The Political Implications of Epigenetics: Emerging Narratives and Ideologies

Robison, Shea K. “The political implications of epigenetics Emerging narratives and ideologies.” Politics & Life Sciences 35, no. 2 (2016): 30-53.

Copyright Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with permission.

Link to full text: The political implications of epigenetics


Background. Epigenetics, which is just beginning to attract public attention and policy discussion, challenges conventional understanding of gene-environment interaction and intergenerational inheritance and perhaps much more besides.

Question. Does epigenetics challenge modern political ideologies?

Methods. I analyzed the narratives of obesity and epigenetics recently published in the more liberal New York Times and the more conservative Wall Street Journal. For the years 2010 through 2014, 50 articles on obesity and 29 articles on epigenetics were identified, and elements in their causal narratives were quantitatively analyzed using a well-described narrative policy framework.

Findings. The narratives on obesity aligned with the two newspapers’ reputed ideologies. However, the narratives on epigenetics aligned with neither ideology but freely mixed liberal and conservative elements.

Discussion. This small study may serve as a starting point for broader studies of epigenetics as it comes to affect political ideologies and, in turn, public policies. The narrative mix reported here could yet prove vulnerable to ideological capture, or, more optimistically, could portend the emergence of a “third-way” narrative using epigenetics to question atomistic individualism and allowing for less divisiveness in public-health domains such as obesity.


At present, the study of epigenetics is not yet on the radar of most policy makers. This article helps initiate the eventual policy discussion around epigenetics by identifying the emerging narratives of epigenetics–that is, the causal stories that are constructed from the science of epigenetics. In particular, this article assesses the reporting on epigenetics in two ideologically distinct news sources, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, to examine the effects of ideology on the emerging narratives of epigenetics and the potential effects of epigenetics on ideology.

More specifically, I determine whether reporting on epigenetics displays specific patterns or differences related to the ideological bent of the source of a particular narrative. In addition to providing a starting point for discussing the narratives of epigenetics, this analysis provides a first look at the potential ideological uses of epigenetics. Thus, this article establishes a useful baseline against which we can compare the policy narratives of epigenetics that will emerge as scientific debates about epigenetics cross over into public awareness and political discourse.

Epigenetics in politics and policy

If the scientific challenges of epigenetics are great, the political challenges are perhaps even greater. These political challenges come in a couple of different forms. First, the scientific identification of epigenetic causes of health effects has potential consequences for public health policies across many different domains. For this reason, policy analysts, policy makers, and others concerned with public policy should pay considerable attention to epigenetics.

Second, epigenetics-related public policy debates will involve profound aspects of political ideologies. As I will demonstrate, the identifications of novel causes and effects being realized in epigenetics research substantially complicates the foundational assumptions around which so much of our contemporary politics are organized, such as what defines an individual and how humans relate to their environment. In this way, the emergence of the science of epigenetics has the potential to force a fundamental reconfiguration of our politics to an extent not yet seen by the emergence of any other science, save perhaps the introduction of Darwinian evolution in the mid-19th century and the emergence of the modern science of genetics itself in the 1930s. As such, epigenetics could end up having more of an impact in politics than in science.

The true political implications of epigenetics

Although the main implications of epigenetics for policy stem from its complications of the conventional self-versus-environment dichotomies that characterize liberal-versus-conservative positions in contemporary policy domains such as obesity, epigenetics also has the potential to upend fundamental assumptions about human nature that have been the basis of prevailing conservative and liberal Western worldviews for at least the last 200 years. Specifically, the science of epigenetics introduces novel information about our relations with each other and with our environments that profoundly challenges the foundational modern Western concept of atomistic individualism, in which each person is regarded as a distinct and autonomous entity, ultimately separate from other people and from the environment.

This concept, which is espoused in Cartesianism, Lockeanism, Kantianism, and other philosophies, simply does not reflect the interconnectedness of humans with each other and with their environments, which may even span multiple generations, that is being revealed by the science of epigenetics. To the contrary, epigenetics shows the self, at least on a biological level, to be an inherently relational concept which is constituted through interaction with other people and the environment.

Even within the Western tradition, there are alternative philosophical frameworks that are not built upon an ontological commitment to atomistic individualism. For example, the ethics and political theory developed by the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza are premised upon a concept of the self as ultimately relational. At the same time, Spinoza’s system is also a product of the same intellectual and cultural history that produced other modern Western political theories. As such, the philosophy of Spinoza provides a potential bridge between atomistic individualism and the relationality of many non-Western traditions.

The concluding paragraph of this article is not the place to begin to formulate this new politics. Although this article is meant to initiate a discussion about what such a politics could or should look like via its descriptions of the science and the narratives of epigenetics, and their implications for policy, I recognize that whether such an alternate perspective will or could ever emerge in the West is an open question. However, this article does suggest that the ideological bases of our conventional policies and politics as currently conceived are ill-equipped to deal with the descriptions of our biological relationships with each other and with our environments now emerging from the science of epigenetics.

Link to full text: The political implications of epigenetics


Genetics and Epigenetics Come Home from the War

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

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

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

Other voices, other rooms

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

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

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

Follow the money

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

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

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

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

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

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

The road not taken

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Bush (1945).

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

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

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

Epigenetics and the Cold War

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

Biology in the USSR

Although Russian biology before and after the Russian Revolution had a much different slant than American and even British biology, and was centered more around evolutionary biology, genetics did eventually become an accepted aspect of science in Russia. Notably, this acceptance of genetics began in earnest only during the early years of the Soviet period,[1] and quickly became a strong research program (for example, until 1934, the Soviet Union was second only to the United States in publications in genetics[2]). However, within a decade genetics was almost entirely discredited in the Soviet Union and by the 1940s genetics was replaced by a much different paradigm which incorporated both Lamarckian notions and epigenetic-like ideas, though with some important differences unique to the Soviet circumstances.

One important material factor which influenced the direction of the development of Soviet biology along these lines were the waves of famines experienced in the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s. In the desperate quest for relief, the Lamarckian theories of the biologist Vladimirovich Michurin and the agronomist Trofim Lysenko were swiftly promoted to prominence as offering more immediate means to increase agricultural productivity. These theories were premised on the idea that external modifications to plants (such as grafts) and to seeds (such as vernalization, or soaking them in water) were passed on to subsequent generations via some mechanism of inheritance, suggesting a very limited role for genetic heredity and natural selection in biology.

