism, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and so on). What is remarkable, though, is that given the extremity of all these upheavals the congruency between genetics and modern liberal politics and ethics was ultimately maintained (although this necessary congruency does prompt interesting counterfactuals such as how different would genetic science be if the Nazis had won World War II? Or if the Soviet Union had emerged as the winner of the Cold War?).

This dynamic consistency between genetics and modern liberal politics and ethics results from their common philosophical and metaphysical assumptions. However, these common roots are also a major reason the (re)introduction of epigenetics introduces a potential worldview—or rather a set of potential worldviews—as incompatible with the prevailing ideologies of our time as they are incompatible with the conventional understanding of genetics.

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] Pigliucci, Massimo and Gerd Muller (2010). “Elements of an Extended Synthesis.” In Evolution: The Extended Synthesis, Eds. M. Pigliucci & G. Muller, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 4; Coyne, Jerry (2011). “Is ‘epigenetics’ a revolution in evolution?” https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/is-epigenetics-a-revolution-in-evolution/; Coyne, Jerry (2013). “More puffery about epigenetics, and my usual role as go-to curmudgeon.” https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/01/12/more-puffery-about-epigenetics-and-my-usual-role-as-go-to-curmudgeon/.

[2] For example, the emerging evidence in cancer research of the critical role of epigenetic mechanisms in tumor generation that is not reducible to or deducible from the genetic information available.

[3] Schliesser, E. (2011). Newton’s challenge to philosophy: a programmatic essay. HOPOS: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science, 1(1), 101-128; Schliesser, E. (2013). Newton and Newtonianism in Eighteenth-century British thought. The Oxford Handbook of British Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century, 41.

[4] Feingold, Mordechai, 2004, The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[5] Cunningham, Andrew (1991). “How the Principia Got Its Name; or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously,” History of Science 39: 377-392; Grant, Edward(2007). A History of Natural Philosophy: From the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Excerpt from Newton’s letter to Peter Bentley in Holton, Gerald (1960). “Notes on the Religious Orientation of Scientists.” In Science Ponders Religion, Ed. Harlow Shapley. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts: 59); Osler, M. J. (2010). Reconfiguring the world: nature, God, and human understanding from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Europe. Johns Hopkins University Press, 159-164.

[7] Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago press.

[8] Bogen, J, and Woodward, J., 1988, “Saving the Phenomena,” Philosophical Review, XCVII (3): 303–352; Basu, P. K. (2003). Theory-ladenness of evidence: a case study from history of chemistry. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 34(2), 351-368; Massimi, M. (2007). Saving unobservable phenomena. The British journal for the philosophy of science, 58(2), 235-262.

[9] Kühl, S. (2002). Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism. Oxford University Press.

[10] Propping, P. (1992). Abuse of genetics in Nazi Germany. American journal of human genetics, 51(4), 909; Bachrach, S. (2004). In the name of public health-Nazi racial hygiene. New England Journal of Medicine, 351, 417-419; Weiss, S. F. (2010). The Nazi symbiosis: Human genetics and politics in the Third Reich. University of Chicago Press.

[11] Harper, P. S. (1992). Huntington disease and the abuse of genetics. American journal of human genetics, 50(3), 460; Sofair, A. N., & Kaldjian, L. C. (2000). Eugenic sterilization and a qualified Nazi analogy: the United States and Germany, 1930-1945. Annals of internal medicine, 132(4), 312-319; Scales-Trent, J. (2001). Racial purity laws in the United States and Nazi Germany: The targeting process. Human Rights Quarterly, 23(2), 260-307.

Epigenetics and Ideology


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

In a previous paper I discuss at length the more immediate practical political implications of epigenetics via its impact on the two dominant causal narratives in obesity policy: the salience of individual responsibility versus the influence of environmental or institutional factors. In particular I detail how epigenetics complicates the alleged opposition of these two narratives by incorporating elements of both narratives resulting in the (as yet potential) production of novel narratives about obesity. I conclude that one of the most politically significant aspects of the recent emergence of epigenetics is that in complicating the alleged opposition of these conventional narratives in the ways that it does, epigenetics also thereby opens the way for all new policy approaches to obesity.

