Epigenetics and Ethics: Rights and consequences


by Dr. Shea K. Robison

(Originally posted on the Oneness Hypothesis blog, as part of my work as a postdoctoral research fellow with the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy at the City University of Hong Kong)

Epigenetics: Science, ethics and politics

In part I, I introduced two aspects of epigenetics revealed by recent research: the enhanced gene-level responsiveness of the epigenome, and the non-genetic inheritance of many of these epigenetic modifications. These two aspects of epigenetics highlight different but related implications for conventional Western philosophy and science. Through these implications, epigenetics provides a unique opening for the concept of Oneness to be taken seriously within both Western science and philosophy.

In part I, I also discussed the recent emergence of epigenetics in the context of the guiding model of my project:


This model depicts the necessary relationships between the understanding of biology prevalent in a society, the prevailing ethics, and the prevailing politics, all of which revolve around the prevailing concept of self. The intuition behind this model is straightforward: That in the long run an understanding of biology will cohere with a certain ethos and a politics which reflects that ethos, and vice versa, and that any conflicts which arise between a biology, an ethics and a politics will be resolved to some kind of dynamic equilibrium.

Epigenetics and the environment

In the context of this model, an important question is whether epigenetics introduces anything new on a scientific level. If epigenetics does introduce scientific novelties to the conventional understanding of biology, then according to the model it also has equally significant ethical and political implications.

One common critique of the recent surge of interest in epigenetics, though, is that the responsiveness of the epigenome to the environment revealed by this research is nothing new, and is not disruptive of the underlying science of genetics and its basic assumptions. In a sense this critique is technically true—if anything, epigenetics merely helps to fill in the conventional picture of gene-environment interactions. However, this does not mean that this aspect of epigenetics does not still present substantial challenges to conventional Western ethical and philosophical frameworks which may be better addressed from a Oneness perspective. (Not to mention that, per my model, the significance of these ethical and political challenges also strongly suggests that this responsiveness to the environment revealed by epigenetics poses more significant scientific challenges than it is often given credit for.)

Epigenetics and inheritance

On the other hand, the inheritance of epigenetic effects, demonstrated in some cases through four and five generations, does present fundamental challenges for both modern liberal science and philosophy. For example, a primary foundational assumption of both modern genetics and modern liberalism is that all people are born free and equal, independent of any undue influence from the environments or experiences of their parents (called ‘reprogramming’ during embryogenesis in genetics, and a self-evident truth in the Declaration of Independence, with intellectual roots which go back much further than that).

However, the evidence emerging from epigenetics suggests this is not the case. Instead of individuals of each generation being born with a pristine copy of their biological essence, they are inheriting a genetic endowment riddled with markers of the experiences of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and so on. And these inherited epigenetic markers, as more and more research is showing, are having direct effects on the physical and mental health of individuals from causes not actually experienced by these individuals.

In this context in particular, per my guiding model, epigenetics does present equally fundamental scientific and philosophical challenges. In both cases, though, my contention is that these challenges are answered most effectively through a Oneness perspective which is relatively novel–though not unheard of–in Western thought. One good way to demonstrate the depth of the philosophical challenges of epigenetics is through discussion of its implications for two of the most predominant approaches to ethics in modern liberalism: rights theories and consequentialism.


A simple definition of rights is as moral claims for the protection of certain inherent properties or latent possibilities for individuals within a particular category (i.e., humans, animals, children, corporations, etc.), differentiated by mutual limitations (e.g., ‘The right to swing my arm ends where the other man’s nose begins’[1]).

Per the guiding model of my project, as discussed in more detail in part I and here, there is no fundamental conflict between the science of genetics and rights-based ethics and politics because they are all premised upon the same basic assumptions, having evolved out of the same intellectual and cultural history. However, as epigenetics complicates the science of genetics by challenging or dissolving its presumptive physical boundaries, epigenetics likewise complicates the metaphysical distinctions and exclusions which constitute the individual self as the receptacle and bearer of rights.

For example, research in epigenetics shows that the choices and experiences of individuals in one generation are conditioning the basic nature of individuals of subsequent generations, which indelibly affects how those new individuals will exercise their own rights. What, then, is the appropriate boundary between where one individual begins and another ends? At what point do the choices of one individual become, in effect, the choices of another? And who is to be held responsible for protecting or ensuring whose rights? Further, by so conditioning the basic nature of other individuals, individuals in effect constitute the environments of each other. If individuals do indeed come to function as the environments of others, at what point do individuals have and then lose their rights as individuals? And what are the rights of these individuals-as-environments, if such a thing is even conceivable? Again, under the paradigm of conventional genetics, these kinds of issues were simply not possible in a physical sense, which is why it dovetails so well with the concept of individual rights, which depends upon the same kinds of exclusions.