These Lamarckesque theories also allowed for the politically useful display of immediate, purposive action in the face of crisis. In fact, one of the primary Lysenkoist critiques of genetics during this period was of the length of time required to implement biological change according to genetics, and even just the time it took to select the right varieties for genetics experiments, which could take months if not years.[3] To wit, a government decree in 1931 declared that to warrant continued support government-funded cultivation projects must produce new varieties within 4–5 years, which was half the time required for conventional methods used by the geneticists.[4] That Lysenkoists could promise results in a much shorter timeframe than their counterparts working in genetics only added to their political advantage vis-à-vis the geneticists.

Lamarck and Lysenko

Again, though, although Lysenkoism had both Lamarckian and epigenetics-like characteristics, in many substantial ways it was neither, and thus should not be confused or conflated with either Lamarckism or contemporary epigenetics.

On the one hand, neither Lysenko nor most Lysenkoists referred to themselves as Lamarckians. Instead, they preferred to describe themselves as Darwinists, juxtaposing themselves against the Western Neo-Darwinists. For example, while at this time there were dozens of Russian translations of Darwin’s writings, there were only a couple of translations of the work of Lamarck, and in journal articles of the time Darwin was referred to more than 25 times as frequently as Lamarck.[5]

Further, when Lysenkoists did refer to Lamarck, it was usually just to praise the revolutionary nature of his ideas and not for any scientific purposes. DeJong-Lambert describes how during the watershed 1948 meeting of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the Soviet Union at which genetics was officially banned in the Soviet Union, one of the speakers observed that “As is known, Lamarck’s theory arose in connection with the ideas of the French encyclopaedists and the French materialists. It reflected the revolutionary epoch of that time,” and that just as “the reaction against the French Revolution also caused a strong reaction against the ideas of Lamarck,” so also were the reactions against Lysenkoism proxies for reactions against the Russian Revolution.[6] Thus, references like these to Lamarck and Lamarckism primarily functioned to cast geneticists in the role of counter-revolutionaries, as “regressive absolutists who feared ‘enlightenment,’” more than to declare a specific filiation of Lysenkoism with Lamarckism.[7]

Regardless, and with the explicit and public support of Josef Stalin, Lysenkoism was sanctioned by the Soviet state as the only correct theory of evolution and biological development,[8] while genetics and Darwinian natural selection were officially discredited as bourgeois and fascist, with many geneticists being imprisoned and perhaps even killed.[9] This ‘housecleaning’ in biology mirrored the purges that were occurring in other domains of Soviet life as well during this time, which were also so often couched in the context of ideological opposition to the West.

Ideology and biology in the West

However, this conflation of biology with ideology was occurring on both sides of the Cold War which was then just heating up, though in much different ways and to different degrees. For example, geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the premier architects of the Modern Synthesis, identified the motivations of many in the West who were then portraying Lamarckian heredity as part of some sort of “communist plot” in biology as being less about the actual science involved and more about their own particular ideologies.[10]

As to why Lamarckism was being so closely linked with Marxism, Dobzhansky suggested ulterior motives for those who were stoking fears of Marxian biologists hiding “under every laboratory bench” during this time.[11] According to Dobzhansky, by identifying as Communists anyone who did not condemn Lamarckism as an “enemy” doctrine in biology, these alarmists were seeking more to intimidate into silence potential opponents of their own particular research focus, as well as to express their preferred social and political interpretations of that biology, rather than to clarify the actual scientific issues involved.[12]

As will be shown, this politicization of biology in the West before and during the Cold War was to play a significant role in the development of the science of genetics in the West over the subsequent fifty years, particularly in the prejudice against epigenetics—which also helps to explain the recent and seemingly sudden (re)emergence of epigenetics within the last decade or so.

Genetics and the Cold War in the U.S.

In the West, there were at least no official state edicts against epigenetics-like ideas or imprisonments of epigeneticists like Waddington solely for their scientific claims. However, it is also clear that in the chilled and virulently anti-Communist atmosphere of McCarthy-era America, the Soviet support for Lysenkoism and opposition to genetics played a significant role in the prejudice against theories in biology which proposed more interaction with the environment than was allowed by the exclusive gene-centric focus of the Modern Synthesis.

In fact, it is no exaggeration to observe that the scientific discussion of these ideas in the West often mirrored the vitriolic political rhetoric of the time. One historian of this epoch in science characterizes the reactions by many prominent biologists and geneticists in the West to alternatives like Waddington’s epigenetics as “strikingly similar to the tenor and the rhetoric used by Lysenko and his followers” against genetics in the Soviet Union, providing a litany of examples of the “dogmatic,” “derisive,” and at times even “fanatical” opposition to such ideas.[13]

The political and ideological reactions in the U.S. towards epigenetics-like ideas during this time are themselves significant enough for an entire book of their own. However, what is clear is that this connection between the politics and the science of this time left an indelible imprint on the subsequent development of the science of genetics. As such, two examples of the substantial risks to reputation and career which accompanied even just the reluctance to completely denounce unorthodox theories will be presented as demonstrations of the very real chilling effects of Cold War geopolitics on the development of the science of genetics in the U.S., and on the prejudice against epigenetics which endured for decades.

[1] Gaissinovitch, A. E. 1980. The origins of Soviet genetics and the struggle with Lamarckism, 1922-1929. Journal of the History of Biology, 13(1), 1-51.

[2] DeJong-Lambert, W., 2012. The Cold War politics of genetic research: An introduction to the Lysenko affair. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

[3] Carlson, Elof A. 1981. Genes, radiation, and society : the life and work of H.J. Muller. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

[4] Roll-Hansen, N., 2005. The Lysenko effect: undermining the autonomy of science. Endeavour 29(4), pp.143-147.

[5] Kouprianov, A.V., 2011. The ‘Soviet Creative Darwinism’(1930s–1950s): From the Selective Reading of Darwin’s Works to the Transmutation of Species. Studies in the History of Biology3, pp. 8-31.

[6] DeJong-Lambert 2012.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Graham, L.R. 2004. Science in Russia and the Soviet Union. A Short History. Cambridge University Press.