Further, I also conclude that because the prevailing narratives of obesity are the predominant narratives in a number of other policy domains as well, these political implications of epigenetics extend well beyond just the policy domain of obesity. Therefore, the complications introduced from epigenetics into the narratives of obesity are likely to have similar reverberations in these other areas as well. In this way, these significant implications from the recent emergence of epigenetics discussed in the previous chapters apply across a broad range of policies.

However significant these practical implications of epigenetics for policy might be, they are only a reflection of much more profound philosophical challenges from epigenetics that strike at the roots of our conventional politics and ethics. These more profound challenges are the focus of my project.

Epigenetics and ideologies

For example, in the paper referred to above I detail the distinct ideological associations of these two conventional narratives, but only hint at the potential effects of epigenetics on these underlying ideological orientations themselves. Just as epigenetics complicates the supposed opposition of these narratives, epigenetics likewise complicates the supposedly opposed ideological orientations from which these narratives originate—the critical difference being the scope and the scale of the consequences from the complication of political ideologies that is introduced by epigenetics.

In this context, an ideology is to be understood as “the shared framework of mental models that groups of individuals possess that provide both an interpretation of the environment and a prescription as to how that environment should be structured”[1] or, more specifically for the purposes of this post, as the “set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved”[2]. Extensive discussion and empirical research has isolated two distinct worldviews—labeled conservative and liberal—as basic ideological orientations[3]. Subsequent research has located the origin of these ideologies in fundamental psychological[4] and possibly even physiological[5] differences between people (i.e., there are two basic ways of modeling and perhaps even perceiving the world which are adequately captured within either the conservative or the liberal rubric).

Differences along these ideological dimensions have been found across many seemingly politically irrelevant domains such as squeamishness and preferences in art or sports[6]. In the context of politics, ideological orientation has also been repeatedly correlated with significant differences in political attitudes and preferences as well as with significant differences in actual voting behaviors—corresponding to the ‘left’ (liberal) and ‘right’ (conservative) distinctions so prevalent in contemporary politics. (There are any number of other political orientations to be sure, but, as will be shown in subsequent posts, the vast majority of these are expressible as different combinations of these two ideological dimensions.)

Notably, as reviewed by Jost et al. (2009), the political content and expression of these ideologies and their juxtaposition against each other are not only consistent across the contemporary Western political world but also pertain to “age-old disputes” about the proper organization and purpose of society. In other words, the politics of the Western world have been and still are organized around the supposed opposition of these two basic ideological orientations. As a result, any legitimate challenges to either the content or the juxtaposition of these two ideologies would have significant consequences for the modern liberal political system as a whole. As will be shown, epigenetics presents just these kinds of fundamental challenges to both the content and the juxtaposition of these ideologies and therefore poses significant—if not yet recognized—challenges to the hegemony of modern political liberalism.

Epigenetics and How the West was Won

A reasonable question at this point is how does epigenetics—as a scientific practice—connect with these ideologies and their politics so as to introduce these fundamental ethical and political challenges? The answers to this question are found in the unique cultural history of the West.

First, the political and ethical commitments which constitute modern Western liberalism and its two prevailing ideologies are not random (qua unexplainable) outcomes, but are rather the product of the specific intellectual and cultural developments which constitute the history of the modern Western world. To deny the randomness of this history, though, is not to assert that this development has been inevitable or progressive or purposive in the sense of being steered towards a specific goal; rather, the trajectory which has resulted in our current state of affairs has been truly contingent in both senses of the word, as both depending upon prior circumstances but also subject to chance at certain moments. Still, regardless of this lack of inevitability, a path can be retraced back through this history which helps to explain why this history took the numerous turns that it did to produce the current configurations of ethics and ideologies and politics which constitute modern Western liberal politics today. This historical path both provides and explains the compelling political and ethical relevance of the (seemingly) sudden emergence of epigenetics.

