Skip to content or view screen version

UG#527 - The Emerging Field of Epigenetics (Beyond Genetic Determinism)

Robin Upton | 04.12.2010 17:56 | Analysis | Bio-technology | Health | Sheffield

We look at the emerging science of epigenetics, which studies information which children inherit other than through DNA. This cutting edge science has the potential to tell a new story about evolution, one that is less to do with humans as discrete and separate survival machines controlled by genetic programs, more about our relationships with each other and the world around us. We broadcast a panel discussion from Vancouver 2010 entitled "A Dialogue in Epigenetics - How Does The Environment get under our Skin?", accompanied by a related reading from Charles Eisenstein's Ascent of Humanity.

ug527-hour1mix.mp3 - mp3 27M

ug527-hour2mix.mp3 - mp3 27M

Epigenetics concerns inherited changes in gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes to the underlying DNA. While the precise mechanisms are complex and as yet poorly understood, the bigger picture is striking. Studies on rats have shown that babies who receive less care and affection from their mothers face a life of poorer health and higher stress. Not only that, but so do their children, their children's children, down to at least the 5th generation, contradicting the classical Darwinian model of genes as the be all and end all. One reason for the quick rise of Darwinism was its political utility as a scientific justification for competition and domination, spawning 'Social Darwinism' and the now discredited area of eugenics. In the process, as Charles Eisenstein recalls in Ascent of Humanity, Darwin's own diffidence was ignored:
In my opinion, the greatest error which I have committed has been not allowing sufficient weight to the direct action of the environments, i.e. food, climate, etc., independently of natural selection. . . . When I wrote the "Origin," and for some years afterwards, I could find little good evidence of the direct action of the environment; now there is a large body of evidence.

— Charles Darwin , 1888

A new scientific story of evolution may therefore have great implications for our social organisation. Epigenetics doesn't deny genetics, but accepts that the environment can feedback in a way which transcends genetic determinism. It explains why deciphering the human genome did not prove to be the Rosetta Stone which unlocks all the secrets of human health. It turns out that identical genes manifest themselves quite differently as a result of their context. Moreover, the idea that genes make up the entirety of inherited information which is passed down between successive generations turns out to be a wild oversimplification.

We start our show this week by revisiting a reading from Charles Eisenstein's Ascent of Humanity in which he questions the traditional view of evolution as a war between discrete and separate selves. We continue with the panel discussion from Roundhouse, Vancouver, Canada, which took place on 8th April, 2010. Marie LeRose hosts speakers Michael Kobor, Clyde Hertzman, Thomas Boyce and Ralph Catalano. The main focuses are on the implications for human health. Our second hour continues the discussion and we hear Q & A.

The discussion is an open-ended one, with few definite conclusions being presented, more questions being asked. It centres on the implications for human health, such as how knowledge of epigenetic markers could be used to predict disease later in life. Studies on humans suggest that similar epigenetic effects create a huge 'socio-economic health gradient', whereby even controlling for factors such as diet, education, exposure to toxins, access to health care etc. individuals from high socio-economic classes are much healthier than those from low socio-economic classes. The uncut discussion is available below, courtesy of Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock.

Thanks to Radio Ecoshock for the epigenetics recording.

Robin Upton
- e-mail: unwelcome [at] altruists [D0T] org
- Homepage: