The Immanent Self: Epigenetics, Modern Liberalism and Spinoza


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.


Standard 3-D Person

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.

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

[1] 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.

Epigenetics and the Concept of Oneness

I have recently started a postdoctoral research fellowship with the Department of Public Policy at the City University of Hong Kong. My primary assignment is in the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy, on a project called Eastern and Western Conceptions of Oneness, Virtue, and Human Happiness,

From the project home page:

A number of East Asian thinkers, as well as some in the West, argue that in various ways the self is inextricably intertwined with or part of the rest of the world. While such views often are described in terms of a “loss” of self or autonomy, they are more accurately and helpfully understood as arguments for or ways to achieve a more expansive conception of the self, a self that is seen as intimately connected with other people, creatures, and things. In contemporary analytic philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science, this general issue is more commonly discussed in terms of the “boundaries of the self”.

The implications for such a view are quite remarkable and directly and profoundly concern accounts of the self that are found in ethics, religion, psychology and political theory. The more expansive view of the self that is part of the oneness hypothesis challenges widespread and uncritically accepted views about the strong, some would say, hyper-individualism that characterizes many contemporary Western views, but it also has direct and profound implications for how we conceive of and might seek to develop care for the people, creatures, and things of the world. The aim of this project is to describe the oneness hypothesis, evaluate its plausibility, and explore some of its major implications for ethics, religion, psychology and political theory.

As part of this project, I have helped to start the Oneness hypothesis blog as a forum to discuss the application of Oneness in many different domains, philosophy, psychology, political theory, public policy and the natural sciences. My focus in particular is on the unique overlaps between the science of epigenetics and the concept of Oneness. I will be posting my ongoing work on the connections between epigenetics and the concept of Oneness on the Oneness Hypothesis blog, which I will also link to from this page.

Epigenetics and Oneness, Part I: What is epigenetics?

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. The complications from epigenetics for conventional ethical perspectives such as rights theories and consequentialism will be discussed in my next posts, as well as some of the ways the concept of Oneness is uniquely equipped to address these challenges from epigenetics in ways that modern liberal ethical theories, with their ontological commitments to individualism, are not.

Epigenetics and Oneness, Part II: Rights and consequences

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. As such, as will be discussed in subsequent posts, concepts of Oneness as have been developed by philosophers in both the East and West could provide the means to reconcile many of these fundamental contradictions, providing more appropriate ethical and political frameworks for the incorporation of the new knowledge emerging from epigenetics.

The Oneness Project is also interested in related material from other sources, so contact me if you have or know of work that is relevant to the Oneness project.

Epigenetics and Adaptation: Ethics in Evolution


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

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

Epigenetic inheritance and the Holocaust

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

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

Epigenetics and the ‘adaptation’ blindspot

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

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

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

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

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

Epigenetics isn’t ‘Adaptive’? So What

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

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

Epigenetics and evolution

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

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

Epigenetics, evolution and ethics

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

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

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

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

What do you think? How much does science also obligate us to act? At what point are we culpable for the knowledge we make? I am curious to hear your thoughts. Leave your comments below and I will respond.

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

[1] Klengel, T. et al. 2013. Allele-specific FKBP5 DNA demethylation mediates gene-childhood trauma interactions. Nature Neurosci. 2013 Jan;16(1):33-41. doi: 10.1038/nn.3275. Epub 2012 Dec 2.

[2] Holocaust trauma: Is it epigenetically inherited?

[3] References and links forthcoming

The Reception of Epigenetics: More like Mendel or Darwin?


My name is Shea Robison.

(Follow me on Twitter at @EpigeneticsGuy and see my academic profile at

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

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


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

Politics, Ethics and Darwin

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

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

Darwin, Christianity and Genetics

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

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

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

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

Epigenetics and Darwinism?

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

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

The Road(s) Ahead for Epigenetics

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

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

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

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

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

I am curious to hear your thoughts. Are there important similarities between the receptions of Darwinian natural selection and epigenetics? Leave your comments below and I will respond.

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

[1] Dewey, John. 1910. “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy.” In The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy, and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

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

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

[4] Sedgwick, Adam. 1859. Adam Sedgwick to Charles Darwin, November 25. In Darwin Correspondence Project.

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

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

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

The Trans-ideological Potential of Epigenetics


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

As discussed repeatedly on this blog, epigenetics is a rapidly emerging field of research akin to genetics but with some substantial differences. In addition to the differences in the sciences of genetics and epigenetics—which differences are more a function of the ontological assumptions of each than the actual science—there are significant differences in the narratives of both. In the contexts of policy and politics, these differences in narratives are perhaps more salient than are the scientific differences.

In this context the “narratives” of epigenetics refers to the politically relevant interpretations of epigenetics which, while related to the science of epigenetics, are not the science itself but the political use of that science. As such, there are a number of aspects of the science of epigenetics which complicate the conventional ideological dichotomizations of conservativism versus liberalism around which are organized so much of our historical and contemporary politics[1]. For example, most of the policy solutions prescribed for obesity have their roots in either a conservative narrative of obesity which emphasizes personal responsibility, or a liberal narrative of obesity which emphasizes the overriding causal influence of the environment [2]. The opposition of these ideologies in obesity policy narratives is reflected across a wide swath of policy domains. These ideological orientations are generally assumed to be diametrically if not fundamentally opposed.

The science of epigenetics, though, contains elements of both dispositional and environmental influences at once. Thus, both conservative and liberal narratives can both be constructed simultaneously from the science of epigenetics. At this early stage in the emergence of both the science and the narratives of epigenetics there are two potential routes for the policy narrative use of the science of epigenetics: Either those aspects of epigenetics which are conducive to the different ideologies will be emphasized, resulting in mutually exclusive conservative and a liberal narrative of epigenetics, or that by complicating or combining these longstanding ideological orientations epigenetics will actually provide a ‘third-way’ for the ascription of causes for highly politicized issues such as obesity. In the former case, policy contests will be more or less business as usual with epigenetics as just one more arrow in the ideological quivers of opposing sides. The latter case, though, would open the way for unanticipated policies which are not beholden to either one of these currently predominant ideological poles. This complication of conventional ideologies resulting in unprecedented combinations of policy orientations would be just one indication of the true political impact of epigenetics.

Revealing the narratives

I conducted searches for articles on epigenetics in two major newspapers: the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and the New York Times (NYT) to see how epigenetics is talked about, and whether there were these ideological differences in the narratives of epigenetics. These newspapers were selected for the level of circulation of both their print and digital editions, the scope of their readership, and their differences in ideological biases. These two posts are the number one and number two newspapers in the United States in terms of weekday circulation, and are also two of only three newspapers with a national instead of a local or regional readership[3].  As discussed by Lawrence (2004)[4], while these two posts are perhaps not as direct an indicator of the general public perception of an issue as a national survey, they are still excellent sources for tracking how an issue is framed by and for elites, and how an issue is presented to the general public.

Also, according to the analysis of Gentzkow and Shapiro (2010)[5], on a scale of user-based ratings of conservativeness—from 1 (liberal) to 5 (conservative)—the NYT (owned by the NYT Company) scores a 2 and the WSJ (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp) scores a 4. Each post is also located on opposite ends of the liberal-conservative slant index constructed by Gentzkow and Shapiro (2010). These differences in ideology are important for identifying possible differences in the composition of the epigenetic narratives from these sources.