Second, the political and ethical history of the West is, per the guiding model of this project, inextricably intertwined with the scientific history of the West, revealing the extent to which politics, ethics and science do not just overlap but are actually fundamentally joined to each other. To wit, the same political history which produced modern Western liberalism is the same history which has produced modern genetics with its (until recent) denigration of epigenetics, as discussed here and here and here. The emergence and the embrace of genetics within modern Western liberalism, while not inevitable, is also not random (in the sense of being unexplainable or accidental) but is easily comprehensible when situated within its political and ethical contexts. In the same way, the denigration and even outright denial of epigenetics for so long is also comprehensible when situated within these same political and ethical contexts: genetics dovetailed with the prevailing politics and ethics where epigenetics conflicted with these politics and ethics. By the same token, given this fundamental association of science with politics and ethics, that epigenetics is now gaining more and more acceptance within scientific circles suggests that commensurable political and ethical changes are also underway as well. The early identification of these political and ethical currents in the face of these contemporaneous changes in science is the primary purpose of this project.

To contemporary ears this fundamental association of science with politics and ethics sounds absurd, as the antithesis of true science. The dissociation of science from politics and ethics is the root of our contemporary conceptions of scientific objectivity, which objectivity is often celebrated as the source of the unique explanatory power of modern science. For example, while science can and should inform politics, to even speak of politics as influencing a scientific work is to taint that science as suspect and corrupted. However, for most of Western history science and politics and ethics have been inextricably linked; only relatively recently was science unlinked from politics and ethics. As will be discussed in more depth in subsequent posts, most of the scientific breakthroughs which constitute modern Western science were also openly and intentionally ethical and political in nature, including, for example, the epoch-marking scientific advances of Isaac Newton which completed the foundations of modern science as we understand it[7]. That these scientific breakthroughs were realized with the explicit recognition of their ethical and political implications—and in many cases actually realized because of these ethical and political implications—prompts questions as to the necessity and even the validity of this alleged unlinking of science from politics and ethics which produced modern science.

As will be shown in subsequent posts, epigenetics is particularly apt as a tool to demonstrate the ultimate failure of this alleged unlinking of science from ethics and politics, and to also reveal the ethical and political commitments hidden within so much of contemporary science. Subsequent posts will fill in this scientific, ethical and political history, tracing this path from the naturalism of the early Greeks through the Christianity of St. Augustine and the physics of Newton to the liberal political philosophy of John Locke and beyond, culminating in modern genetics. The end product will show how the scientific challenges of epigenetics to genetics are isomorphic of the challenges presented by epigenetics to the prevailing ideologies and ethics and politics of our time.

I will post my thoughts as they develop. There will be some hopefully illuminating surprises along the way (for example, that before Gregor Mendel started cross-breeding his pea plants he was a physicist trained in Newtonian dynamics, and was also an Augustinian friar–given the interconnectedness of ethics and science and politics, these are not inconsequential factoids but are rather important signposts).

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] Denzau AD, North DC. 1994/2000. Shared mental models: ideologies and institutions. In Elements of Reason: Cognition, Choice, and the Bounds of Rationality, ed. A Lupia, MC McCubbins, SL Popkin, pp. 23–46. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

[2] Erikson RS, Tedin KL. 2003. American Public Opinion. New York: Longman. 6th ed

[3] Huntington, S. P. (1957). Conservatism as an Ideology. American Political Science Review, 51(02), 454-473; Conover, P. J., & Feldman, S. (1981). The origins and meaning of liberal/conservative self-identifications. American Journal of Political Science, 617-645.

[4] Jost, J. T., Federico, C. M., & Napier, J. L. (2009). Political ideology: Its structure, functions, and elective affinities. Annual review of psychology, 60, 307-337.

