The work being done in cancer epigenetics not only introduces substantial complications into the scientific understanding of cancer, and of genetics in general, but perhaps even more substantial complications of the politics and policy of cancer because of the way it shifts attention back towards the nexus of genes and their environments.
There are obviously no solid answers to these questions yet, given the state of both the science and contemporary public policy, but my project is to begin to ask these questions now in the case that the science of epigenetics begins to make its way into the public policy domain.
The gene-centric focus of molecular genetics is usually portrayed as the product of the inevitable and impartial progress of science, but the material effects of the Second World War and its aftermath on the particular trajectory of the science of genetics are rarely considered.
The 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.
The Progressive movement 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 fundamental changes in the prevailing understanding of biology.
The history of eugenics in early 20th century science 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.
The convergence of political ideology and biology in the work of Waddington helps to explain the development of his conception of the epigenotype, and of epigenetics as the scientific study of this epigenotype. Likewise, this convergence of biology and ideology is equally pertinent for understanding the development of the science of genetics as we now know it, which until the last decade or so more or less excluded epigenetics from serious consideration.
This divergence between embryology and genetics appears to have occurred for legitimate scientific reasons, but also as “a struggle for power and authority.” These disciplinary differences coincided with the eventual sides taken in the Second World War. That genetics ultimately emerged as the hegemonic victor in science just as the U.S. emerged as the global hegemon after the war, is not merely coincidental.
Waddington’s diverse background, including his unorthodox politics, will be shown to have a significant influence in his ‘discovery’ of epigenetics, and also provides clues as to why epigenetics was as ignored it was until fairly recently.
by Shea Robison (@EpigeneticsGuy) A forthcoming paper titled “Holocaust exposure induced intergenerational effects on FKBP5 methylation” by Rachel Yehuda and many others is sparking considerable debate about epigenetics, mostly—according to my Twitter feed, at least—as critiques of this paper. I do not have access to the Yehuda paper, and so I am unable to discuss the appropriateness … Continue reading Epigenetics and Adaptation: Ethics in Evolution