Genetics and Epigenetics Come Home from the War

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

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

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

Other voices, other rooms

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

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

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

Follow the money

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

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

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

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

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

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

The road not taken

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Bush (1945).

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

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

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

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The Progressive Movement, Genetics, and the State

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

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

Woodrow Wilson, political progress, and evolution

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

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

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

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

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

Progress, individualism, and the rise of the administrative State

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

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

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

Science, eugenics, and the new State

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

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

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

Changes in politics, changes in biology

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

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

Genetics and the new Progressive State

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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

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

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 201.

[10] https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=48

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

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

Paul, R. (2013). Progressive Racism. National Review. Retrieved 15 August 2017, from http://www.nationalreview.com/article/345274/progressive-racism-paul-rahe.

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

[13] Schuessler, J. (2015). Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy Gets Complicated. Nytimes.com. Retrieved 15 August 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/30/arts/woodrow-wilsons-legacy-gets-complicated.html?_r=0.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eugenics and the Rise of Population Genetics

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

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

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

Eugenics: Populations and statistics

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

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

Eugenics and the development of genetics

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

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

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

Eugenics and the changing political landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Bouche, T. & Rivard, L. (2014). America’s Hidden History: The Eugenics Movement. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/scitable/forums/genetics-generation/america-s-hidden-history-the-eugenics-movement-123919444

[8] “Eugenics Record Office.” Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library & Archives, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Retrieved 31 August 2017, from library.cshl.edu/special-collections/eugenics.

[9] An interesting fact which emphasizes the prevalence of eugenics throughout the sciences during this time is that the information theorist Claude Shannon, who is more famous for his Master’s thesis which introduced digital theory, completed his Ph.D. in population genetics (An Algebra for Theoretical Genetics) at the ERO in 1939—although there is no evidence that Shannon was a committed eugenicist. Shannon was sent to the ERO at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory by his adviser, Vannevar Bush, perhaps the single person most responsible for the massive federal funding of science both during and after World War II, discussed in more detail in a subsequent chapter of this book (Pachter, L. (2013). Claude Shannon, population geneticist. Bits of DNA. Retrieved 15 August 2017, from https://liorpachter.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/claude-shannon-population-geneticist/).

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

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

Epigenetics and Public Policy: The Tangled Web of Science and Politics

The cover art for my forthcoming book Epigenetics and Public Policy: The Tangled Web of Science and Politics has been approved, and a tentative release date set (January 2018).

Stay tuned here, as I will post excerpts and work in progress as I finish the writing of this book.

CoverSm

“This book comprehensively considers the political implications of the emerging science of epigenetics in specific policy domains, addressing the intersections of epigenetics with cancer, obesity, the environment, and the law. Author Shea Robison carefully navigates the messy history of genetics and epigenetics in order to explore what changes in public policy might come in the age of a new scientific frontier. Readers will understand how new findings in epigenetic research and increased acceptance of epigenetic science may lead to paradigm shifts in cancer prevention and treatment, significantly different policy solutions for combating obesity, and revised statutes of limitations and laws regarding civil and corporate liability and wrongful life.”

The first section of the book details the current state of the science of epigenetics.

In the second section I detail the political history of epigenetics going back to the 1800s. This history is inextricably intertwined with both the scientific development of genetics and with many of the most important political movements of the 19th and 20th century, from the rise of Progressivism in the United States, to the Cold War. This often overlooked historical context is critical for understanding both the science of epigenetics and the implications of epigenetics for contemporary public policy.

In the final section I discuss these policy implications of epigenetics in the context of specific policy domains such as obesity and cancer research. In particular I use a policy narrative approach to analyze the different ways epigenetics challenges existing policy narratives in these domains, and suggest how epigenetics can introduce novel narratives into these policy domains. I also have a chapter on the potentially profound implications of epigenetics for the law.

The Reception of Epigenetics: More like Mendel or Darwin?

Me2

My name is Shea Robison.

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

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

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

FIGURE 1
FIGURE 1

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

Politics, Ethics and Darwin

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

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

Darwin, Christianity and Genetics

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

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

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

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

Epigenetics and Darwinism?

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

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

The Road(s) Ahead for Epigenetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trans-ideological Potential of Epigenetics

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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.” http://www.auditedmedia.com/news/research-and-data/top-25-us-newspapers-for-march-2013.aspx (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

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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.