[5] Tybur, J. M., Merriman, L. A., Hooper, A. E., McDonald, M. M., & Navarrete, C. D. (2009). Extending the the behavioral immune system to political psychology: are political conservatism and disgust sensitivity really related?. Evolutionary psychology: an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behavior, 8(4), 599-616; Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., & Rees, G. (2011). Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults. Current biology, 21(8), 677-680; Smith, K. B., Oxley, D., Hibbing, M. V., Alford, J. R., & Hibbing, J. R. (2011). Disgust sensitivity and the neurophysiology of left-right political orientations. PLoS One, 6(10), e25552; Jost, J. T., & Amodio, D. M. (2012). Political ideology as motivated social cognition: Behavioral and neuroscientific evidence. Motivation and Emotion, 36(1), 55-64; Hibbing, J. R., Smith, K. B., & Alford, J. R. (2014). Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(03), 297-307.

[6] Jost JT, Glaser J, Kruglanski AW, Sulloway F. 2003. Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychol. Bull. 129:339–75 Greenberg J, Jonas E. 2003. Psychological motives and political orientation—the left, the right, and the rigid: comment on Jost et al. 2003. Psychol. Bull. 129:376–82; Jost, J. T., Napier, J. L., Thorisdottir, H., Gosling, S. D., Palfai, T. P., & Ostafin, B. (2007). Are needs to manage uncertainty and threat associated with political conservatism or ideological extremity? Personality and social psychology bulletin, 33(7), 989-1007; Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D. A., & Bloom, P. (2009). Conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals. Cognition and Emotion, 23(4), 714-725; Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D., Iyer, R., & Haidt, J. (2012). Disgust sensitivity, political conservatism, and voting. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(5), 537-544; Hoberman, J. M. (2014). Sport and political ideology. University of Texas Press.

[7] Feingold, Mordechai, 2004, The Newtonian Moment: Isaac Newton and the Making of Modern Culture, Oxford: Oxford University Press; Smith, George, “Isaac Newton”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/newton/.

Epigenetics, ethics and the evolution of science


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

In this post and others, the historical, cultural and philosophical underpinnings of the scientific assumptions of genetics are discussed. That the assumptions of genetics are contingent on these historical and philosophical precedents likely seems trivial to laypersons and nonsensical to geneticists. Genetics, as a product of modern science, exhibits the patina of scientific objectivity which appears to negate these historical and cultural influences. However, as described encyclopedically by Daston and Galison (2007)[1], this conception of scientific objectivity is itself a product of the same historical and cultural processes which have shaped our contemporary politics and ethics, and is therefore just as contingent as our politics and our ethics.

Daston and Galison do not address the field of genetics in their analysis of the history of scientific objectivity, but both the modern concept of genes and the practice of genetics are prototypical examples of the epistemology and the ethos of modern scientific objectivity identified by Daston and Galison. How genes and genetics embody this concept of objectivity and its accompanying ethos also demonstrates how the scientific challenges of epigenetics to genetics are at once also challenges to the prevailing ethics of contemporary society.

The self and scientific objectivity

What lends contemporary science much of its current power is its objectivity. Objective in this sense is the ostensible removal—as much as possible—of any traces of the subjective individual(s) conducting the science: The less the presence of the individual scientist is a factor in the results of a scientific experiment, the more faithfully does the experiment reflect nature, the more replicable it is by other scientists, and so on.

In their discussion of the evolution of this concept of objectivity which so epitomizes contemporary science, Daston and Galison draw the critical connection between what constitutes knowledge with what is the accompanying conception of self: “The answer to the question ‘Why objectivity?’ lies precisely in the history of the scientific self to be eliminated”[2]. In other words, change the composition of this subjective self conducting a science, and the resulting scientific objectivity also changes.

