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Epigenetics as an Ethical Area of Study: A Survey of Recent Studies

This blog post by Ada S. Jaarsma originally appeared on the Alberta Epigenetics Network website on 2 October, 2018


Ada Jaarsma is an Associate Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Humanities at Mount Royal University. Her book Kierkegaard After the Genome: Science, Existence and Belief in this World (Palgrave Macmillan 2017) makes the case for the existential import of placebos, epigenetics and science studies. She is currently writing about epigenetics, nocebos and critical race theory.

As I write in an earlier blog post for the Alberta Epigenetics Network, scholars in the social sciences are looking to epigenetics research for insights into pressing ethical questions. New books like Political Biology: Science and Social Values in Human Heredity from Eugenics to Epigenetics by Maurizio Meloni describe epigenetic phenomena as reflecting a kind of “political biology,” in which there is no clear dividing line between what counts as cultural or social values and what counts as biology. Epigenetics is a key exemplar in such arguments because of the pressure that epigenetic findings put onto long-standing presumptions about the nature of heredity. Wide-ranging research into the contributions of environmental and experiential factors in epigenetic processes suggest that heredity should no longer be understood as hard-wired or solely determined by genes. In the terms of two leading anthropologists who study the work of epigenetic researchers, Margaret Lock and Jörg Niewohner, biological processes like heredity should be understood so entangled with the local that “biology” could be better described as “situated local biologies” than as something universal.

The ethical ramifications of this social scientific research are quite tremendous. If there is no universal human biology that transcends the particulars of environmental locale, then it becomes vital for scientists across the natural and social sciences to find ways to collaborate on ethical questions. For example, one area of ethics that is especially pressing concerns the relations between genomes and race. In a new book on race and science, anthropologist Jonathan Marks argues that scientific research into biological/cultural relations is crucial for undermining what social scientists often call “scientific racism”: the misplaced and unscientific arguments about race that bear the veneer of scientific validity. One way to subvert prejudicial presumptions about race, Marks explains, is to look to scientific research into biocultural differences, and this is where epigenetics is an especially fruitful research area. As Nathaniel Comfort writes in a recent review essay in Nature, when scholarship on epigenetics is ignored, discussions about human diversity sacrifice ethical concerns for deterministic (and scientifically problematic) presumptions about biology.

Indeed, epigenetics holds such promise for contributing to key ethical debates that two bioethicists from McGill, Charles Dupras and Vardit Ravitky, make the case for varying types of “epigenetic responsibility”. They argue that while nuances of epigenetic findings are often overlooked in ethical discussions, it is valuable for bioethics to take into account the variability of plasticity, reversibility and heritability of environmental and experiential factors. This argument is shared by contributors to a new anthology, Beyond Bioethics: Toward a New Biopolitics, co-edited by Osagie K. Obasogie and Marcy Darnosky. This edited collection is a comprehensive set of essays that explores the ethical significance of research like epigenetics—and the dangers of reductionist approaches to genomics. As I explore in a chapter in my book, “The Existential Stakes of Epigenetics,” the kinds of questions raised by epigenetic research extend to the very ways in which we take up and engage with ethical matters: what even matters or counts as ethical and in need of ethical inquiry. In this way, epigenetics is a realm of research in which scholars from across the academic disciplines can and should engage in transdisciplinary conversations and collaborations.

Epigenetics as an Ethical Area of Study: A Survey of Recent Studies

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