[9] Adams, M. B. (1991). “Through the looking glass: The evolution of Soviet Darwinism.” In New Perspectives on Evolution, edited by L. Warren and H. Kropowski, New York: Wiley-Liss, 37-63.

Wrinch, P. N. (1951). Science and politics in the USSR: the genetics debate. World Politics, 3(04), 486-519.

[10] Dobzhansky, T., 1959. Evolution, Marxian biology, and the social scene. Science129, pp.1479-1480.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] DeJong-Lambert 2012.

The Progressive Movement, Genetics, and the State

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

The Progressive movement in the U.S. arose in large part as a direct reaction against the social conditions and the politics of the Gilded Age in America (which roughly corresponds to the Victorian era in Britain). The Progressive movement is today known primarily for its concerted efforts to eliminate political corruption, particularly as the untoward relationships between industrialists and government officials, and in curtailing the influence of political machines at the state and local levels. In focusing on changing these political relationships, the Progressive movement thereby aimed at a fundamental reordering of the political system, while at the same time advocating for a reordering of society. Not surprisingly, these political changes also coincided with fundamental changes in the prevailing understanding of biology.

Woodrow Wilson, political progress, and evolution

A prime example of the extent of the penetration of this Progressive ideology into politics and policy, and its connection with the biology of the time, is provided by Woodrow Wilson.

In his 1913 book The New Freedom: A Call For the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People, which was also the campaign slogan for his 1912 presidential campaign, Wilson more explicitly identifies the convergence of this Progressive view of policy as a science with the appropriate principles from biology: “All that progressives ask or desire,” Wilson wrote, “is permission—in an era when development, evolution, is a scientific word—to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle; all they ask is recognition of the fact that a nation is a living thing and not a machine.”[1] Wilson specifically intended this application of Darwinism to government as a critique of the principles on which the U.S. Constitution was originally founded, as “a variety of mechanics…founded on the law of gravitation,”[2] which were inadequate for the new age which was then emerging. “The trouble with the theory,” Wilson continues, “is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.”[3]

In other words, Wilson and other Progressives were calling for a fundamental reconception and reorganization of American politics based on the metaphor of organic evolution, and specifically a Darwinian and not Lamarckian conception of evolution. As an example of just how profound a shift Wilson imagined, consider this extended excerpt from The New Freedom:

We are in the presence of a new organization of society. Our life has broken away from the past. The life of America is not the life that it was twenty years ago; it is not the life that it was ten years ago. We have changed our economic conditions, absolutely, from top to bottom; and, with our economic society, the organization of our life. The old political formulas do not fit the present problems; they read now like documents taken out of a forgotten age.[4]

In other words, the Progressive view as articulated by Wilson saw itself as a fundamental break with the society and the politics—and the science—of before.

Progress, individualism, and the rise of the administrative State

In particular, Wilson identified the founders’ reservations about direct democracy, subject as it was to the popular passions and whims. These misgivings about democracy were manifest in the Constitutional doctrine of the separation of powers, which Wilson and other Progressives saw as an impediment to efficient and responsive government. Instead, Progressives like Wilson proclaimed their dedication to individual autonomy, direct democracy, and a government freed from the constraints of institutional checks that is finally responsive to the will of the people. Paradoxically, though, Wilson and many other Progressives also insisted that for this enhanced individuality to be realized, government must play a larger role in society in order to preserve these economic and political freedoms, specifically via the work of unelected technical experts in the government bureaucracy. In this way, the political successes of Progressivism ushered in the rise of the administrative and regulatory state.

A little known fact—outside academic public administration, that is—is that Wilson had earned a Ph.D. in political science and wrote some of the seminal works in the field of public administration, such as “The Study of Administration.”[5] From this and other academic writings, Wilson is considered one of the founders of the field of public administration.[6]

“The Study of Administration” describes this Progressive emphasis on objectivity and rational planning through Wilson’s assertion of the politics-administration dichotomy, or that public administration is or should be outside of the “hurry and strife” of politics.[7] According to Wilson, “administrative questions are not political questions,” and that “although politics sets the tasks for administration, it should not be suffered to manipulate its office.”[8] Instead, the actual conduct of government, as distinct from the subjective contests of popular politics, is the proper domain for an objective “science of administration…to straighten the paths of government, to make its business less unbusinesslike, to strengthen and purify its organization, and to crown its duties with dutifulness.”[9] The civil-service reform underway at this time (Pendleton Act,[10] etc.) was an example of this Progressive scientization of government, but this for Wilson was “but a moral preparation for what is to follow [in] clearing the moral atmosphere of official life by establishing the sanctity of public office as a public trust, and, by making the service unpartisan, it is opening the way for making it businesslike.”[11]

Science, eugenics, and the new State

However, although most standard political histories of this era focus primarily on the political innovations of the Progressives, this movement was also marked by a very strong undercurrent of imperialism, race and class-based discrimination, and eugenics.[12] Wilson’s own virulent racism, even for his time, is now practically beyond dispute[13]—as evidenced, for example, in his resegregation of the civil service and the military.[14]

As a result, for all the public good proclaimed by this progressive emphasis on scientific objectivity and rationality in public policy and administration, in practice the Progressive political movement inclined itself to rather authoritarian and outright eugenic purposes. On the one hand, making policy a matter of scientific knowledge and expertise meant that only a relative few would be qualified to make administrative decisions. On the other hand, as described by James Scott, this Progressive impulse to improve society through the application of science was both boundless in its reach, and also tended to focus primarily on specific segments of the population:

Every nook and cranny of the social order might be improved upon: personal hygiene, diet, child rearing, housing, posture, recreation, family structure, and, most infamously, the genetic inheritance of the population. The working poor were often the first subjects of scientific social planning…Subpopulations found wanting in ways that were potentially threatening—such as indigents, vagabonds, the mentally ill, and criminals—might be made the objects of the most intensive social engineering.[15]

Changes in politics, changes in biology

As such, the Progressive movement in the U.S. represented a convergence of forces across all aspects of society, combined with the enhanced penetration of this new administrative State into society. Notably, these new Progressive politics were in turn informed or at least justified by the new theories emerging in both the social and the natural sciences concerning the essential biological constitution of individuals.

In contrast to the Neo-Lamarckism upon which the laissez-faire politics of the Gilded Age were based, the Progressive movement increasingly invoked Neo-Darwinism and the emerging science of genetics to explain and justify their political goals and actual policies to set the State up as the primary adjudicator of fairness in society.[16] There are scientifically justifiable explanations for this move from Neo-Lamarckian responsiveness to the nonadaptiveness of Neo-Darwinism and genetics within science, which explanations constitute the conventional scientific histories of this era. At the same time, though, this change outside of science in preferences towards the opposing account of biology also makes political sense, per the guiding model of this project, as a strategic move against an entrenched ideology premised upon Neo-Lamarckism.

Genetics and the new Progressive State

As such, the political program of the Progressive movement, including its ethnocentrism and discrimination, were increasingly justified through references to Darwin and genetics, and not to Lamarck. In turn, it is not without consequence that—regardless of the reasons—at this critical moment in the development of the science of genetics the Progressives lent increasing support to Neo-Darwinian theories of neutral mutations disconnected from the environment, and not to Neo-Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits. It is also of consequence that this difference would go on to become a defining distinction of the new genetics—which is a primary reason epigenetics is so controversial today.

Although obviously the science itself cannot be made to shoulder the blame for these political uses of it,[17] this intersection of the rise of Progressivism with its advocacy of the new administrative State, and the commensurate rise of Neo-Darwinism and genetics in science should not be taken for granted in either political or scientific histories. Although it is obviously too much to say that the political context alone accounts for the emergence of the science of genetics as we now know it, it is surely also too much to say that this political context had no effect on the development of the science. Instead, what seems clear, per the guiding model of this project, is that the politics and the science both evolved together and influenced each other.

The political implications of this intertwining of the new administrative State and the science of genetics will be the primary focus of the next chapters.

[1] Wilson, W. (1913). The New Freedom. New York, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wilson, W. (1887). The study of administration. Political science quarterly2(2), 197-222.

[6] Hood, C. (2000). The art of the state: Culture, rhetoric, and public management. Oxford University Press.

[7] Wilson (1887), p. 210.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 201.


[11] Wilson (1887), p. 210.

[12] Miller, T. J. (2012). Freedom, history, and race in progressive thought. Social Philosophy and Policy29(2), 220-254.

Paul, R. (2013). Progressive Racism. National Review. Retrieved 15 August 2017, from

Leonard, T. C. (2016). Illiberal reformers: race, eugenics, and American economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton University Press.

[13] Schuessler, J. (2015). Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy Gets Complicated. Retrieved 15 August 2017, from

Fuller, S. (2016). Making Moral Judgments from a World-Historic Standpoint: The Case of Woodrow Wilson. Society53(3), 315-318.

[14] Yellin, Eric S. Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America. UNC Press Books, 2013.

[15] Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale University Press, p. 92.

[16] Engs, R. C. (2003). The progressive era’s health reform movement: a historical dictionary. Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 115-117.

Happe, K. E. (2013). The material gene: gender, race, and heredity after the Human Genome Project. NYU Press, pp. 4, 26-24, 46.

[17] For example, historian Thomas Leonard describes T.H. Morgan as “the only geneticist to reject publicly the eugenicist idea that socially undesirable traits were the product of bad heredity,” so work in genetics obviously did not determine this combination of Progressive ideals and eugenic beliefs. However, by the same token, Morgan appears to have been relatively unique among geneticists in his denunciation of eugenics, and although Leonard describes how eventually most prominent geneticists distanced themselves from the eugenic organizations they once embraced, they did in fact originally embrace eugenics. (Leonard, T. C. (2005). Retrospectives: eugenics and economics in the Progressive Era. The journal of economic perspectives19(4), 207-224.)

Eugenics and the Rise of Population Genetics

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

The history of eugenics in early 20th century science is well-traveled ground, and will thus not be a major focus of this chapter because it would take this chapter too far afield. Still, it must be addressed because of the sheer magnitude of its influence in the science and the politics of this era, its relation to the science of genetics that was to come, and because it provides such a strong example of the guiding model of this book of the inextricable connections between ideology, politics, and biology.

Eugenics as defined by Francis Galton, half-cousin to Charles Darwin and also one of the most respected scientists of his time, was “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.”[1] Eugenic beliefs of some kind were endorsed by most prominent biologists in the U.S. and Britain and Europe in the early 20th century, as well as by scientists in other fields, and public figures from George Bernard Shaw to Helen Keller.[2] The primary goal of eugenics and eugenicists was to prevent the degeneration of the ‘right’ characteristics within a population through methods which according to Galton are “by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognisance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”[3]

Eugenics: Populations and statistics

This desire to better understand the processes of biological development and inheritance so as to “give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing” spurred and informed much of the work that was done in biology in this period. As described at length by Stephen Jay Gould in his book The Mismeasure of Man,[4] eugenics was without a doubt a primary motivation for Galton and other biometricians of the time to develop many of the foundational concepts of the modern practice of statistics, such as standard deviations, correlations, regressions, and factor analyses, in their efforts to establish mathematically (i.e., objectively) the distribution of characteristics within a population and to track the rate of change of those characteristics.[5]

Both this emphasis on populations and the use of increasingly sophisticated mathematical methods to describe the distributions of traits within populations which were such an integral part of the eugenics movement would go on to become important components of the Modern Synthesis, particularly through population genetics[6]—although this association with eugenics is now, quite understandably, downplayed considerably in conventional histories of population genetics and genetics.[7] Still, the prevalence and the prominence of eugenics in science in general, and in the development of Modern Synthesis of genetics and evolutionary theory in particular, should not be so easily dismissed.

Eugenics and the development of genetics

For example, from 1910 to 1939 the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) was located at the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory complex on Long Island in New York.[8] [9] This is particularly noteworthy because the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory also played a major role in the early development of molecular genetics and molecular biology at the same time the ERO was located there, and is still one of the premier research institutions in quantitative biology and genetics.[10]

The ERO was headed by Harry H. Laughlin, and funded by Mary Harriman, the widow of railroad magnate E.H. Harriman, John Harvey Kellogg, of the corn flakes and Battle Creek Sanitarium fame, the Rockefeller family, and the Carnegie Institution. This pattern of small groups of exceedingly wealthy patrons providing the financial support for scientific research and advocacy with direct links to eugenics is found again and again during this era, and will resurface in this book in the subsequent discussion of the political history of cancer. As such, far from being representative of a marginal reactionary movement, Laughlin and the ERO were well within the mainstream of Progressive Era science and society.