This objectivity is also based upon a specific concept of the self. Just as this modern self has not always been the prevailing concept of self, as discussed here and here, the accompanying concept of scientific objectivity has likewise not always been the prevailing concept of scientific objectivity. In particular, Daston and Galison contrast the Enlightenment views of the self with the conceptions of the self that began to form after the transformative work of Immanuel Kant, and how these changes in conceptions of the self manifested as changes in the accepted definitions of scientific objectivity.

Daston and Galison use Kant as a reference point for these changes, and as an authoritative mouthpiece, but they are also careful to allow that whether Kant was actually the source of these changes in the conceptualization of the self is immaterial for their purposes; what is important is that Kant was at the very least a “precocious philosophical witness” of these changes “that reverberated with seismic intensity in every domain of nineteenth-century intellectual life, from science to literature”[3].

These differences in the assumptions about what constitutes the self and how this self gains knowledge (e.g., science) have direct relevance to how genes have been defined and conceptualized, and what are the implicit ethical commitments of genetics, and therefore why epigenetics presents the scientific and ethical and political challenges that it does.

The Enlightenment self

Citing various primary sources, Daston and Galison detail how during the Enlightenment era the self became perceived as a network or “skein of threads”[4] centered on an origin “as a spiderweb is centered on the spider”[5]. Personal identity was similarly conceived as “fragile as cobweb, guaranteed only by memory and the continuity of consciousness”[6]. As such, “the self was imagined as permeable, sometimes too permeable, to its milieu, a self characterized by receptivity rather than assertive dynamism”[7]. The “sovereignty of reason” located at the origin of this network—which is the seat of the self—“was always under threat from within (the vagaries of imagination and the uprisings of the branches of the network) and without (the barrage of sensations registered by the receptive network)”[8]. This Enlightenment concept of a passive, impressionable, malleable self is perhaps best embodied through John Locke’s concept of persons born as tablua rasa, or “white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas” upon which sensations from the external world are impressed[9].

Science and ethical behavior in the Enlightenment

The scientific ethos of this concept of self and its accompanying epistemology can be characterized as such: Because of the inherent passivity of this Enlightenment self as a permeable and impressionable network of competing influences, achieving truth-to-nature for Enlightenment scientists “required that they actively select, sift and synthesize the sensations that constantly flooded the too-receptive mind”[10]. Allowing oneself to be overwhelmed and carried away by the cacophony of sensations of the natural world as it is was “to be at best confused”[11], which is a moral and intellectual failure. In other words, the objectivity of the Enlightenment scientist was to interpose their selves—understood as the reasonable centers of the web of impressions which constitute their consciousness—into the flow of sensations from their external worlds

The ethics which were produced from this concept of self can be characterized as such: Good character—like good science—was seen as first overcoming this natural passivity by acting upon the world rather than being acted upon by the world[12]. Good character was also manifest in the balancing of this constant influx of stimulus from all the branches of this network by the reasonable center[13]. In contrast, bad character—like bad science—resulted from either an excess of passivity and impressionability or from this reasonable center being overwhelmed by all these other influences, manifest as supine acquiescence  to authority, or a surfeit of imagination, or other flights of irrationality[14].

The post-Kantian self

Distinct from this passive and permeable network self of the Enlightenment which is shaped by its environment, Kant  proposed a concept of self as an autonomous center which imposes order onto the world around it both by vetting all perceptions “like callers at the door”[15] and by projecting its assumptions outward onto the world.

Kant began from the proposition that sensations do not of themselves cohere into the perception of objects, much less into concepts. If order is observed, this awareness of order among the objects and sensations ‘out there’ therefore necessarily presupposes an ordering consciousness ‘in here’ that precedes perception[16]. Likewise, if this consciousness is imposing an order, it must also be ordered itself “as a necessary precondition for fusing raw sensations into coherent experience”[17]. Kant then asserts the necessity for this ordering and ordered consciousness to also be a consistent synchronic and temporal “unity of consciousness” across the many sensations and experiences being experienced[18]. Thus emerges the concept of the self as a unified and consistent fundamental entity which expresses itself through a faculty Kant calls the will.

Science and ethical behavior after Kant

This new concept of self has moral and scientific and political implications. In particular, as Kant writes, “freedom in the practical sense, is the independence of the will of coercion by sensuous impulses”[19]. Rational morality, according to Kant, is the subjection of this autonomous will to objective moral laws—objective meaning “free from all influence of contingent grounds”[20]. However, for this will to be actually free and therefore actually moral, the will cannot be simply subject to the law “but subject in such a way that it must be conceived also as itself prescribing the law”[21]. Obedience to these non-contingent universal a priori moral laws, regardless of incentives or benefits, is the root of Kant’s deontological moral philosophy. In other words, in contrast to the diffused and permeable self of the Enlightenment, Daston and Galison describe this emerging Kantian moral self as “monolithic and tightly organized around the will [and] posited as free and autonomous (literally ‘giving the law to itself’)”[22].

The scientific ethos associated with this concept of an active and autonomous self (and its accompanying epistemology) can be distinguished from the Enlightenment ethos as such: There is an objective world ‘out there,’ but perception of this world is always mediated through the senses and this ordering consciousness, and therefore this world is never knowable as it is in itself. Because this post-Kantian self “was viewed as overactive and prone to impose its preconceptions and pet hypotheses on the data,” the appropriately objective scientific approach is now one of “self-denying passivity”[23]. In other words, “the only way for the active self to attain the desired receptivity to nature was to turn its domineering will inward—to practice self-discipline, self-restraint, self-abnegation, self-annihilation, and a multitude of other techniques of self-imposed selflessness”[24]. This is the dispassionate scientific objectivity we recognize today.

Ethical Isomorphisms?

As described above, each of these different conceptions of the self also have their own unique epistemology and ethos. These two concepts of self are also each conceptually isomorphic with either genes or the epigenome. The significance of these conceptual isomorphisms is that they demonstrate some of the unique ethical commitments of genetics and epigenetics which are often obscured as scientific differences.

For example, the monolithic, tightly organized, active and autonomous post-Kantian self is a very apt description of the genes. Within the Modern Synthesis genes are conceived of as “information, blueprints, books, recipes, programs, instructions, and further as active causal agents as that which is responsible for putting the information to use as the program that runs itself”[25]. These genes as active causal agents—as exemplified most prominently by Richard Dawkins’ popularization of “selfish” genes, for which organisms are merely vehicles[26]—are identified as both the focus and the impetus of evolution[27]. Further, as expressed by the “central dogma of molecular biology”[28], information necessarily only flows from the gene outwards and not from the environment back into the gene such that genes are functionally isolated and therefore independent from their immediate environments. Thus, genes are post-Kantian as they are also tightly organized, unitary, active and autonomous agents which are likewise the authors of their own laws.

The Enlightenment self as an open, permeable, embedded network of influences with a coherent center but also constantly in flux is a very apt description of the contemporary epigenome. Epigenetic mechanisms are described in contemporary sources as “nongenetic cellular memory, which records developmental and environmental cues”[29] through responses to signals which “come from inside the cell, from neighboring cells, or from the outside world (environment)”[30]. Notably, the changes in phenotypes (i.e., appearances, behaviors, health outcomes, etc.) in reaction to the environment are produced as the result of “several converging and reinforcing signals” that are fundamental for the this ability of both cells and the epigenome as a whole to “‘remember’ past events, such as changes in the external environment or developmental cues”[31]. These scientific descriptions of cellular epigenetics and of the epigenome as a whole sound very much like the “cobweb” self of the Enlightenment “characterized by receptivity rather than assertive dynamism”[32], constantly bombarded by impulses from within and without, whose continuity is guaranteed “only by memory”[33].