In the context of rights, though, how is the line to be drawn between the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of individuals in one generation versus the rights of individuals of subsequent generations to be created equal so as to exercise their own rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? At what point can the rights of currently existing individuals be justly curtailed to protect the rights of individuals who do not as yet even exist (for example, if you are a 12 year old girl who may or may not become a mother, at what point is the state justified in taking away your right to choose to eat certain foods that are not harmful to you but which have been shown to be harmful to the normal development of your grandchildren)? What takes precedence (and why): a right being exercised in the present, or a right which might be potentially exercised in the future? And so on.

As a demonstration of the inherent difficulties in drawing these kinds of distinctions even before consideration of the science of epigenetics, the notion of intergenerational justice is already a source of fundamental disagreements within the rights tradition, in particular whether the concept of welfare rights for future others can even be made sense of with the principles and arguments available to rights theorists[2]. Notably, most of these disputes within the rights tradition revolve around the complications which result from the prevailing hyper-individualistic concept of personhood at the core of both rights theory and modern liberal philosophy[3].

These challenges from epigenetics may well be resolvable from within rights theories, but what is clear is that the empirical knowledge emerging from epigenetics emphasizes foundational schisms within rights theories which as yet have not been resolved. As such, one way to address these philosophical conflicts from the new empirical challenges introduced by epigenetics would be through an ethical framework capable of justifying the same kinds of concerns as the concept of rights, but which is not ontologically committed to atomistic individuals as the repositories of mutually exclusive rights. As will be discussed in subsequent posts, concepts of Oneness—as have been developed by philosophers of both East Asia and the modern liberal West—have the potential to both reconcile many of these fundamental contradictions and to incorporate the new knowledge emerging from epigenetics.


What about other approaches within the modern liberal tradition which do not rely upon the notion of individual rights, such as the ostensibly agent-neutral ethical theories of consequentialism or utilitarianism? According to these approaches, as indicated by the names, ethical obligations are most justly defined through the identification of consequences or the maximization of overall utility. The enduring appeal of these orientations, as paraphrased by Phillipa Foot, rests in the seemingly unobjectionable belief in “the most good for the most people”[4]. Without a focus on the individual as such, these orientations could provide a way around the ethical problems introduced by epigenetics just discussed. However, epigenetics has much different, though equally profound, implications for these kinds of ethical theories as well.

First, beyond the difficulties with truly neutralizing individuals-as-agents within consequentialist perspectives which have already been raised[5], the introduction of epigenetics raises the implications of these outcome-based ethics to the level of the grotesque through the identification of the causal pathways for both epigenetic responsiveness and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, thereby expanding the scope of knowable consequences—and therefore of ethical obligation—beyond what is actionable or even conceivable.

For example, explanations for different versions of consequentialist ethics usually involve contrasting the consequences for the few and the many from the commission of morally dubious actions (e.g., is the brutal torture of one person justified if it will save five, or 500 or 5,000 people?). Epigenetics reveals the enhanced susceptibilities to cancers, or heart disease, or schizophrenia, or depression from different environmental exposures which–to the degree the science behind epigenetics is valid–would have direct causal implications for millions or hundreds of millions (billions?) of living people. Now add to this tally the as yet unrealized consequences of millions to billions of future people who will suffer similar effects from causes to which they were not actually exposed through no fault of their own. Given the numerical scale of these circumstances, and the incremental or probabilistic nature of their realization, what is the appropriate moral calculus or rule for weighing these kinds of individual and multi-generational consequences against each other? Particularly as these consequences are not being raised in hypothetical scenarios but are being revealed through rigorously scientific processes?

Likewise, in the circumstances revealed by epigenetics there are not necessarily any morally dubious choices producing the consequences described in the previous paragraph. Rather, for the most part these consequences—not only for the actual living people but for the unborn generations in the future—are being both realized and produced by people in the conduct of their everyday lives. However, in identifying the causal pathways for these consequences, epigenetics is also providing the knowledge to potentially avoid these consequences. In other words, the research in epigenetics is both describing morally consequential outcomes for practically everyone in some way as a result of mere existence and at the same time making us morally responsible for rectifying these consequences. Again, according to our conventional assessments, what could possibly be the appropriate moral calculus or rule which can justly balance this practically universal dispersion of consequences and responsibility?