As described by P.K. Wilson in his article “Harry Laughlin’s eugenic crusade to control the ‘socially inadequate’ in Progressive Era America,” the ERO used the nascent methods of population genetics to analyze substantial amounts of genealogical information gathered from around the country. Once this data was gathered and analyzed, the ERO provided state legislators around the country with information about the number of ‘social defectives’ within their respective constituencies. Beyond merely providing this information, the ERO actively advocated for the forced sterilization of “feeble-minded, the insane, criminals, epileptics, inebriates, as well as those suffering from tuberculosis, leprosy, venereal disease, blindness, deafness and physical deformities,”[11] among other eugenic policies.

Eugenics and the changing political landscape

In this context, there are two key scientific and ideological and political affiliations which have particularly significant implications for understanding the eventual triumph of genetics in the 1930s, and its implications for the seemingly sudden emergence of contemporary epigenetics in our own era. The first is the widespread influence of Neo-Lamarckism—which is better known today by the curious misnomer of Social Darwinism—in American science, social life, and politics during the Gilded Age, and particularly as it was used in the justification of laissez-faire economic and social policies. The second key scientific and political combination from this era is the emergence of the Progressive movement in the United States with its invocation of Neo-Darwinism and support for the nascent science of genetics, which eventually supplanted this Neo-Lamarckism in both politics and in the prevailing understanding of biology.

That said, the endorsements for eugenics crossed disciplinary, theoretical, and ideological lines, as it was endorsed by Darwinians and Lamarckians (Neo- and otherwise), as well as by those who endorsed the other extant theories of evolution and biology that were in the air at this time. Thus, support for eugenics is not a distinguishing characteristic between the Neo-Darwinism and Neo-Lamarckism of this era, and cannot of itself account for the rise of one and the decline of the other. The intertwining of science, eugenics, and the particular politics promoted by the rise of the Progressive movement, and how this combination contributed to the rise of genetics and the eventual emergence of epigenetics in our own time, will be the topic of the next excerpt.

[1] Francis Galton, Memories of My Life (London: Methuen 1908), 321.

[2] Hansen, R., & King, D. (2001). Eugenic ideas, political interests, and policy variance: immigration and sterilization policy in Britain and the US. World Politics53(02), 237-263.

[3] Galton, F. (1883). Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. London, England: Macmillan and Co., pp. 24–25.

[4] Gould, S. J. (1996). The Mismeasure of Man. WW Norton & Company.

[5] This connection between the emergence of the practice of statistics and changes in the exercise of the power of states on the populations within their borders is also discussed by Michel Foucault in a number of works in which Foucault describes the emergence of the science of state—christened as ‘statistics’—as compared to the art of statecraft. For a discussion of Foucault’s approach and conclusions about the historical connection between state power and the technology of statistics, see Curtis, B. (2002). Foucault on governmentality and population: The impossible discovery. Canadian Journal of Sociology/Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, 505-533. See also the English translation of Lascoumes, P. (2004). La Gouvernementalité: de la critique de l’État aux technologies du pouvoir (Governmentality: the critique of the technology of state power). Le Portique. Revue de philosophie et de sciences humaines, (13-14).

[6] Sturtevant, A. H. (2001). A history of genetics. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Chapter 17.

[7] Bouche, T. & Rivard, L. (2014). America’s Hidden History: The Eugenics Movement. Retrieved from

[8] “Eugenics Record Office.” Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library & Archives, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Retrieved 31 August 2017, from

[9] An interesting fact which emphasizes the prevalence of eugenics throughout the sciences during this time is that the information theorist Claude Shannon, who is more famous for his Master’s thesis which introduced digital theory, completed his Ph.D. in population genetics (An Algebra for Theoretical Genetics) at the ERO in 1939—although there is no evidence that Shannon was a committed eugenicist. Shannon was sent to the ERO at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory by his adviser, Vannevar Bush, perhaps the single person most responsible for the massive federal funding of science both during and after World War II, discussed in more detail in a subsequent chapter of this book (Pachter, L. (2013). Claude Shannon, population geneticist. Bits of DNA. Retrieved 15 August 2017, from

[10] Judson, H. F. (1996). The eighth day of creation: makers of the revolution in biology. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

[11] Wilson, P. K. (2002). Harry Laughlin’s eugenic crusade to control the ‘socially inadequate’ in Progressive Era America. Patterns of prejudice, 36(1), 49-67.

More About Waddington: Socialism, Science, and Epigenetics

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

The connections between the deep-seeded philosophical inclinations of C.H. Waddington and his eventual ‘discovery’ of epigenetics have been detailed elsewhere. Given these connections between his philosophy and his scientific work, it should be little surprise that there are similar connections between his politics and his science. These connections not only provide additional context for his scientific work, they also help to explain the icy reception of epigenetics when he first proposed it in the 1940s, given the nature of Waddington’s political inclinations and the geopolitical circumstances of the time. These connections in turn help to explain why epigenetics has only recently emerged within the last couple of decades, sixty years since Waddington initially proposed epigenetics as an intermediary layer between genes and the environment.

Science and socialism

Gary Werskey, in his extensive work on the “scientific socialists” of the 1930s,[1] describes the intertwined lives and careers of five prominent British scientists—J.D. Bernal, J.B.S. Haldane, Lancelot Hogben, Hyman Levy, and Joseph Needham—who openly professed both a socialist politics and a socialist conception of science, and four of whom were formal members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Although Waddington is not one of Werskey’s subjects, he worked with Haldane and published a paper with him. He was close lifelong friends with Bernal, a pioneer in X-ray crystallography which played such an important role in the discovery of the double helix of DNA, and Needham, a specialist in embryology and morphogenesis as well as a respected sinologist, through an informal ‘club’ the three had founded while they were in school together in Cambridge in 1931.

Werskey concludes that the politics of these men did not directly influence their science, primarily because they worked in the mainstream of the science of their time. I suggest instead that while these men did make substantial contributions to the mainstream science of their time, there were also identifiable influences of their politics on their scientific work, and that these political influences are found in their common approach to biology. This convergence of politics, ideology, and biology—especially given how the geopolitical history of the world was to soon unfold—is also pertinent to the development of Waddington’s conception of epigenetics in the 1940s, and to the lack of acceptance of epigenetics until relatively recent. In the same way, this convergence of biology and ideology is equally pertinent to the development of the science of genetics as we now know it, which until the last decade or so more or less excluded epigenetics from serious consideration.

