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 January 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 http://10e.devbio.com/article.php?id=26

[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 http://10e.devbio.com/article.php?id=26)

Alfred Russel Wallace, Ideology, and Evolution

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

One specific and particularly intriguing example of these differences in the content of the natural science of the 1800s due to social class and ideological inclination is the contrast in the description of natural selection by Alfred Russel Wallace with natural selection as described by Darwin.

Although largely unknown by most people outside of biology today, within biology Wallace is rightfully credited as both an independent co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection with Darwin and as providing the critical impetus for Darwin to finally publish his theory. That natural selection as described by Darwin has since assumed priority over that of Wallace is generally chalked up to minor but important theoretical differences and Darwin’s more complete elaboration of the concept in his book On the Origin of Species. I suggest, as do others,[1] that there are important differences between the two conceptions of natural selection. Further, I suggest that these theoretical differences are related to the social and political factors mentioned before, and that these social and political factors contributed as much to the eventual triumph of the Darwinian version as any claims of its enhanced correspondence with empirical facts.

For example, in contrast to the privileged station Darwin enjoyed in Victorian society, Wallace emerged from a working class background, was self-educated in Mechanic’s Institutes and ‘Halls of Science,’ which were set up for adult education by utopian Owenite societies,[2] and was also a committed socialist.[3] To wit, while Darwin emphasized selection at the level of individual organisms and the competitive aspect of evolution, which reflected the prevailing beliefs of his station as a proper Victorian, Wallace’s theory of natural selection emphasized environmental pressures on varieties or groups instead of just individuals, and cooperation instead of competition, both of which also reflected his strong socialist inclinations.[4] Thus, while there are striking similarities between the two versions of natural selection, there are some substantial differences as well, most of which break along the class and ideological lines described before. That the Darwinian version of selection eventually became the predominant interpretation is, according to the guiding model of this project, not merely a coincidence but also a function of its congruence with these prevailing social and political factors.

On the other hand

At the same time, though, all of this is not to say that there is always an exclusive one-to-one correspondence between an ideology and a specific understanding of biology—or that a belief in socialism necessarily requires an adherence to a Lamarckian understanding of biology, as was prevalent during the 1800s. For example, one noteworthy exception to the pattern of relationships described before—and one which merits much more scrutiny and commentary than I can give here—is that Wallace himself, contrary to expectations given his  socialist ideology, explicitly and consistently disavowed Lamarckian inheritance in his conception of natural selection to a greater degree than even Darwin.[5] Where Darwin explicitly included a role for Lamarckian use-disuse inheritance in evolution,[6] and later even proposed his hypothesis of pangenesis as a mechanism for such inheritance, Wallace was much more definitive in asserting that this kind of inheritance was unnecessary in natural selection.

Notably, as described in more detail elsewhere, the version of Darwinism which ultimately formed the foundation of modern genetics was ‘Neo-Darwinism,’ which is basically Darwinian natural selection scrubbed of any equivocation on the inheritance of acquired traits—which is actually more akin to Wallaceism. This theoretical difference suggests that relatively few modifications to Wallaceism would have been required to be congruent with genetics, as were required of Darwinism, such that the Modern Synthesis of genetics with natural selection could perhaps have emerged decades earlier if Wallace’s version of natural selection had been selected as the explanation of choice for natural selection. If Wallace’s version had been selected, though, given the differences just cited, the resulting theory of genetics would have been substantially different in many ways than the contemporary version of genetics as we now know it—including, perhaps, in the even earlier acceptance of epigenetics. This is an intriguing counterfactual which would be worth more exploration. That Wallace’s version of natural selection was not selected by the prevailing science of the time, though, also seems due at least in part to these social and political differences mentioned before, in addition to these differences in the scientific content.

Likewise, as will be shown in the next chapter, in the decades after Darwin many advocates of what would now be considered a distinctly conservative laissez faire ideology invoked a version of Lamarckism to justify economic and social policies, while progressives—particularly in America—actually turned to a reinterpreted Darwinian biology and the emerging science of genetics to explain and justify their politics and policies. This opposition between these Lamarckian ‘conservatives’ and these Darwinian ‘progressives’ constituted one of the important fundamental ideological oppositions of this era, and would shape the politics of the 20th century not only in America but on a global scale.

Per the guiding model of this project, what is consistent throughout all these examples is that in each case these interpretations of biology are made congruent with the ideology. In other words, even though these conservatives in the early 1900s were using Lamarckism while the progressives were using Darwinism—the exact opposite as in the 1800s—in each case the biology was interpreted in line with the dictates of the ideology, and vice versa. As such, these seeming counterexamples actually provide support for this notion of the necessary connection between social and political ideology and biological science. This ultimate congruence of biology with ideology is a particularly important point for the discussion of epigenetics and public policy in the final section of this book.

[1] Kutschera, U. (19 December 2003). “A comparative analysis of the Darwin–Wallace papers and the development of the concept of natural selection”. Theory in Biosciences122 (4): 343–59.

Glickman, S. E. (2009). Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and the Evolution/Creation of the Human Mind. Gayana (Concepción)73, 32-41.

Gross, C. (2010). Alfred Russell Wallace and the evolution of the human mind. The Neuroscientist,16(5), 496-507.

Ruse, M. (2013). Charles Robert Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace: their dispute over the units of selection. Theory in Biosciences132(4), 215-224.

[2] Harrison, J. (2009). Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America: the quest for the new moral world. Taylor & Francis, p. 189.

[3] Green, J. (2012). Alfred Russel Wallace: Socialist and co-founder of evolutionary theoryLondon Progressive Journal. Retrieved 15 August 2017, from http://londonprogressivejournal.com/article/view/1049/alfred-russel-wallace-socialist-and-cofounder-of-evolutionary-theory.

Cervantez, S. R. (2016). Facts Are Stubborn Things: The Foundation of Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theories, 1823-1848 (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/gradschool_theses/1900.

[4] Jones, G. (2002). Alfred Russel Wallace, Robert Owen and the theory of natural selection. The British Journal for the History of Science35(01), 73-96.

[5] Wallace, A. R. (1889). Lamarck versus Weismann. Nature40(1043), 619-620.

Stack, D. (2003), The First Darwinian Left: Socialism and Darwinism, 1859-1914, London: New Clarion, p. 29.

[6] “Curiously few evolutionists have noted that, in addition to natural selection, Darwin admits use and disuse as an important evolutionary mechanism. In this he is perfectly clear. For instance,…on page 137 he says that the reduced size of the eyes in moles and other burrowing mammals is “probably due to gradual reduction from disuse, but aided perhaps by natural selection.” In the case of cave animals, when speaking of the loss of eyes he says, “I attribute their loss wholly to disuse” (p. 137). On page 455 he begins unequivocally, “At whatever period of life disuse or selection reduces an organ…” The importance he gives to use or disuse is indicated by the frequency with which he invokes this agent of evolution in the Origin. I find references on pages 11, 43, 134, 135, 136, 137, 447, 454, 455, 472, 479, and 480.” (Mayr, E. (1964/1859). “Introduction.” In Charles Darwin. On the Origin of Species: a Facsimile of the First Edition. Harvard University Press.)

Lamarckism and the Biology of Discontent in the 1800s

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

Just how significant and real were the threats being confronted by the defenders of the status quo at this time? As described by John Bellamy Foster, England in the mid-1800s was “a seething cauldron of discontent” due to the sudden social, political and economic changes which accompanied rapid industrialization.[1]

Throughout England during this time there were strikes, demonstrations and riots against work conditions and wage disparities, and especially against the enforcement of the Poor Laws, passed in 1834. For example, the phrase ‘reading the Riot Act’ can be traced through this era as during many of these demonstrations the Riot Act was literally read aloud to advise demonstrators that they were assembling unlawfully and that deadly force would be applied if they did not disperse.

The Chartist movement in particular, so-called for the People’s Charter published in 1838, was a major force in this social unrest.[2] The Chartist movement focused primarily on reforms of the political system in England which favored the working classes, and was able to marshal the support of millions of people from all around the country, but especially from the newly industrialized areas. In 1839, 1842, and 1848, Chartist petitions with millions of signatures each were presented to the House of Commons, each of which were summarily dismissed without a hearing. As can be imagined, this refusal of the formal political institutions of the state to even hear the grievances of such a significant proportion of the population only increased the tension and the rancor.

Much to the alarm of the political establishment, and to the consternation of the English religious establishment of the early 1800s, most of the agitators of this time favored the materialistic (i.e., godless) natural philosophies coming out of revolutionary France, and Lamarckism in particular. In contrast to the hierarchical but increasingly individualistic and competitive view of nature that was promoted by mainstream science in Britain—coincident with the emergence of industrialization, capitalism, and modern liberal politics in British society—these other groups envisioned societies organized around more collectivist and symbiotic principles, and Lamarckism provided a biological explanation for how such societies could be realized out of the present state of affairs.[3] Buoyed by these reinterpretations—or misinterpretations—of Lamarckism, by asserting that at a basic level organisms respond rapidly to their environments, these groups advocated for changes in the environment in the form of fundamental reconfigurations of society to achieve their goals of “egalitarianism, female emancipation, [and] secularization” in the progressive development from barbarism to civilization.[4]

In other words, while the clerical naturalists and gentrified scientists of this era saw a natural—and therefore a social—world that was set and ordered by divine command, millions of others more exposed to the vicissitudes of the recent societal upheavals instead saw a social—and therefore a natural—world that can and did change, sometimes precipitously, and without the providential oversight of Deity. That each side gravitated towards an understanding of biology which mirrored their lived experience is not only understandable but in many ways inevitable.

As described by Margaret Anne Loose in her analysis of the Chartist literature of the era, “Lamarck’s 1809 hypothesis that offspring acquired traits based on the associations and environments of their forebears was favored by many working-class thinkers (perhaps because it allowed one to hope that s/he could alter the future).”[5] In other words, if things were not good now, Lamarckism—at least as interpreted by these reformist groups—provided a reasonable explanation for how they could be made better. In contrast, the mainstream science of the time instead allowed only the possibility of incrementally small changes over geological time scales (keeping in mind that Lamarck himself also actually employed these same ‘conservative’ uniformitarian and gradualist principles). These Lamarckesque ideas about adaptation and inheritance also had the benefit of seeming common sense, as this was how the natural world appeared to work to most people of this time. Thus, this more explicitly socialist version of Lamarckism seemed to confirm to many what they already knew about the world, and provided reasons to imagine the possibility of a future fundamentally different than the present.

These hopes for a better future via Lamarckian adaptations were predicated on alterations of current environments as sweeping social and political changes. As such, Lamarckism became a fundamental aspect of many of the rationalist (i.e., secular) progressive reform movements of the mid-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.”[6] These interpretations of Lamarckian biology supported the expectation that “through the appropriate social and material environment, humanity’s spiritual qualities could be molded as a prelude to political change.”[7]

…For example, Friedrich Engels, the cofounder of Marxism with Karl Marx, explicitly incorporated a Lamarckian understanding of evolution into his formulation of communism and the labor theory of history by suggesting that the physical adaptations to work played a crucial part in the biological transition from ape to man, such that “in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.”[8] From these origins, Engels traces the subsequent technological developments relative to labor which have continued to shape man, culminating in the creation of the steam engine, which instrument “more than any other was to revolutionise social relations throughout the world.”[9] Engels continues:

By long and often cruel experience, and by collecting and analysing historical material, we are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote social effects of our production activity, and so are afforded an opportunity to control and regulate these effects as well. This regulation, however, requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.[10]

Against these direct challenges to the status quo, the geologist Charles Lyell—who would go on to have such an influence on Charles Darwin via his three volume Principles of Geology—along with many others in the mainstream scientific establishment in Britain undertook concerted action against Lamarckism and any other such notions of the malleability of essential forms, with the primary intention to demonstrate “that morals were not the better part of brute instinct” and particularly “to prove that man was no transformed ape.”[11] Part of this rearguard action by scientists such as Lyell was to intentionally restructure geology and paleontology “along safe non-progressionist lines…to preserve man’s unique status in creation.” These intentions were so explicit that, according to the historian of science Adrian Desmond, without a doubt “Lyell’s biology and geology were inextricably related in Principles of Geology and his ideology affected his science as a whole.”[12] This was the openly ideological nature of the geology which had such an overwhelming influence on Charles Darwin in the eventual formulation of his epoch-marking theory of biological evolution, which in turn came to eventually constitute some of the basic assumptions of contemporary genetics—including its entrenched dispositions against the responsiveness to the environment and inheritance via epigenetics.

As such, people on both sides of this social cleavage in 19th century Britain identified the ideas of biological responsiveness to the immediate environment and the inheritance of those adaptations with calls for fundamental reforms of the prevailing social order. Further, as will be discussed in more detail later, Engel’s combination of history and economics with a Lamarckian biology directly influenced the subsequent development of Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism, which would go on to play such a significant role in the social and political history of the 20th century in antagonism with the liberalism of the West. As will be shown in later chapters, these political and ideological antagonisms, with their roots in these disputes over biological theories, also undoubtedly influenced the reception to epigenetics in the West, with its biological openness to the immediate environment and the inheritance of those adaptations.

However, what cannot be forgotten, per the previous descriptions of Lamarck’s actual theories, is how similar his theory of evolution actually was to Darwin’s eventual theory of evolution, particularly in reference to the minute internal variations and the geological time scales required for change to occur. Thus, the Lamarckism utilized by these reformist groups downplayed or ignored these other more uniformitarian aspects of Lamarck’s Lamarckism, and instead emphasized those aspects which fit with their desire to describe human nature as malleable and history as progressive. Regardless, Lamarckism did at least provide them with a platform in natural science to explain and justify their social and political agendas.