Epigenetics, ethics, and Oneness

Thus, epigenetics poses fundamental complications for even the supposedly agent-neutral ethical theories of modern liberalism. As with rights theories, these challenges may well be answerable from within consequentialism or utilitarianism–but have notably not yet been resolved as such. Regardless, in both cases, what is clear is that the new empirical knowledge from epigenetics emphasizes longstanding fractures in both ethical approaches which have not yet been resolved.

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.

Senses and Values of Oneness

What do you think? 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] Chafee, Z. (1919) “Freedom of Speech in Wartime” Harvard Law Review 32(8): 932-973.

[2] “Intergenerational Justice”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[3] “The Nonidentity Problem”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[4] Foot, P. (1985). Utilitarianism and the Virtues. Mind, 196-209.

[5] Broome, John. (1991). Weighing Goods (Oxford: Blackwell); Griffin, J. (1992). The human good and the ambitions of consequentialism. Social philosophy and Policy, 9(02), 118-132; Hooker, B. (1994). Is rule-consequentialism a rubber duck? Analysis, 54(2), 92-97; Howard-Snyder, F. (1993). Rule Consequentialism is a Rubber Duck. American Philosophical Quarterly, 271-278.


Epigenetics and Oneness: What is epigenetics and what is Oneness?


by Dr. Shea K. Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy)

(Originally posted on the Oneness Hypothesis blog, as part of my work as a postdoctoral research fellow with the Center for East Asian and Comparative Philosophy at the City University of Hong Kong)

Genetics, as the study of genes and heredity, is the predominant scientific account in contemporary society of the origins of life and its development. While the basic assumptions of the science of genetics are widely known and accepted, what is much less known or even recognized are the ethical and political commitments of the science of genetics.

As I discuss extensively on my site The Nexus of Epigenetics, these ethical and political commitments of the science of genetics are exposed by the recent emergence of epigenetics. In turn, the science of epigenetics provides a unique opening for the concept of Oneness, or that all things are inextricably intertwined with, part of, or in some sense identical with each other. The concept of Oneness is most associated with East Asian philosophies such as Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism, but via epigenetics Oneness has the potential to make significant contributions to both the scientific practice of genetics and more philosophical discussions of our understanding of our place in the world and of our relationships with each other and our environments from the perspective of genetics.

Senses and Values of Oneness

The Model

As shown in the guiding model of my project, there is a necessary relationship between the understanding of biology prevalent in a society, the prevailing concept of self, the prevailing ethics, and the prevailing politics:


Each vertex in this model is in constant tension with the other vertices. As one of the vertices in this network of relationships changes, so also must the other vertices change, and in commensurate ways (The intuition behind this model is straightforward: That in the long run the prevailing understanding of biology in a society will not fundamentally conflict with the prevailing conceptions of ethics or politics, and vice versa). As such, the prevailing scientific assumptions of genetics—as the predominant biological scientific explanation of the era—are necessarily coextensive with the prevailing ethics and politics of contemporary Western society, all of which revolve around the prevailing concept of self, which in this case is of individuals as atomistic and autonomous entities. (For more background on the development of the modern liberal individual in relation to the development of the science of genetics, read this and this and this.)


In this context, the recent emergence of the science of epigenetics—if, in fact, epigenetics does present a new understanding of biology—should also pose significant ethical and political challenges commensurate with its scientific challenges.


As I will show in this series of posts, epigenetics does introduce new knowledge of biology, and therefore introduces novel ethical and political challenges as well. As I will also show, these ethical and political challenges from epigenetics provide unique connections between cutting-edge Western life science and the concept of Oneness most often associated with East Asian philosophy, and actually back again to some of the often overlooked nooks and crannies of Western philosophy. Understanding the necessity of these connections, though, requires laying some important groundwork.

What is epigenetics?

Epigenetics refers to those biological mechanisms ‘above’ the genes which influence and regulate the expression of the genes but without a modification of the underlying gene sequences [watch this video from the University of Utah for a good visual introduction of the basics of epigenetics]. In a technical sense the study of epigenetics is thus perhaps best understood as a subfield of genetics, but the results from the research in epigenetics—and the tangled social and political history of epigenetics relative to genetics—complicate this classification.

