ToPHSS Lecture: What is at stake in the ‘epigenetic revolution’?
We appear to be living through a revolution in understanding of heredity. The media are abuzz with suggestions that our health and our personalities are determined not just by the genes passed across generations, but also by the experiences of our parents and grandparents. Research in the field of epigenetics proposes that environmental influences can be inherited through a network of mechanisms that act as “the molecular memory of past stimuli” to supplement the slower-changing information encoded in the DNA sequence. Epigenetic modulations of the gene may have profound implications for biology, medicine and wider society. Phenomena such as pollution, nutrition, stress, deprivation and even parenting are understood as to leave marks on our genomes. Epigenetics, “the missing link between the social and the life sciences”, claims to have “reignited the nature/nurture discussion”. Epigenetic inheritance is one of the main arguments used by advocates for a new evolutionary framework (‘extended evolutionary synthesis’). Yet there is no consensus on the scope, significance or even definition of epigenetics. Some argue that epigenetics is a ‘business as usual’ study of gene expression, while others claim that the entire framework within which science has understood heredity for 150 years needs to be replaced with one that recognizes inheritance of acquired characteristics, recently regarded as a heresy. Following a brief review of current science of epigenetics, I will discuss some of the major problems raised by the rise of epigenetics. In particular, I will look at how critics and proponents use history of heredity to reveal intellectual and political issues at stake.
ToPHSS Lectures are part of the project “Topics in the Philosophy of the Human and Social Sciences”, funded by the Humanities Initiative. The project aims to cross boundaries between disciplines of the humanities and social sciences concerned with ‘the human’, that is with human beings, humanity, society, culture, history, and more. It focuses on methodological and ontological issues, in particular on those concerned with contested categories of the humanities and social sciences, and of those primarily on the categories of human, individual and person. This term the first focus is on the contested divide between nature and culture.