This history thus suggests that contemporary epigenetics may also have affinities with specific contemporary political ideologies, and will likely also be put to similar political uses which may or may not accurately reflect the underlying science. Being aware of this likelihood for the ideological support of, or opposition to, the results from epigenetics may be of use to both scientists and policymakers (and those concerned with public policy) as epigenetics become more of a factor in policy and politics.

[1] Foster, John Bellamy. 2000. Marx’s ecology materialism and nature. New York: Monthly Review Press, p. 179.

[2] Thompson, D. (1984). The Chartists: popular politics in the Industrial Revolution. Pantheon.

[3] Harrison, J. F. C.  (1969). Quest for the New Moral World: Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America. New York.

[4] Lenoir & Ross 1996, p. 376

[5] Loose, M. (2010). Literary Form and Social Reform: The Politics of Chartist Literature (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation Express (UMI No. 3225641).

[6] Burkhardt, R. W. (1995). The Spirit of System: Lamarck and Evolutionary Biology: Now with” Lamarck in 1995″. Harvard University Press, p. 59.

Burkhart, R. (2011).  Lamarck, Cuvier and Darwin on Animal Behavior. In Gissis, S., & Jablonka, E. Eds. Transformations of Lamarckism: From subtle fluids to molecular biology. MIT Press, p. 40.

Haig, D. (2011). Lamarck Ascending! Philosophy & Theory in Biology3:e204.

Laurent, J., & Nightingale, J. (2001). Darwinism and evolutionary economics. Edward Elgar Publishing, p. 128.

[7] Lenoir & Ross 1996, p. 375.

[8] Engels, F. (1876/2015). The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man. In Dialectics of Nature: Explanation about Dialectical Materialism. CreateSpace, p. 171.

[9] Ibid., p. 191.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Desmond (1985), p. 25.

[12] Ibid.

C.H. Waddington: Genesis of the Original Epigeneticist

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

Conrad Hal Waddington, who initially proposed epigenetics in 1939, is one of the more eclectic and interesting personalities in the natural science of his time, not for any flamboyance or peculiar affectation on his part, but for the range of his interests and work, which beyond biology also included an especial interest in the arts and philosophy. For example, although Waddington was a widely respected laboratory experimentalist, writer, and lecturer in embryology and genetics, holding prestigious research and university positions throughout his career, he accomplished all this without being academically credentialed in genetics or even biology. This diverse background, including Waddington’s unorthodox politics, will be shown to have a significant influence in his ‘discovery’ of epigenetics, and also provides clues as to why epigenetics was as ignored it was until fairly recently.

Given the importance of geology in the unfolding of the science of evolution detailed over the past few chapters, perhaps the first most conspicuous biographical fact about Waddington is that he earned his bachelor’s degree at Cambridge with a specialization in geology in 1926. He then went to graduate school also at Cambridge to study paleontology, focusing on ammonites, an extinct group of marine mollusks, which again mirrors significant developments in the early history of the theory of evolution. In these details, at least, Waddington reflected the origins and development of evolutionary thought from the previous century.

As a graduate student, Waddington actually held two studentships: one in geology and another in philosophy,[1] neither of which seem to have much of a link to the geneticist and epigeneticist that Waddington would become. However, Waddington’s interests in philosophy can be shown to have direct connections with his eventual ‘discovery’ of epigenetics. In particular, Waddington’s philosophy of choice was the process philosophy of the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and especially Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism.” According to this philosophy, the world is composed not of material objects with their own independent existences, but rather of deeply interdependent processes and events.[2] The impact on Waddington of process philosophy and Whitehead’s book Science and the Modern World as an undergraduate appears to have been so profound that it impelled his exit from geology and his entrance into the world of biology and genetics,[3] which culminated in his postulation of epigenetics.

Waddington and the philosophy of process

Process philosophy is famously distinct from the prevailing reductionist and analytic paradigm of Western philosophy and science since Plato, which identifies objects as independent entities which can be broken down into their constituent parts until the simplest components are revealed, which will then explain the entire object. Instead, in process philosophy, an object is just “an ingredient” in the character of some event, only having effects via its interactions with other objects in these “events.”[4] For Whitehead, the provisional successes of this reductionist approach in science rendered what was a useful heuristic into an unquestionable worldview—but one which reasoned in a circle by taking its stipulated assumptions about independent and reducible objects as evidence of their existence.[5] Instead, Whitehead proposed that all existing things were the organic product of the ongoing interactions of many different processes, existing only as “events,” or as the persistence of the product of these interactions.[6]

Process philosophy was a lifelong inspiration for Waddington in perceiving the organic world as composed not of individual and independent entities but as the product of ongoing interconnected processes. In the last year of his life, Waddington describes the enduring effects of this philosophy on his scientific work, remarking that this early exposure to Whitehead had “totally inoculated me against the present epidemic intellectual disease, which causes people to argue that the reality of anything is proportional to the precision with which it can be defined in molecular or atomic terms.”[7]

As a signal of what was to come, in the paper which won him his philosophy scholarship in 1929, Waddington focused on the implications for biology of the process philosophy of Whitehead. In this paper, Waddington suggests that if all things actually are the product of interacting processes, instead of independent entities, then the “scientific explanation of the process of evolution, as that it is brought about by natural selection acting on gene mutations,” would still not qualify as a complete general explanation of evolution until it even genes are conceived as events, or as the ongoing product of these other processes.[8]

After only three years of graduate school, Waddington left Cambridge without having completed his planned doctoral thesis in geology to pursue his burgeoning interests in biology. Through a close friend (the equally eclectic and iconoclastic anthropologist Gregory Bateson, son of the geneticist William Bateson who actually coined the term ‘genetics’ in 1905), Waddington was given the opportunity to work with the eminent horticulturist and geneticist Edith Saunders. Often referred to as The Mother of British Plant Genetics, Saunders is most known for her significant role in the rediscovery of Mendelian heredity. Waddington worked with Saunders on a longstanding problem in the genetics of maladaptive recessive traits in plants, writing a paper on his treatment of the problem which was published in the prestigious Journal of Genetics in 1929.[9] In 1931, Waddington published a highly technical statistics-based paper on inbreeding and genetic linkage in the equally prestigious journal Genetics,[10] which he wrote in collaboration with the respected population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane.[11]

The move from genetics to embryology (and back)

Even with these early successes, though, Waddington was dissatisfied with the emphasis on reduction that permeated the study of genetics. Through another close friend Waddington secured a job at the Strangeways lab at Cambridge to study embryology, which he felt better reflected his inclinations towards process and development. Within a year, Waddington was able to complete difficult experimental work on the development mechanics of embryos in vitro that the lab founders had been unable to figure out, and to publish the results in Nature.[12] Waddington was then able to parlay these successes into a six-month stint at one of the most prestigious laboratories of embryology in the world in Berlin (the lab of Hans Spemann and Otto Mangold). Upon his return to Cambridge, Waddington was offered a position teaching experimental zoology and a fellowship with the Medical Research Council. Also, with another of his closest friends (the biochemist and polymath Joseph Needham), Waddington was able to build up one of the most respected laboratories of embryology in Europe on a shoestring budget.[13]

In his laboratory work, Waddington focused for the most part on the ‘organizer,’ which is the cluster of cells in developing embryos which induces the development of the central nervous system.[14] The discovery of the organizer and its basic mechanisms in 1921 by Ph.D. student Hilde Mangold and her advisor Hans Spemann merited a Nobel Prize for Spemann in 1935, but not Mangold who died from severe burns suffered in a kitchen explosion in her apartment in 1924.[15] Through this lab work Waddington repeatedly observed firsthand how the processes of development depended on specific configurations of the results of prior developments, and how differences in these prior conditions altered the outcomes of development. These observations would be pivotal in his subsequent postulation of epigenetics.