Waddington and the Theoretical Biology Club

This ‘club’ that Bernal, Needham, and Waddington (along with the philosopher of biology Joseph Woodger and the mathematician and biochemical theorist Dorothy Wrinch) formed while at Cambridge was called the Theoretical Biology Club. As the name denotes, the club was organized around discussions of both the philosophy and the science of biology that was just then emerging at that time. In particular, the primary theme or topic of this club was the discussion of the concept of organicism in biology. Organicism, which is related to the philosophy of organism of Whitehead described before, is the idea that wholes are greater than the sum of their parts, that “the properties of each part are dependent upon the context of the part within the whole in which they operate,” and that wholes exert some regulative control over their parts.[2]

Coincidentally or not, organicism applied to biology was championed by J.B.S. Haldane’s father, J.S. Haldane, an internationally respected physiologist also working at Cambridge at this time.[3] As a working natural scientist, the elder Haldane conceived of organicism through his work on the regulative processes of the body, and respiration in particular, in response to changes in the environment.[4] Haldane the father also saw organicism in biology as a much-needed middle way between the unscientific vitalism of Lamarckism and the overly reductionist and dualistic conception of biology which was then emerging in concert with genetics.[5] At the same time, as historian Peter Bowler observes, the organicism of the elder Haldane also coincided with his support for a social philosophy which advocated a significant role for the state in coordinating the actions of individuals to secure the greater good, in contrast to the prevailing liberal philosophy of extreme individualism which Haldane saw as leading to selfishness and expressive of the more avaricious aspects of humankind.[6]

Likewise, in addition to organicism in biology, another major topic of conversation of the Theoretical Biology Club was their shared socialist and Marxist beliefs, which they saw as inextricably linked with their views of biology. These ideological beliefs were not just sophomoric exuberances, though, but were deeply held sentiments which were maintained by all into their subsequent work as well-regarded scientists. For example, Brenda Swann and Francis Aprahamian detail a number of ways in which the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels fit the assumptions of the experimental work of these men as mature scientists, including Waddington.[7] In particular, Swann and Aprahamian identify Marxism’s historical perspective and its concern with transformation over time, as well as its “vision of the totality of the phenomena in nature that allowed both for its unity and its limitless diversity…that was not at the same time mechanically reductionist” as its likely appeal to these “adventurous young talents…that refused to accept disciplinary limitations and boundaries.”[8]

J.B.S. Haldane

For example, J.B.S. Haldane—who was not a member of the Theoretical Biology Club, but was well acquainted with all who were—was a prominent figure in the emerging mathematical theories of population genetics, and was also a card-carrying Marxist.

At the time, the mathematical formalisms of population genetics treated genes as entirely independent units, with the assumption that most traits were rigidly determined by genetic inheritance. This emphasis on genes was also coupled with the belief that genetic change only happened rarely, via random mutations, and that for changes in genes to distribute through a population required geological time scales (from the background assumptions of uniformitarianism and gradualism carried over from geology, as described elsewhere). This strict emphasis on genes as atomistic sources of control of traits and as insulated from their environments seems to share little in common with either an organicist approach to biology or a collectivist ideology like Marxism, thus precluding a connection between Haldane’s politics and his scientific work in population genetics.

However, in this context it is especially interesting that one of the main emphases of Haldane’s mathematical work was to show that selection coefficients could be larger than other population geneticists generally assumed, which allowed for a much more rapid evolution than was imagined possible by population geneticists before Haldane.[9]  In particular, Haldane’s work attributed much more of a link to the environment than was allowed by most other population geneticists. For example, in his paper on the famous case of the moths of Manchester,[10] Haldane demonstrated mathematically how the evolution from disproportionate numbers of speckled moths to disproportionate numbers of black moths within 50 years was plausible given the changes in environmental conditions around the industrializing city of Manchester, which was a practical impossibility given the then-accepted rates of genetic variation.[11] This link between environmental change and a commensurately rapid change in the biological constitution of organisms was in a way a confirmation of sorts of the Marxian assertion of the connection between humans and their environments, particularly in the context of industrialization, as described by Friedrich Engels, even though it was also well within the mainstream science of the time.

The science and ideology of Waddington

While it would be imprecise to label Waddington a Marxist per se (e.g., given that he once asserted that the organicist philosophy of Whitehead had actually superseded Marx’s dialectical materialism “with a fuller view of nature”[12]), it is clear that many of his closest associates were unabashed Marxists, and that Waddington had ideological inclinations which leaned in that direction as well.[13] Given the connections between social reform movements and open biologies described elsewhere, and given Waddington’s emphasis on the interactions of genes with their environments, it is perhaps not surprising that Waddington also advocated for socialist politics.

That said, these connections between ideological inclinations towards socialism and organicism in science during this era were not unique to Waddington and his close group of friends. Val Dusek, in his own account of the emergence of the anti-mechanistic, anti-reductionist biology and physics around this time, identifies many of the prominent scientists who embraced this more holistic view and who also proclaimed themselves as Marxists, and discusses the ways in which their ideological inclinations were manifest in their scientific work.[14]

Notably, the significance of these connections between politics and science were not lost on the scientists themselves. In his later life Waddington himself remarked on what he called the practical consequences of metaphysical beliefs on scientists’ work, observing from his own experience that “a scientist’s metaphysical beliefs are not mere epiphenomena, but have a definite and ascertainable influence on the work he produces.”[15]

This open acknowledgement of the connection between ideological beliefs and scientific work makes many scientists today uncomfortable, as if it should discredit the work of overt socialists and Marxists like Waddington, Haldane, and Bernal because of the level of the influence of their political beliefs on their work. However, given the caliber of these scientists and of their scientific work—some of which now constitutes the bedrock of contemporary genetics—this assumption that the influence of ideology automatically invalidates scientific work does not hold water.