When the epigenetics narratives—or the words used to describe epigenetics—in articles from both sources are compared with each other, a number of interesting patterns emerge (full results to be published in forthcoming paper). Again, a reasonable expectation is that the reporting on epigenetics in the NYT would emphasize those aspects of epigenetics which are congruent with a liberal emphasis on the causal influence of the environment, while the reporting on epigenetics in the WSJ would emphasize the personal and dispositional aspects of epigenetics. Instead, there are many instances in which the narratives from both sources share narrative elements, even to the point that the epigenetics narrative in the NYT demonstrates both liberal and prototypically conservative elements, just as the narrative of epigenetics from the WSJ also shows both conservative and liberal elements

The Trans-ideological potential of epigenetics

At the beginning of this post, two possibilities were offered for the emerging narratives of epigenetics. Because of the causal mechanisms revealed by the science of epigenetics which blur the conventional boundaries of our insides and our outsides and between the individual and their environment, epigenetics is capable of producing both conservative and liberal narratives. One possibility of this potential dualism is that each ideological orientation would just co-opt those aspects of epigenetics which fit its preconceptions. The other possibility is that epigenetics would compel a unique third way narrative which, while containing elements of both ideological narratives, is actually beholden to neither conventional ideology.

The preceding suggests the latter much more than the former. As discussed before, science-based policies are the result both science and narrative development. Science-based narratives do not reflect just the science but also an ideological interpretation of the science, just as science itself is a process of narrative formation often informed by ideology[6]. A valid question at this early stage is therefore which factor will have more influence on the other. Indications are that at this early stage the narratives of epigenetics are molding the existing ideological narratives and not vice versa.

Given the high level of attention devoted to epigenetics in the sciences, the incorporation of epigenetics into policies is only a matter of time. Although there are as yet no epigenetics-informed policies per se, this vector of influence suggests that when there are such policies they will be composed of both individual and environmental aspects and not isolated to either ideological orientation, regardless of the source. What these new policy prescriptions will be which result from this unique combination of the previously juxtaposed environmental and personal narratives remains to be seen, but the results just discussed suggest that the science and narratives of epigenetics promise potentially transformative possibilities for politics and policies which transcend the conventional ideological dichotomizations.

What do you think? Do the narratives of epigenetics provide a potential ‘third way’ for policy? Or is this just a result of the early formative stages of the narratives of epigenetics?  I am curious to hear your thoughts. Leave your comments below and I will respond.

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

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

[2] Kersh R. 2009. “The politics of obesity: a current assessment and look ahead.” Millbank Quarterly 87(1):295–316; McBeth, M. K., Clemons, R. S., Husmann, M. A., Kusko, E., & Gaarden, A. (2013). The Social Construction of a Crisis: Policy Narratives and Contemporary US Obesity Policy. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy, 4(3), 135-163; Niederdeppe, J., Robert, S. A., & Kindig, D. A. 2011. “Peer Reviewed: Qualitative Research About Attributions, Narratives, and Support for Obesity Policy, 2008.” Preventing chronic disease, 8(2).

[3] Alliance for Audited Media. 2015. “Research and Data.” (April 6, 2015).

[4] Lawrence, R. G. (2004). Framing obesity the evolution of news discourse on a public health issue. The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 9(3), 56-75.

[5] Gentzkow, M., & Shapiro, J. M. (2010). What drives media slant? Evidence from US daily newspapers. Econometrica, 78(1), 35-71.

[6] Fuchs, H. U. (2015). From Stories to Scientific Models and Back: Narrative framing in modern macroscopic physics. International Journal of Science Education, (ahead-of-print), 1-24; Sheehan, R. J., & Rode, S. (1999). On Scientific Narrative Stories of Light by Newton and Einstein. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 13(3), 336-358; Wise, M. N. (2011). Science as (historical) narrative. Erkenntnis, 75(3), 349-376.

The History of Epigenetics and the Science of Social Progress


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

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

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

Weismann v. Lamarck?

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

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

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

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

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

The look before the leap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epigenetics and the geopolitical history of the 20th century


by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

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

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

Lost history?

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

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

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

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

Separated at birth?

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

20th century geopolitics and (the absence of) epigenetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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