However, during this period Waddington also spent time at the Drosophilia (fruit fly) labs in Caltech and at the labs in Cold Spring Harbor. These labs were the epicenters of the emergence of molecular genetics which established the conception of genes as atomistic units. At these labs Waddington worked with some of the foremost researchers in genetics, such as Theodosius Dobzhansky and Alfred Sturtevant, just as they were making the discoveries which would contribute so much to the gene-centric focus of the Modern Synthesis. From this work, Waddington published numerous papers on the genetic control of wing development in normal and mutant strains of drosophila in journals such as The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the U.S.A, the Journal of Genetics, and Nature.

After World War II, during which Waddington contributed to the Allied war effort via operational research with the Royal Air Force, Waddington accepted an offer to be the chair of animal genetics at the University of Edinburgh where he remained until his death in 1975. At the time, this was one of only three chairs of genetics in the United Kingdom.

Thus, although Waddington was at heart and in practice an embryologist, and had not earned a degree in genetics, he was deeply involved in the development of the genetics of his time, and was respected enough to be considered one of the top scientists in the field. As will be discussed elsewhere, though, Waddington’s identification as an embryologist was in many ways as politically charged as his controversial political associations, to be discussed next. This discussion will demonstrate the intimate connections between Waddington’s background, his scientific work, and his politics, culminating in his postulation of epigenetics.

[1] The majority of these biographical details are gathered from the excellent and highly detailed dissertation of Erik L. Peterson, 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. University of Notre Dame.

[2] Whitehead, A.N. (1929/2010). Process and Reality. New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 73.

[3] Peterson, E.L., 2011. The excluded philosophy of evo-devo? Revisiting CH Waddington’s failed attempt to embed Alfred North Whitehead’s” organicism” in evolutionary biology. History and philosophy of the life sciences, pp.301-320.

[4] Whitehead, A.N. (1920/2004). The Concept of Nature. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., p. 143.

[5] Whitehead, A. N. (1925/2011). Science and the modern world. Cambridge University Press, pp. 50-51.

[6] Whitehead (1925/2011), pp. 151-152.

[7] C. H. Waddington, “Fifty Years On,” Nature 258 (1975): 20–21.

[8] Waddington 1929 [unpublished], p. 66 in Peterson, 2011.

[9] Waddington, C. H. (1929). Pollen germination in stocks and the possibility of applying a lethal factor hypothesis to the interpretation of their breeding. Journal of Genetics, 21(2), 193-206.

[10] Haldane, J. B. S., & Waddington, C. H. (1931). Inbreeding and linkage. Genetics, 16(4), 357.

[11] Waddington’s relationship with Haldane will come up again in regards to their politics, but it is important to note at this point that Waddington later recalled his experience with Haldane and the “thin gruel of mathematical formalism” as a rather joyless endeavor, and said of Haldane that “I never knew him well, and I don’t actually think very much of all the ‘mathematical theory of evolution’ stuff which he started [because] it is all ultimately based on the quite falacious [sic] notion that selection coefficients belong to genes, whereas actually they belong to phenotypes,” which for Waddington was a distinction with “profound consequences.”

[12] Waddington, C. H. (1930). Developmental mechanics of chicken and duck embryos. Nature, 125, 924-925.

[13] Peterson 2011, p. 307.

[14] Philbrick, S., O’Neil, E. (2012, January 12) Spemann-Mangold Organizer. Embryo Project Encyclopedia . ISSN: 1940-5030 http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/2330.

[15] Doty, M. (2011, May 9) Hilde Mangold (1898-1924). Embryo Project Encyclopedia. ISSN: 1940-5030 http://embryo.asu.edu/handle/10776/1743.

The Unfortunate Legacy of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

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

Although the ultimate goal of this book is to explain or predict the policy implications of epigenetics, which probably seems to not require much attention to the history of epigenetics, this history is actually necessary to understand a number of aspects of contemporary epigenetics and its political implications. For example, this history is absolutely necessary to understand why epigenetics has only begun to emerge within the last couple decades, especially given that epigenetics as we now know it—minus the suggestions of transgenerational inheritance—was first proposed around eighty years ago.

In this context, a common tactic used to downplay or denigrate epigenetics is to refer to epigenetics as ‘Lamarckian.’ This is a reference to the almost universally discredited theory of evolution of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, which is contrasted with the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection. The twist of all this, though, is that this version of history is a fundamental misconstrual of both Lamarckism and epigenetics. Why Lamarckism was misconstrued in this specific way, and how Lamarckism came to be anathema to mainstream genetics, and why epigenetics came to be misidentified as Lamarckian are all questions which are answered by this history.

Lamarck, evolution, and world history

The first comprehensive theory of organic evolution was formulated by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), and first publicly presented by him at the Museum of Natural History in Paris in May of 1802, more than 50 years before Darwin presented his theory of evolution by natural selection. Although Lamarck is mostly remembered now, if at all, as a footnote in the history of evolutionary theory, it was Lamarck’s theory of evolution as the inheritance of acquired characteristics which was utilized by the progressive social reformers of the 1800s, such as Marx, Engels, and many others, in their struggles against the defenders of the status quo. At the same time, Lamarckism is also the theoretical framework which was invoked by Herbert Spencer and the other so-called Social ‘Darwinians’ at the end of the 19th century, and which was ostensibly the basis for the state-sanctioned science of the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century.

In other words, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck has had as much an impact on the political history of the modern world as any biologist, perhaps save Darwin—but, notably, much of this impact is based on misunderstandings and reinterpretations of Lamarck’s actual theory of evolution. Likewise, contemporary epigenetics is often compared with Lamarckism in a way which paints both in an unfavorable light; but, as I will also show, these comparisons are also again usually based on misunderstandings of Lamarck’s actual theory of evolution, or misunderstandings of contemporary epigenetics, or both.