Research in epigenetics involving both animals and humans has shown the epi-genome to be quite responsive to the environment, and also that many epigenetic modifications are being passed on to subsequent generations but not via changes in genetic sequence as required by the prevailing model of genetics. The influences from the environment which are manifesting as epigenetic modifications include exposure to specific chemicals[1], food choices[2], quality of maternal care[3], and even stress[4], just to name a few. Some of the effects of these epigenetic modifications in both current and subsequent generations are being identified as both physical maladies such as cancers[5], heart disease[6], and obesity[7], and mental disorders such as schizophrenia[8] and autism[9], again to name just a few of the effects. [For more on the science of epigenetics, read my research summaries of recent papers on epigenetics here.]

So what?

In other words, the scientific research on epigenetics is showing not only our direct physical connections to our environments, and our environments to us, but also that subsequent generations can manifest the effects of these environmental exposures without being exposed to these original causes. In a way, epigenetics, and epigenetic inheritance in particular, introduce ontological complications similar to those of the “spooky action at a distance” of quantum mechanics[10]. However, per the guiding model of my project, as epigenetics poses legitimate challenges to our understanding of our biology it thereby poses even more immediate and direct challenges to our prevailing ethics and politics than similar challenges in other fields such as physics.

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 liberal ethical perspectives such as rights theories and consequentialism will be discussed in another post, 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.

Senses and Values of Oneness

Likewise, per the guiding model of my project, this also suggests that the concept of Oneness could be uniquely equipped to address these challenges from epigenetics in ways that modern liberalism is not. The potential utility of the concept of Oneness for scientific practice will also be the subject of subsequent posts as I continue to develop these ideas.

What do you think? 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] Manikkam, M., Tracey, R., Guerrero-Bosagna, C., & Skinner, M. K. (2013). Plastics derived endocrine disruptors (BPA, DEHP and DBP) induce epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of obesity, reproductive disease and spermepimutations. PLoS One, 8(1), e55387; Manikkam, M., Haque, M. M., Guerrero-Bosagna, C., Nilsson, E. E., & Skinner, M. K. (2014). Pesticide methoxychlor promotes the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of adult-onset disease through the female germline. PloS one, 9(7), e102091.

[2] Jackson, F. L., Niculescu, M. D., & Jackson, R. T. (2013). Conceptual shifts needed to understand the dynamic interactions of genes, environment, epigenetics, social processes, and behavioral choices. American journal of public health, 103(S1), S33-S42; Ng, S. F., Lin, R. C., Laybutt, D. R., Barres, R., Owens, J. A., & Morris, M. J. (2010). Chronic high-fat diet in fathers programs [bgr]-cell dysfunction in female rat offspring. Nature, 467(7318), 963-966; Paul, B., Barnes, S., Demark-Wahnefried, W., Morrow, C., Salvador, C., Skibola, C., & Tollefsbol, T. O. (2015). Influences of diet and the gut microbiome on epigenetic modulation in cancer and other diseases. Clinical epigenetics, 7.

[3] Weaver, I. C., Szyf, M., & Meaney, M. J. (2002). From maternal care to gene expression: DNA methylation and the maternal programming of stress responses. Endocrine research, 28(4), 699-699; Weaver IC, Cervoni N, Champagne FA, D’Alessio AC, Sharma S, Seckl JR, DymovS, Szyf M, Meaney MJ. (2004). Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior. Nat Neurosci, 8:847–854.

[4] Heim, C., & Binder, E. B. (2012). Current research trends in early life stress and depression: Review of human studies on sensitive periods, gene–environment interactions, and epigenetics. Experimental neurology, 233(1), 102-111; Hodes, G. E. (2013). Sex, stress, and epigenetics: regulation of behavior in animal models of mood disorders. Biol Sex Differ, 4(1), 1; Nestler, E. J. (2012). Epigenetics: stress makes its molecular mark. Nature, 490(7419), 171-172.

[5] Hitchins, M. P., Wong, J. J., Suthers, G., Suter, C. M., Martin, D. I., Hawkins, N. J., & Ward, R. L. (2007). Inheritance of a cancer-associated MLH1 germ-line epimutation. New England Journal of Medicine, 356(7), 697-705; Shukla, A., Bai, L., Yang, H., Doran, A., Hu, Y., Geiger, T., … & Hunter, K. W. (2015). Integrating SNPs, epigenetics and transcriptomics to better understand the inherited predisposition to breast cancer metastasis. Cancer Research, 75(15 Supplement), 4138-4138; Sloane MA, Nunez AC, Packham D, et al. (2015). Mosaic Epigenetic Inheritance as a Cause of Early-Onset Colorectal Cancer. JAMA Oncol. 1(7):953-957. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2015.1484.

