The work being done in cancer epigenetics not only introduces substantial complications into the scientific understanding of cancer, and of genetics in general, but perhaps even more substantial complications of the politics and policy of cancer because of the way it shifts attention back towards the nexus of genes and their environments.
Although these kinds of bioethical issues have already been raised in the context of genetic sequence data, the presumptively fixed and immutable nature of gene sequences shields the disclosure of genetic data from some of the thornier implications of epigenetics.
There are obviously no solid answers to these questions yet, given the state of both the science and contemporary public policy, but my project is to begin to ask these questions now in the case that the science of epigenetics begins to make its way into the public policy domain.
I’m not sure epigenetics constitutes such a fundamental shift in our understandings of genetics and inheritance as to actually warrant much change in our present policies [and] I don’t think society is about to start outlawing stuff because of its negative effects two generations down the road.
Given this history, recent work being done in areas like epigenetics suggests that our political theories need to be updated even more substantially to reflect these more recent modifications of our understanding of the connections between each other and our environments.
This brief sketch of the fundamental challenges epigenetics poses to two of the most dominant ethical frameworks of modern liberalism is a good indication of the scope of the implications of epigenetics for modern liberalism in general, not only for the ethics, but also the politics and the jurisprudence of contemporary liberalism built on these same principles.
This new knowledge emerging from epigenetics not only introduces significant challenges to conventional understandings of gene-environment interactions, but also exacerbates many of the longstanding and unresolved fractures in modern liberal ethics.
Does epigenetics challenge contemporary political ideologies? 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.
The gene-centric focus of molecular genetics 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.
The convergence of political ideology and biology in the work of Waddington helps to explain the development of his conception of the epigenotype, and of epigenetics as the scientific study of this epigenotype. Likewise, this convergence of biology and ideology is equally pertinent for understanding 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.