The unfortunate legacy of Lamarck

First, although Lamarck is remembered most for his description of biological change over time via the inheritance of adaptive characteristics acquired during the life of an organism, as a member of the French Academy of Sciences and a professor of botany and zoology at the Museum of History in Paris his scientific interests and pursuits were much broader than just biological inheritance. In fact, according to the historian of science Jean Gayon,[1] heredity as such was actually only of minor interest to Lamarck in his scientific work.

As described in detail by historian Richard Burkhardt in a recent article published in the journal Genetics,[2] the history of science is often marked by three almost perverse kinds of remembrances: When an event or discovery that seems significant in retrospect is barely noticed at the time,[3] or when an event or discovery is trumpeted as significant at the time but disappears from history, or when someone is remembered for something that is not what he or she would have considered to be his or her most significant achievement. Lamarck is an unfortunate example of the last of these kinds of perverse remembrances.

As Burkhardt explains, in contrast to the common perception of Lamarck, he did not claim as his own the notion that acquired characteristics could be inherited. “While it is true that Lamarck endorsed the idea of the inheritance of acquired characters and made use of it in his evolutionary theorizing,” Burkhart observes, “neither Lamarck nor his contemporaries treated this as Lamarck’s ‘signature’ idea.”[4] That inheritance of this kind was an accepted explanation of the time helps also to explain why Lamarck did not feel the need to confirm his theory for his audience through a vast assemblage of supporting facts or by experimentation. Rather, Lamarck, like most of his contemporaries, treated this idea as the well-known alternative theory it was—even though it was counter to the more generally accepted theory of the time of species as fixed.

For example, in the introduction to his multi-volume Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres (Natural History of the Invertebrates) published in 1815, Lamarck described the idea that individuals of one generation inherit the biological organization acquired by their parents during their lives as a “law of nature” which is “so much attested by the facts, that there is no observer who has been unable to convince himself of its reality” (Lamarck 1815, p. 200). Burkhardt also describes how the eminent naturalist Charles-Georges LeRoy (1723–1789) and the political philosopher Marquis de Condorcet (1743–1794) also invoked this inheritance of acquired characters in regard to the perfectibility of both animals and humans as examples of the company Lamarck kept in upholding such a theory. Likewise, the historian of science Pietro Corsi, in a meticulous analysis of French scientific thought,[5] places Lamarck squarely amidst the scientific debates of the time, and not as the ridiculous, possibly insane outcast on the fringes of science as he is so often portrayed in conventional accounts.

In other words, and contrary to how Lamarck is usually described, he was neither on the lunatic fringe of the science of his time with his theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, nor was he even particularly concerned with the inheritance with which he is now so indelibly associated. Instead, it seems, Lamarck was using a common alternative account of biological change as one piece of his more comprehensive systematic theory of development and change.

As such, a basic understanding of Lamarck’s actual theories of evolution and inheritance is important in understanding not only how biological inheritance and interaction with the environment was understood and used politically in the past, but also why contemporary epigenetics is not Lamarckism, which will help to reveal the actual ‘hidden’ political content of contemporary references to epigenetics as Lamarckism.

[1] Gayon, J. (2006). Hérédité des caractères acquis, pp. 105–163 in Lamarck, Philosophe de la Nature, edited by P. Corsi, J. Gayon, G. Gohau, and S. Tirard. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris.

[2] Burkhardt, R. W. (2013). Lamarck, evolution, and the inheritance of acquired characters. Genetics194(4), 793-805.

[3] Burkhardt gives the example of Thomas Bell, the president of the Linnean Society of London in 1858, who in his annual review of the Society’s meetings for that year concluded that nothing revolutionary had been brought up in their meetings of that year, even though Bell was actually presiding over the Society meeting of July 1, 1858 in which a paper by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace expressing their views on natural selection was read and discussed.

[4] Ibid., p.794.

[5] Corsi, P. (1988). The Age of Lamarck: Evolutionary Theories in France, 1790–1830. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Lamarck’s Actual Lamarckism (or How Contemporary Epigenetics is not Lamarckian)

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

Policymakers are going to be increasingly confronted with issues involving epigenetics in any number of domains. In these confrontations, epigenetics is going to be presented in different ways, through different narratives, according to the political agendas of the different groups involved. If recent history serves as a reasonable guide to the future, a reasonable assumption is that the policy narratives promoted by groups which are opposed to epigenetics (e.g., because epigenetics research has produced a result with which they disagree or which is damaging to their position) will often describe epigenetics as Lamarckian. This designation of contemporary epigenetics as Lamarckian is usually intended to portray epigenetics as either anti-Darwinian, or anti-genetics, or simply as unsubstantiated pseudo-science.

For policymakers and those interested in the public policy process to make adequately informed decisions about epigenetics, the nature of this description of epigenetics as Lamarckian needs to contextualized properly. While there are aspects of Lamarckism and contemporary epigenetics which do pertain to each other, there are substantial differences between them. Contemporary epigenetics is also not inconsistent with Darwinian natural selection, and is properly a subset of conventional genetics. Thus, the guilt-by-association intended by this association of epigenetics with Lamarckism is both misleading and not an accurate description of either. Understanding the differences between the two will also make it that much easier to see the political motivations which underlie such characterizations of epigenetics.

A quick demonstration of how Lamarck and Lamarckism are often misconstrued, is the classic example used to describe Lamarckian inheritance of the elongation of giraffe necks as a result of giraffes having to stretch to reach available forage located higher and higher in the trees. The theory for this elongation that is so often attributed to Lamarck is that the physical effects from the constant stretching of the necks by giraffes in one generation was then passed on to their offspring in the next generation as slightly longer necks. Giraffes in these subsequent generations were then able to reach a little higher into the trees, which again raised the height of available forage, thereby requiring even further stretching, and so on, thus resulting in the very long necks of the giraffe species.[1]

However, it bears mentioning that this prototypical example was not a central aspect of Lamarck’s theoretical exposition of the mechanisms of inheritance. Although Lamarck did advocate for use-inheritance in evolution, the historical and scientific significance of this specific example as a characterization of Lamarck’s thought appears to be greatly exaggerated.  As observed by Ron Roizen, Lamarck’s theoretical treatise regarding inheritance, Philosophy zoologique, “runs fully 405 pages in its English translation yet it contains only two sentences specifically about giraffes.”[2] Granted, pointing out the prevalence of this specific example of the giraffe may not be a definitive or convincing defense of Lamarckism per se, it is at least illustrative of the widespread mischaracterization of the theories of Lamarck.