The actual genealogical connections between this Enlightenment self and the contemporary epigenome and the post-Kantian self and the gene have only yet been loosely traced. This comparison, though, suggests that as epigenetics and conventional genetics each mirror one of these different historical and philosophical conceptions of self, they each also reflect the accompanying ethical commitments of these different conceptions of self as well. Ultimately, while it remains to be seen to what extent there is a direct connection between the more open and fluid self of the Enlightenment and the contemporary epigenome, or between the fixed and atomistic post-Kantian self and the scientific definitions of genes, this foray into the history of science reveals some of the substantial differences in ethics produced by a concept of atomistic and autonomous essences versus diffuse and permeable essences.

As I discuss in more detail in this post and this postI contend that much of the current resistance to epigenetics, which is usually framed in scientific terms, is actually more a function of these unseen fundamental ethical incompatibilities than about the science. In reality, there are likely far more science-based reasons for the inclusion of epigenetics within genetics than for its exclusion, which actually makes this exclusion that much more of a puzzle, at least on scientific grounds.

Instead of fundamental scientific differences, I propose that the real challenges from epigenetics stem from the interconnectedness and openness it asserts, which run so counter to the basic ethical commitments of contemporary society. By way of comparison, the widespread acceptance and assimilation of conventional genetics likewise suggests that it shares the same basic ethical commitments as contemporary society, which ethical congruence both facilitates this acceptance but also camouflages these ethical commitments of genetics, thereby reinforcing its appearance of objective scientific value-neutrality. 

This post is therefore an effort to further establish more of the history and the parameters of these  fundamental ethical differences. Subsequent posts will further develop the unique ethics and ethical challenges from epigenetics. For even more detail, you can also read my paper-length treatment of the political implications of these fundamental ethical incompatibilities between genetics and epigenetics which I presented at the Association of Politics and the Life Sciences annual conference at Emory University in October 2014 here.

I am curious to hear what you think so far. Are these conceptual isomorphisms indicative of fundamental relationships? Or are they just coincidences? Leave your comments below and I will respond.

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[1] Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison. (2007). Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.

[2] Daston and Galison (2007): 197.

[3] Daston and Galison (2007): 205-6.

[4] Daston and Galison (2007): 200.

[5] Daston and Galison (2007): 200.

[6] Daston and Galison (2007): 201.

[7] Daston and Galison (2007): 225.

[8] Daston and Galison (2007): 201.

[9] John Locke. 1995. Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, Book II Chapter 1 p. 59.

[10] Daston and Galison (2007): 203.

[11] Daston and Galison (2007): 203.

[12] Daston and Galison (2007): 209.

[13] Daston and Galison (2007): 203.

[14] Daston and Galison (2007): 200; 225.

[15] Daston and Galison (2007): 201.

[16] Immanuel Kant (1781). Critique of Pure Reason. J.M. Meiklejohn (trans.)  Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990: 77.

[17] Daston and Galison (2007): 201.

[18] Kant (1781): 79; Kant (1781): 77-8.

[19] Kant (1781): 300.

[20] Immanuel Kant (1785). Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Lewis White Beck (trans.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1997: 43.

[21] Kant (1785): 48.

[22] Daston and Galison (2007): 210.

[23] Daston and Galison (2007): 203.

[24] Daston and Galison (2007): 203.

[25] Moss, L. (2003) What Genes Can’t Do, Cambridge: MIT Press.

[26] Dawkins, R. (1989) The Selfish Gene, New York: Oxford University Press.

[27] Wilson, R. (2005) Genes and the Agents of Life: The Individual in the Fragile Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[28] Crick, F. “Central Dogma of Molecular Biology” Nature 227 (1970): 561-563.

[29] Guy RiddihoughLaura M. Zahn (2010). “What Is Epigenetics?” Science 330(6004), 611.

[30] http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/epigenetics/epi_learns/

[31] Roberto Bonasio Shengjiang Tu Danny Reinberg (2010). “Molecular Signals of Epigenetic States.” Science 330(6004), 612-616.

[32] Daston and Galison (2007): 225.

[33] Daston and Galison (2007): 201.