Likewise, to assume that extra-scientific beliefs like political ideology only influenced the work of these few socialist scientists working in 1930s and 1940s who openly acknowledged this connection, while the work of other non-socialist scientists who did not acknowledge such a connection is somehow exempt from such influences is not supported by the political and scientific history of the science of genetics. As discussed in previous chapters, political ideology has been a pervasive influence on the development of the science of biology throughout its history, including on many of those innovations which are now accepted as its core orthodoxy. As this history shows again and again, claims about the ideological neutrality of scientific programs are usually at best unintentionally myopic, or at worst hubristic—and are themselves likely the manifestations of a particular ideology which is taken as self-evidently true. Again, this influence of ideology does not necessarily render such scientific claims unscientific—otherwise there would have been no development of science over the course of this history—but it does mean that ideologies must also be a consideration in the evaluation of scientific claims.

As such, in the final section of this book on the public policy implications of epigenetics, these connections between ideologies and science and policies will be seen to still be live concerns in regards to contemporary epigenetics—although now in our contemporary political contexts and not necessarily as a contest of socialism contra capitalism and democracy, as in the geopolitical context of World War II and the Cold War, which is the subject of the next chapter.

[1] Werskey, G., 1978. The Visible College: The Collective Biography of British Scientific Socialists of 1930s. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

[2] Gilbert, S. F., & Sarkar, S. (2000). Embracing complexity: organicism for the 21st century. Developmental dynamics219(1), 1-9.

Bedau, M.A. and Cleland, C.E., 2010. The nature of life: classical and contemporary perspectives from philosophy and science. Cambridge University Press, p. 95.

[3] Peterson, E. (2010). Finding mind, form, organism, and person in a reductionist age: The challenge of Gregory Bateson and CH Waddington to biological and anthropological orthodoxy, 1924–1980 (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from CurateND. (, pp. 39-41.

[4] Haldane the elder is also famous for his penchant for conducting his respiratory experiments upon himself, and for inventing the first gas mask from his firsthand observations of poison gas attacks during World War I.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bowler, P.J., 2010. Reconciling science and religion: The debate in early-twentieth-century Britain. University of Chicago Press, p. 169.

[7] Swann, B., & Aprahamian, F. (Eds.). (1999). JD Bernal: a life in science and politics. Verso, pp. xvi-xviii.

[8] Ibid., p. xviii.

[9] Crow, J. F. (1987). Population genetics history: a personal view. Annual review of genetics21(1), pp. 5-7.

[10] Haldane JBS. A mathematical theory of natural and artificial selection. Trans Cambridge Philos Soc. 1924;23:19–41.

[11] Larson, E. J. (2004). Evolution: the remarkable history of a scientific theory (Vol. 17). Random House Digital, Inc., pp. 218-224.

[12] Gilbert, S. F. (1991). Induction and the origins of developmental genetics. In A conceptual history of modern embryology (pp. 181-206). Springer US.

[13] Bowler, P. J. (2010). Reconciling science and religion: The debate in early-twentieth-century Britain. University of- Chicago Press, pp. 174-175

Waddington, C. H. (1942). Science and Ethics: An Essay. George Allen And Unwin Ltd.; London.

[14] Dusek, V. (1999). The holistic inspirations of physics: The underground history of electromagnetic theory. Rutgers University Press.

[15] Waddington, C.H. 2009. The Practical Consequences of Metaphysical Beliefs on a Biologist’s Work: an Autobiographical Note. In C.H. Waddington ed. Sketching Theoretical Biology: Toward a Theoretical Biology (Vol. 2). Transaction Publishers.

A Tale of Two Fields: Epigenetics and Biology Between the Wars

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

One of the roots of the decades-long delay in the acceptance of epigenetics is found in the divergence of emphasis in biology between the emerging science of genetics and the more established field of embryology in the 1930s and 1940s. As will be discussed, this divergence had material, methodological, and geographical aspects. My contention is that this divergence also had substantial political and ideological aspects which were to become even more apparent in the onset of the Second World War, as these ostensible methodological differences also mirrored these impending political fractures.

This schism between embryology and genetics also complicates the conventional picture of the development of science as a logical, inevitable progression, and of the differences between fields as merely the result of a functional division of labor. Instead, at least in this case, this divergence between embryology and genetics appears to have occurred both for scientific reasons, but also as “a struggle for power and authority.”[1]

These dynamics are not exclusive to genetics but seem to be characteristic of science itself. For example, the sociologist Pierre Bordieu[2] and the historian Steven L. Goldman,[3] in their own analyses of the history of science, identify how what often becomes accepted as science is not obviously and necessarily more valid than what is deemed unscientific; instead, legitimate science is often determined just as much by “those who manage to impose the definition of science [as] having, being and doing what they have, are or do,”[4] which outcomes then become justified by assumption after the fact.

In other words, often there are no clear natural distinctions between different possible interpretations of the same natural phenomena, or no objective ways that nature can be ‘carved at its joints,’ and so what come to be the defining assumptions of a science have to be decided by other means. For example, in this case of the schism between genetics and embryology, it is fair to say that neither side was ‘wrong’ as such about the phenomena in question. What was primarily different was in the focus of each, or where the locus of causation was being placed. A legitimate science of biology built upon the work being done in embryology at this time, with genetics as a subsidiary component, is as conceivable as the genetics with embryology as a subsidiary component which actually did develop. In fact, the recent emergence of contemporary epigenetics, in which both these emphases are combined, indicates what such a science would have looked like. The actual result of this schism in biology, though, was a science of biology with the gene as the primary—and practically exclusive—cause.

All this is not to suggest that the science of genetics as it has developed since this time is therefore somehow not legitimate science. It has been an undoubtedly successful scientific enterprise by any standard. This is rather to say that the gene-centric focus of molecular biology is not the only direction a legitimate science of biology could have taken at this particular juncture, and that there were other equally viable alternative routes. That genetics developed as it did, though, is due to both scientific and political factors, although again this observation should not be construed as a condemnation of genetics.

Bricks in their walls

The fields of genetics and embryology had begun to diverge noticeably from each other by the mid-1920s, and this split became definitive by the 1940s—not that embryology disappeared, but that it was relegated or subordinated to genetics. According to the Nobel-prize winning geneticist T.H. Morgan, “an embryologist who inadvertently founded the gene theory,”[5] in his 1934 book Embryology and Genetics, this split was ostensibly along the lines of focus: Genetics and geneticists focused on the transmission of hereditary traits, while embryology and embryologists focused on the expression of those traits.[6]

However, while this may now seem an inevitable division, why such a split was deemed necessary in the first place, and why it should be along the lines of genetics versus embryology, is not so straightforward. This ambiguity is one indication that extra-scientific factors also played a role in this schism, which in turn influenced the timing of the rejection and the eventual begrudging acceptance of epigenetics, which takes more of an embryological approach. For this reason, the underlying social and political currents of this split are of particular relevance to the focus of this book on the policy implications of epigenetics to be discussed in the final section, which are a product of the novelty of epigenetic explanations in the accepted science of genetics.