The true theory of inheritance of Lamarck

Lamarck’s actual theory of biological inheritance, for which he is supposedly so famous or infamous, and against which contemporary epigenetics is so often compared, is elaborated in his master work Philosophie zoologique ou exposition des considérations relatives à l’histoire naturelle des animaux (Zoological Philosophy: Exposition with Regard to the Natural History of Animals) published in 1809. In this book Lamarck proposed two rules or laws in particular which together constituted the first systematic theory of biological evolution: the law of use and disuse of organs, and the law of the inheritance of acquired characteristics:

  1. Use-disuse: In any animal that has not passed its time of development, the more frequent and sustained use of any organ gradually strengthens, increases and develops this organ during this use; while the constant lack of use of such an organ imperceptibly weakens and deteriorates it, gradually diminishing its faculties, until eventually it disappears.
  2. Inheritance of acquired characteristics: All that nature has caused to be acquired or lost by individuals through the predominant use or constant lack of use of such an organ because of the influence of circumstances in which their species has been exposed for a long time is preserved by nature through the generation of new individuals, provided that the acquired changes are common to both sexes [via sexual reproduction], or to those who produced these new individuals [via asexual reproduction].

The second rule, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, is what Lamarck is most known for today, and is what prompts most of the usually derisive comparisons of contemporary epigenetics with Lamarckism. However, there are a couple of very significant aspects of both laws within Lamarck’s original theory which are relevant for understanding the nature of the comparisons of epigenetics with Lamarckism, and for situating epigenetics within the general thrust of conventional evolutionary theory and genetics.

Again, as Stephen Jay Gould points out in his encyclopedic history of evolutionary theory[3], the second law in Lamarck’s theory was not particularly innovative, even for his time. Instead, his first rule, about the use and disuse of organs and body parts as the mechanism for the acquisition of novel characteristics, was Lamarck’s “revolutionary statement” and “one of the great transforming insights in the history of human thought.”[4] Lamarck’s connecting changes in environment and behavior with changes in form is what transforms his theory of inheritance into a revolutionary theory of evolution.

As such, and in what has particular relevance for discussions of genetics and epigenetics today, for Lamarck organisms were not passive tablets onto which environmental influences were carved, but rather changes in the environment provoked changes in behavior which over time resulted in changes in form, which functional changes in morphology were then passed on to offspring. To quote Lamarck at length from Philosophie zoologique:

Whatever the environment may do, it does not work any direct modification whatever in the shape and organization of animals. But great alterations in the environment of animals leads to great alterations in their needs, and these alterations in their needs necessarily lead to others in their activities. Now if the new need becomes permanent, the animals then adopt new habits which last as long as the needs which invoke them.[5]

As Gould points out, this aspect of Lamarck’s theory of evolution is actually quite Darwinian in many fundamental ways, but appears fifty years before Darwin. There are definite differences between the two theories of evolution in the identified mechanisms of change—altered habits establishing new selection pressures for Darwin but inducing heritable changes in morphology for Lamarck—but, at this level at least, both theories occupy the “common ground of functionalism,” just expressing different versions of the same deeper commitment, according to Gould.[6]

What truly distinguishes Lamarck’s actual Lamarckism from Darwinism is therefore not their different theories of inheritance, per se, although this is generally the reason given for comparing epigenetics with Lamarckism, and for subsequently discounting epigenetics. In fact, Darwin even explicitly includes Lamarckian use-disuse inheritance in his account of natural selection, as detailed by Ernst Mayr, one of the architects of the Modern Synthesis:

Curiously few evolutionists have noted that, in addition to natural selection, Darwin admits use and disuse as an important evolutionary mechanism. In this he is perfectly clear. For instance…on page 137 he says that the reduced size of the eyes in moles and other burrowing mammals is “probably due to gradual reduction from disuse, but aided perhaps by natural selection.” In the case of cave animals, when speaking of the loss of eyes he says, “I attribute their loss wholly to disuse” (p. 137). On page 455 he begins unequivocally, “At whatever period of life disuse or selection reduces an organ…” The importance he gives to use or disuse is indicated by the frequency with which he invokes this agent of evolution in the Origin. I find references on pages 11, 43, 134, 135, 136, 137, 447, 454, 455, 472, 479, and 480. (Mayr, E. (1964/1859). “Introduction.” In Charles Darwin On the Origin of Species: a Facsimile of the First Edition. Harvard University Press.)

Instead, according to Gould, the real differences between these theories, and the main reasons for which Lamarck was castigated in his time, were Lamarck’s assertions that evolution was a progressive process of the perfection of organisms, and that life continuously arises from a process of spontaneous generation.

The first of these, Lamarck’s emphasis on evolution as a process of gradual perfection, arose from his own strong commitment to uniformitarianism and gradualism. For Lamarck, because climate and geology only changed continuously and gradually so also must organic evolution be continuous and gradual, but always tending towards greater complexity as more adaptations accrue, culminating in the biological perfection that is humans. This emphasis on the uniformity and gradualness of change is actually what provoked the ire of Lamarck’s most fierce and powerful scientific opponent, Georges Cuvier, often referred to as the ‘Father of Paleontology’, who lauded Lamarck for his anatomical work on invertebrates but excoriated him for his promotion of uniformitarianism (in lieu of the catastrophism which Cuvier endorsed).

The second of these, the proposition of the continuous and spontaneous chemical generation of life at its simplest undifferentiated forms, was Lamarck’s attempt to rebut the question that if evolution was a continual process of complexification, then why were there still organisms with the simplest anatomies? In answer to this question, Lamarck proposed that organic life arose spontaneously from the decomposed chemical residue of more complex organisms which had died. These undifferentiated primal forms were then carved from within by the motions of fluids motivated by a ‘force of life’ leading to the emergence of distinct organisms. In Philosophie zoologique, Lamarck clearly asserts that the functioning of this life-force in spontaneous generation “which induces a corresponding variety in the shapes and structures of animals” was causally distinct from the process of adaptation in response to the environment.[7]

Thus, Lamarck ultimately bases his theory of evolution on two sets of forces: the causal force of the external environment to impel adaptation, and internal forces of differentiation. Of his two proposed forces in evolution, the external and the internal, Lamarck in his time was discounted and denigrated much more for his emphasis on these internal processes of adaptation, both for the antiquated, pre-Lavoisian chemistry he relied upon to explain it and the unexplainable vitalism he expounded as a central component of it. Very few of his contemporary detractors took exception—or as much exception—to his description of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which, as Gould explains, actually exhibits strong affinities with Darwin’s own theories of inheritance.

Regardless, and notably, today it is Lamarck’s theory of inheritance that is generally painted as being proven wrong on its face by Darwin. This brush is then used to smear contemporary epigenetics as also conflicting with Darwinism and the accepted theory of evolution, and therefore as also necessarily wrong on its face. That epigenetics is so often portrayed as Lamarckian, even though these characterizations of both epigenetics and Lamarckism are factually incorrect, is a telling indicator that the underlying motivations for this ascription are often other than scientific.

[1] Moore, J. N. 1970. Biology: a search for order in complexity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House.

[2] Roizen, R. (1971). “The Argument of  Philosophy Zoologique.” http://www.roizen.com/ron/Lamarck.htm.

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

[4] Ibid. p. 179.

[5] Lamarck, J. B. P. A. (1809/2011). Zoological philosophy: an exposition with regard to the natural history of animals. Hugh Samuel Roger Elliott (Trans.) Cambridge University Press, p. 107.