[6] Drake, A. J., & Walker, B. R. (2004). The intergenerational effects of fetal programming: non-genomic mechanisms for the inheritance of low birth weight and cardiovascular risk. Journal of Endocrinology, 180(1), 1-16; Kaati, G., Bygren, L. O., & Edvinsson, S. (2002). Cardiovascular and diabetes mortality determined by nutrition during parents’ and grandparents’ slow growth period. European Journal of Human Genetics, 10(11), 682-688; Low, F. M., Gluckman, P. D., & Hanson, M. A. (2011). Developmental plasticity and epigenetic mechanisms underpinning metabolic and cardiovascular diseases. Epigenomics, 3(3), 279-294; Ordovás, J. M., & Smith, C. E. (2010). Epigenetics and cardiovascular disease. Nature Reviews Cardiology, 7(9), 510-519.

[7] Jimenez-Chillaron, J. C., Isganaitis, E., Charalambous, M., Gesta, S., Pentinat-Pelegrin, T., Faucette, R. R., … & Patti, M. E. (2009). Intergenerational transmission of glucose intolerance and obesity by in utero undernutrition in mice. Diabetes, 58(2), 460-468; Wu, Q., & Suzuki, M. (2006). Parental obesity and overweight affect the body‐fat accumulation in the offspring: the possible effect of a high‐fat diet through epigenetic inheritance. Obesity reviews, 7(2), 201-208.

[8] Dempster, E. L., Pidsley, R., Schalkwyk, L. C., Owens, S., Georgiades, A., Kane, F., … & Mill, J. (2011). Disease-associated epigenetic changes in monozygotic twins discordant for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Human molecular genetics, ddr416; Dong, E., Dzitoyeva, S. G., Matrisciano, F., Tueting, P., Grayson, D. R., & Guidotti, A. (2015). Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor Epigenetic Modifications Associated with Schizophrenia-like Phenotype Induced by Prenatal Stress in Mice. Biological psychiatry, 77(6), 589-596; Perrin, M. C., Brown, A. S., & Malaspina, D. (2007). Aberrant epigenetic regulation could explain the relationship of paternal age to schizophrenia. Schizophrenia bulletin, 33(6), 1270-1273

[9] Miyake, K., Hirasawa, T., Koide, T., & Kubota, T. (2012). Epigenetics in autism and other neurodevelopmental diseases. In Neurodegenerative diseases (pp. 91-98). Springer US; Nagarajan, R., Hogart, A., Gwye, Y., Martin, M. R., & LaSalle, J. M. (2006). Reduced MeCP2 expression is frequent in autism frontal cortex and correlates with aberrant MECP2 promoter methylation. Epigenetics, 1(4), 172-182; Schanen, N. C. (2006). Epigenetics of autism spectrum disorders. Human molecular genetics, 15(suppl 2), R138-R150.

[10] Einstein A, Podolsky B, Rosen N; Podolsky; Rosen (1935). “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete?”. Phys. Rev. 47 (10): 777–780.

The Political Implications of Epigenetics: Emerging Narratives and Ideologies

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

Copyright Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with permission.

Link to full text: The political implications of epigenetics


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

Question. Does epigenetics challenge modern political ideologies?

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

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

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


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

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

Epigenetics in politics and policy

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

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

The true political implications of epigenetics

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

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

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

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

Link to full text: The political implications of epigenetics

Genetics and Epigenetics Come Home from the War

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

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

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

Other voices, other rooms

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

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

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

Follow the money

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

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

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

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

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

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

The road not taken

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Bush (1945).

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

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

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

Epigenetics and the Cold War

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

Biology in the USSR

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

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

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

Lamarck and Lysenko

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

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

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

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

Ideology and biology in the West

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

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

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

Genetics and the Cold War in the U.S.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[6] DeJong-Lambert 2012.

[7] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] DeJong-Lambert 2012.

The Progressive Movement, Genetics, and the State

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

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

Woodrow Wilson, political progress, and evolution

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

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

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

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

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

Progress, individualism, and the rise of the administrative State

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

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

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

Science, eugenics, and the new State

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

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

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

Changes in politics, changes in biology

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

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

Genetics and the new Progressive State

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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

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

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

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., p. 201.

[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.