Notably, this split was facilitated in large part by the work and the influence of Morgan himself, who set the stage for a distinctly American genetics in the 1920s—which would go on to become the prevailing conception of genetics and biology after World War II coincident with the zenith of American global hegemony. Morgan accomplished this division primarily by promoting the nuclear envelope, or the membrane which surrounds the genetic material in cells, as the primary conceptual and disciplinary boundary between genetics and embryology: what occurred within the envelope was the domain of genetics and what occurred outside was the domain of embryology. However, as the historian of biology Jan Sapp observes, the priority Morgan gave to this membrane, and to the disciplinary distinctions which resulted, were not “an intrinsic logical necessity of scientific thought,” but rather “depended directly on both the technical capacity and the institutional power of the discipline within which they were produced.” [7]

In particular, Morgan’s physiological distinction also highlighted an important geographical difference as well. Most biologists in Europe at this time did not recognize the priority of the physical boundary of the nuclear envelope as asserted by Morgan, but rather considered it to be just one component of the physiology of genes and the cell and the organism. Peter Bowler in his own history of evolutionary thought also notes this key geographical and cultural difference, observing that in Europe “genetics developed in a much less dogmatic form,” with much more interaction between these different subfields, and much more openness even to “non-Darwinian mechanisms of evolution” than in America in particular.[8]

The European approach to biology, in particular as championed by German scientists, asserted that the cytoplasm—or the non-genetic material within a cell not including the nucleus—played an important role in gene function, especially in providing the building material for the chromosomes and the genes themselves. In this way the external environment and the properties of the cells were seen to have a substantial influence on the functions of the genes within the cells. As such, both development and heredity were implicated in this more holistic focus, such that biologists in Europe did not have to confine themselves to studying either inheritance or development, as evidenced by the career of Waddington described elsewhere.

Morgan himself, as an embryologist, was declaring as late as 1910 that “We have come to look upon the problem of heredity as identical to the problem of development,”[9] which was well within this more European and German approach to genes and development. However, by 1926 Morgan the geneticist was asserting that cell composition and structure could be ignored in relation to the genes, such that the explanations of both inheritance and development could be found exclusively within the genes.[10]

The ability of this gene-centered faction of biology to resist absorption by the more established field of embryology constituted what the historian Scott Gilbert identifies as the “last chapter” in the emergence of a particularly American biology, which was to go on to become the prevailing gene-centered conception of biology more generally following World War II. “When had American biology finished ‘emerging’?” Gilbert asks, “I suspect that stage was reached when it had successfully resisted the last attempts to integrate it into European-dominated traditions of inquiry.”[11]

Thus, beyond the legitimate scientific rationales for this emphasis on the nuclear envelope which in part fomented the schism between embryology and genetics, some of the impetus behind this division of fields also stemmed from geneticists asserting their disciplinary independence from embryology, and from the desire of the American school of genetics in particular to assert its independence from the “European-dominated traditions of inquiry” which prioritized embryology and development over a near-exclusive focus on the genes.[12]

Again, per the guiding model of this project, that the sides in these disciplinary quarrels in biology coincided with the eventual sides taken in the Second World War, and that genetics ultimately emerged as the hegemonic victor in biology at the same time the U.S. emerged as the global hegemon after the war, is not merely coincidental. One of the effects of this distinctly Americanized focus on genes which emerged after the Second World War, and which was further solidified during the Cold War, was the antipathy towards epigenetic explanations like those proposed by C.H. Waddington in the 1940s which integrated genetics with embryology. This longstanding antipathy towards epigenenetics resulting in part from this disciplinary divergence of genetics and embryology from before the war helps to explain the timing of the recent (re)emergence of contemporary epigenetics from within genetics. This long delay in the reintegration of epigenetic explanations into genetics in turn helps to explain the political challenges now presented by epigenetics, which are the focus of this book: If epigenetics had been incorporated into the edifice of modern genetics as it was being constructed through the 1940s-1960s—as it very well could have been, given other social and political circumstances—then epigenetics would not present the conceptual and interpretive issues that it does now.

This intra-disciplinary contest between genetics and embryology was just one field of battle in this clash of science, politics, and ideologies during the interwar years. There were many other arenas in which developments in science mirrored the conflicts between political ideologies leading up to both the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War. Describing the circumstances of this convergence of science and ideology on a global scale from before World War Two through the Cold War, and how they pertain to epigenetics, will be the focus of subsequent chapters.

[1] Sapp, J. (1983). The struggle for authority in the field of heredity, 1900–1932: New perspectives on the rise of genetics. Journal of the History of Biology16(3), 311-342.

[2] Bourdieu, P. (1999). The specificity of the scientific field and the social conditions of the progress of reason. Sociology of Science 14(6): 19-47.

[3] Goldman, S.L., 2006. Science wars: What scientists know and how they know it. Teaching Company.

[4] Bourdieu 1999, p. 24.

[5] Gilbert, S.F. (1991). Cellular politics: Ernest Everett Just, Richard B. Goldschmidt, and the attempt to reconcile embryology and genetics. In Rainger R, Benson KR, Maienschein J. (eds) The American Development of Biology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Available at

[6] Morgan, Thomas Hunt. (1934). Embryology and Genetics. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

[7] Sapp 1983.

[8] Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: the History of an Idea (3rd ed.). California: University of California Press.

[9] T. H. Morgan, “Chromosomes and Heredity,” American Naturalist, 1910, 44: 449-496.

[10] T. H. Morgan, “Genetics and the Physiology of Development,” Am. Nat., 1926, 60:459-515.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gilbert, S.F. (1991). Cellular politics: Ernest Everett Just, Richard B. Goldschmidt, and the attempt to reconcile embryology and genetics. In Rainger R, Benson KR, Maienschein J. (eds) The American Development of Biology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 311. (Available at