[6] Gould, S. J. (2002). The structure of evolutionary theory. Harvard University Press, p.179.

[7] Lamarck, J. B. P. A. (1809/2011). Zoological philosophy: an exposition with regard to the natural history of animals. Hugh Samuel Roger Elliott (Trans.) Cambridge University Press, p. 112.

The Immanent Self: Epigenetics, Modern Liberalism and Spinoza

MeBlog

by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

(The following is a summary of a talk presented at the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy on January 11, 2016. Copies of the full-length (draft) paper and the accompanying PowerPoint presentation are available here)

Per the guiding model of my project:

Epigenetic Model 2.0

I propose that the emerging science of epigenetics invokes an openness and an interconnectedness which are at odds with the ontological commitments of conventional Western politics and ethics. As I discuss in more detail elsewhere, the scientific assumptions of genetics mirror these basic ontological commitments of conventional Western politics and ethics. In this way, the scientific challenges presented by epigenetics actually mirror even more fundamental political and ethical challenges via their implications for the modern liberal concept of self.

The self as an atomistic and autonomous individual is the organizing principle of contemporary modern liberal society, as the locus of action and the focus of accountability in politics, in economics, in law, etc. However, even though this concept of the autonomous self seems self-evident and natural to us today, it is actually the contingent product of centuries of cultural and intellectual history which developed along a very specific trajectory.

In other words, different cultures, and even the same cultures at different times, have held different conceptions of what is a person, and therefore what are the appropriately ethical behaviors for this ‘person’ so defined. This cross-cultural and intra-cultural variability is one indicator that conceptions of personhood or selfhood are not ontologically objective (i.e., mind-independent) facts, but are rather the contingent products of specific historical and social processes.

Although there is this prevailing overall concept of the self in modern liberalism, there are a number of seemingly distinct accounts of how this self is constituted. However, for all their supposed differences, each of these accounts share certain fundamental contradictions as a result of their common origin in the modern liberal ontology.  As such, even before the introduction of the challenges from epigenetics, there are longstanding fissures in the concept of self at the center of modern liberalism. I describe these fatal flaws, and propose a new concept of the self which both resolves these contradictions and is able to incorporate the unique challenges of epigenetics.

The Cartesian dualistic self

One of the most obvious and enduring descriptions of the self in modern liberalism is associated with the substance dualism of Rene Descartes, who proposed a material body and an immaterial mind or soul as the seat of the self. In its more contemporary versions, this is the view of a physical body and a mind that is distinct from this body (i.e., not subject to the same causal influences).

The major benefit of this account of the mind and self is that it seems to capture very well the lived experience of what it is to be a person, in that it feels like we are a separate ‘something’ housed in a body. The main problem which has haunted this conception of the self from the very beginning, though, is the inability to explain the causal influence of an immaterial mind over a material substance. As a result, this dualistic conception has been almost universally discounted—at least in academia and the sciences, as it is still the prevailing ‘folk’ conception of the self. Subsequent theories of the mind and the self have thus been attempts to explain the connection between the physical and the mental without resorting to the invocation of a disembodied mind.

However, for all the effort taken to avoid this discredited Cartesian interactionism, practically all of the resulting theories of the self still implicitly invoke a mind-body interactionism of some kind which presupposes a non-physical mind as distinct from a physical body. The implicitness of this assumption masks its presence and therefore its effects, and ultimately subverts the validity of these theories. Also, that this mind-body dualism keeps reappearing, even implicitly, in these supposedly opposed theories of the self suggests it is a necessary part of the modern liberal ontology. As such, the political and ethical implications of this fundamental separation of the self from its environments are profound, and are unlikely to change as long as this insulated and isolated concept of self prevails.

The physical and psychological approaches to the self

Because the self cannot be the conjunction of an immaterial mind and a physical body, a reasonable assumption is that it must be one or the other. Thus, most subsequent theories have identified the self as either the body of an individual person, or as the psychology which distinguishes one person from another.

Bodily continuity

In theories of the identity of the self as the continuity of the body, an individual person is identified as the persistence of his or her physical being. This makes intuitive sense, because what are we if not our bodies? As such, different theorists posit that the self is either the body, or  the brain, or just enough of the right parts of the brain.

However, for all the seeming obviousness of such an approach, there are a number of irresolvable issues from identifying the body or the brain as the self. One particularly powerful critique is the Ship of Theseus problem, or that if all the parts of Theseus’ wooden ship are replaced over time, at what point does the ship become a different ship? Likewise, if all the physical parts of the body are replaced or are changed fundamentally over time, what is the objective standard to explain how a person qua body/brain at one time is not someone else x years later? In the end, it seems, any answers to this question are ultimately arbitrary, linguistic, and conventional: A person is just what we collectively agree a person is.

Even more damaging, though, is that theories of bodily continuity ultimately still posit a physical body and some other thing that, while it may not be the self, is ‘in’ the body somewhere directing its actions. As such, these theories which exclusively emphasize the body as the self actually still mask an implicit Cartesian dualism which they do not resolve[1].

Psychological continuity

The only other alternative, then, seems to be that ultimately we are only our psychology (i.e., that if our psychology were transported into another body, we would consider ourselves as now occupying that other body). While this approach may also feel intuitively right, it is also premised upon a fatal Cartesian dualism that there is a mind that is distinct from the body, as well as other fatal contradictions.

There are two main versions of this approach. The narrow version is that the identity of a person as the continuation of his or her psychology must be causally connected to the continuation of the brain. The ‘wide’ version is that the continuation of the psychology of an individual from any cause is sufficient for the continuation of that person (i.e. how psychological continuity is preserved is not important, which also means the medium through which this continuity is maintained is not important).

There are many problems with both of these versions of the self as a psychological continuity, but positing the self as either some kind of disembodied homunculus directing the body from within the brain somewhere or as pure psychology devalues the rest of the physical body and its interactions with its environment as not ultimately constitutive of the self, which is Cartesian dualism again.

The Biological Approach

What is thus needed to resolve the contradictions of the conventional concept of self and to absorb the complications introduced by epigenetics is a truly non-dualistic account of the self that is able to physically ground the self and connect it with its environment.

In regards to the latter, one such account is the Biological Approach of Olson from his 1999 book The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology in which Olson defines the persistence of the self as a matter of biological continuity:

If x is an animal at t and y exists at t*, x = y if and only if the vital functions that y has at t* are causally continuous in the appropriate way with those that x has at t. (135)

The Biological Approach, according to Olson is “not the view that you and I are identical with our bodies, or that we persist if and only if our bodies persist.” The critical difference, as Olson says, is that any claims about ‘my body’ are necessarily false because “there is no such thing as my body” as a material object other than myself (136).

Instead, Olson describes his Biological Approach as similar to John Locke’s account of the difference between a living organism and a mere aggregate of living tissue by means of the concept of “a life,” which Olson describes as “the career, the sum of everything it does and all that happens to it throughout its existence” (136).

What the Biological Approach contributes to an epigenetics-compatible theory of the self is this view that we are our bodies—not that our bodies contain us or that we are something in addition to our bodies. This approach also explicitly incorporates the biological interaction of the individual with its environment as an important aspect of selfhood via an emphasis on the causal continuity of the vital functions of the organism, both of which are extremely relevant in the context of epigenetics. What epigenetics adds to this approach, though, is to push the origins of this causal continuity of the self-as-biological-organism to even before conception, as connected to the environments and experiences of parents and grandparents and so on.

However, Olson also adds that an important aspect of his Biological Approach is the view “that you and I are human animals, and that no sort of psychological continuity is either necessary or sufficient for a human animal to persist through time” (124), which is counter-intuitive to how it feels to be a true and full human self.

This denial of the lived experience of being a self is not necessary as long as it is unified appropriately with the body. The epigenetics-compatible concept of self I propose incorporates both the biological openness of Olson’s Biological Approach and the psychological continuity which seems so necessary for personhood.

The four-dimensional self

One innovation in theories of self and personhood that resolves many of the contradictions described before, and which is particularly appropriate for the discussion of an epigenetic self, is David Lewis’ concept of persons as the composite of interrelated “person-stages,” or the sequential instances of a person which are causally connected to previous instances[2]. In this view, persons persist “by having different temporal parts, or stages, at different times, though no one part of it is wholly present at more than one time”[3]. This is the four-dimensional concept of persons as occupying the three spatial dimensions plus the dimension of time as compared to the conventional three dimensional concept of person which exists only in the three dimensions of space at any one time.

The result is Lewis’ conception of persons as the maximal set of causally connected person-stages. In other words, we are a person-stage at a specific point in time, but we are only a proper person as the full collection of our person-stages up to the present point in time.

3DAtomPerson

Standard 3-D Person

4DTimePerson
4-D Person

Lewis compares the persistence of a person through time to the way a road persists through space in which “part of it is here and part of it is there, and no part of it is wholly present at two different places”[4]. Just as a road only exists fully in its entirety, and not at any one of its places, so persons only exist as their spatio-temporal entirety.

Compared to a person as an atomistic ‘particle’ which jumps discontinuously through time, a person as the maximal set of continuous stages is the accumulation of the causes and effects specific to that person. This conception of causal continuity resolves many of the problems with conventional concepts of the self (such as how can the four-year old you be the same person as the forty-year old you), and in ways which make it a particularly appropriate concept of self for epigenetics.

However, there are a number of substantial differences between the 4-D account of the self from Lewis and the 4-D account I propose in this paper. In particular, for Lewis this causally continuous self is nothing other than a “continuing succession of mental states”[5]. This exclusive psychological emphasis again presupposes a substantial separation between the mental and the physical, or that there is a mental ‘me’ that is distinct from my physical body, which again is an ultimately invalid Cartesian dualism. Further, as this self is constituted solely by the continuity of internal states, the 4-D self as proposed by Lewis, while perhaps more grounded than conventional conceptions of the self, is also still highly atomistic and individualistic, and thus still derivative of the traditional modern liberal ontology.

Epigenetics and the fourth dimension

Thus, for all of the conventional problems this four-dimensional concept of the self resolves, it still ultimately suffers from the same fatal flaws as the other versions of the modern liberal self. However, when this concept of the self is combined with epigenetics, it begins to transform into a concept of self that overcomes these same flaws.

In particular, while Lewis and others limit the causal dependence between person-stages exclusively to the mental, when this causal continuity is extended to the biological this concept of self can now include the interaction between our environments and the ongoing regulation and expression of our genes described by the emerging science of epigenetics. In other words, with this four-dimensional approach grounded in the biological it appears we finally have a concept of self that is capable of incorporating the empirical challenges emerging from the science of epigenetics.

Epigenetics, immanence, and four-dimensional persons

In contrast to the atomistic self of the traditional modern liberal ontology, though, the 4-D epigenetic self I propose here as an open and highly interconnected ongoing process is more in line with an entire alternate tradition in Western philosophy—what John Sellars calls the “tradition of immanence” which runs from the Stoics through Spinoza to Nietzsche, to Whitehead, and to Deleuze[6]. This alternate tradition of immanence presents a number of drastic challenges to the traditional ontology, similar to the differences between genetics and epigenetics suggested at the beginning of this paper.

This tradition of immanence is distinct from the prevailing modern liberal tradition for its emphasis on what is called “process ontology”, or that “processes or activities, rather than things, are the most basic entities”[7]. Also, as described by Nicholas Rescher, while the metaphysics of modern liberalism “sees processes as the manifestations of dispositions which themselves must be rooted in the stable properties of things,” or that stability and change emanate from within things according to their pre-established natures, process metaphysics “takes the line that the categorical properties of things are simply stable clusters of process-engendering dispositions,” such that stability and change and the essences of things are ultimately realized only in interaction[8].

Spinoza and the four-dimensional self

As such, the 4-D self I propose provides at least one important piece of the puzzle by recognizing the fundamental ongoing interconnectedness of the body with its environments as an important aspect of the self. What is still missing, though, even within this epigenetic-friendly account of the self, is an adequate explanation of the relationship between the body and the mind which does not fall prey to a fatal Cartesian dualism.

To my knowledge, the 17th century philosopher Benedict Spinoza, particularly in his master work Ethics, provides the only such theory—with the added benefit of his theory of the self also being quite compatible with epigenetics.

This concluding paragraph is not the place to begin an analysis of Spinoza’s theory of the mind and the self, but a good start in this regard is to mention that two of the central tenets of Spinoza’s philosophy are that the mind and the body are one and the same (Ethics Book 2, Proposition 7), and that humans (and really all things) are continuous physical processes fundamentally integrated with and responsive to the natural world around them. As such, Spinoza’s concept of self captures both of the requirements for a non-contradictory and empirically valid concept of self described before. A more complete discussion of the resulting concept of self will have to wait, but one thing that is particularly exciting about this approach is that Spinoza has already elaborated many of the ethical and political implications from conceiving of persons in this way, and thus may have provided an important—if not yet well-known—headstart in discussing the ethical and political implications of epigenetics.

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

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[1] Olson, E. (1999). The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Lewis, D. (1983). Philosophical papers, volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Lewis, D. K. (1986). On the plurality of worlds. Oxford: Blackwell.

[4] Lewis, 1986.

[5] Lewis, 1983.

[6] Sellars, J. (2006). An Ethics of the Event: Deleuze’s Stoicism. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities11(3), 157-171.

[7] Di Poppa, F. (2010). Spinoza and process ontology. The Southern Journal of Philosophy 48(3), 272-294.

[8] Rescher, N. (2000). Process philosophy: A survey of basic issues. University of Pittsburgh Press.