May 31, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

Epigenetics: A blogging retrospective

Looking back over my blog posts, I realised that I have written 15 posts on epigenetics between 2013 and now (some with Aleksandra Stelmach). It’s time to take stock.

Epigenetics is the latest in a long line of developments in genetics and genomics that I have studied through the lens of metaphor analysis, from cloning to stem cells, from the human genome to the human microbiome, from bionanotechnology to synthetic biology and beyond.

In 2013 I wrote my first blog post about this field, entitled “Epigenetics: Switching the power and responsibility from genes to us”, a title that played with one of the main epigenetic metaphors, namely that of ‘switching genes on and off’.

The term ‘epigenetics’ was first used by Conrad Waddington around 75 years ago, at a time when he tried to reconcile genetics with embryology. Since then it has been absorbed into molecular biology and deals with mechanisms of gene expression and gene regulation (including ‘switching genes on and off’), mechanisms that do not change the DNA sequence but have important implications for how genes work and function. Things are obviously much more complicated than that, but this will do for the moment.

At the time that I got into epigenetics, I still bought into some of the emerging hype swirling around this field (Deichmann, 2016) and thought insights into gene regulation and gene expression would shift people’s beliefs in the power of genes to define ‘who we are’ towards looking more closely at how our lives and life styles shape our genes and potentially those of future generations.

While I was reflecting on this supposed shift in perspective, marketing forces took hold of epigenetics and turned epigenetics into the next health and well-being fad. The myth of the power of genes (sometimes called ‘genetic determinism’) was replaced by the myth of the power of epigenetic mechanisms, which, it was believed, we as individuals could control ourselves through choices we make in eating and thinking. Genes were no longer seen as making us who we are. Instead epigenetic mechanisms could be used to make ‘me’ who I am, but beyond that shape the future of my offspring and the future of future generations.

The slogan ‘genes are not your destiny’ became a rallying cry. This meant that “[p]opular misconceptions of epigenetics have in some cases led to pseudo-scientific speculations of nurture shaping nature, Lamarckian evolution, and even how meditation can cause biological transformations through epigenetic mechanisms.” (Henikoff and Greally, 2016: R641)

The trope of ‘control’ even extended to other factors that could potentially affect epigenetic mechanisms but are not under individuals’ control, such as environmental toxins, poverty, trauma etc. Such influences were, in turn, positioned as being ‘reversible’, that is, again, as being under our control.

All this happened against a background of a field that was still in the making and hadn’t actually quite settled, was grappling with its past, and didn’t quite know what the future held.

Over the years, I began to blog about four topics in particular: the muddle around definitions of epigenetics; the metaphors emerging to talk about epigenetics; the hype emerging around epigenetics in the market place of goods and services; and the hype emerging around epigenetics in the market place of social science ideas and theories; and what all this meant for social scientists interested in epigenetics.

Definitions and metaphors

Many scientists have been struggling to put some order into definitions of epigenetics which have been emerging and changing since the 1940s. John Greally is writing a textbook on this matter (see also here), and I can’t wait for it to come out. In the meantime, the muddle with definitions can be used for a lot of mischief, but more importantly it can lead to confusion in thinking through what the social, ethical and political consequences of purported epigenetic (inheritance) mechanisms.

Steven Henifkoff and John Greally have pointed out that: “The field described as ‘epigenetics’ has captured the imagination of scientists and the lay public […] fueling excitement […] about the prospects of applying this knowledge to address health issues. However, when describing these scientific advances as ‘epigenetic’, we encounter the problem that this term means different things to different people, starting within the scientific community and amplified in the popular press.”

One thing that exercises specialists like these is the wide-spread definition of epigenetics as ‘epi-genetics’, as studying only those phenomena that are over or above genetics. However, as Greally has recently pointed out: “The original definition [Waddington] of #epigenetics was based on DNA variation, not on anything-but-DNA-variation as it is today.”

This unsettledness in definitions has also been reflected in the metaphors used to construct the field of epigenetics and to communicate its achievements. There are some ‘small’ metaphors which seem to stick in popular culture (switch, marker, tag, annotation), but we found nothing like the ‘big’ overarching metaphors that are used to talk about genomics (the book, map, recipe etc. of life). And while in the case of the book metaphor we can map, sort of, what we know about books onto what we know about life (and about DNA), in the case of tag metaphor it’s much harder to carry out that mapping or to quite imagine what it means.

Recently, a study using focus groups found that the “genome as musical score, epigenome as musician’s annotation and interpretation” metaphor was the preferred way to think about epigenetics.

Most of these metaphors are explanatory, used to convey the complexities of this emerging field. But in some instances, such metaphors can also be used for selling products. Here is an article on skin care products from Vogue, for example, which uses the switch metaphor:

“Environmental factors such as diet, stress, and sun exposure can affect the epigenome. As can time: A gene that plays an active role in producing a crucial protein for skin elasticity at age 20 may have powered down by age 40. ‘It’s like a light switch,’ says Sabita Saldanha, Ph.D., a researcher at Alabama State University. ‘If something is blocking that switch, you cannot turn the light on.’”

And here is a headline in the Financial Times under the section ‘How to spend it’: “Epigenetic skincare: the creams switching off ageing genes“. And there is much much more, all based on hype.

Hype and anti-hype

Hype was not only used by those advertising health products. There was also something akin to what Tim Cauldfield has called ethics hype. Some social scientists and political analysts took epigenetic speculations about transgenerational epigenetic inheritance observed in plants, worms and some mice, but still contested in mammals, for real and began to build ethical castles in the air about the nefarious ways that epigenetics might be used in the future, even speculating about its eugenic tendencies.

On the other hand, epigenetics was also hyped up as a remedy to all sorts of theoretical ills in social science and as a means to rejuvenate theories of what came to be known as the ‘biosocial’. Here the metaphor of ‘how the cultural or social gets under the skin’ became a hook on to which to hang theoretical speculations. Epigenetics was seen as a way to replacing ‘gene-centrism’ with a focus on plasticity and flexibility, and also as a means to overcoming dichotomies between nature and nurture, body and environment, individual health and population health, as well as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ heredity.

What was strange to me and others was that on the one hand social scientists dealing with epigenetics warn readers against hype (blamed mainly on scientific popularisers and on advertisers), while on the other hand they themselves engage in overhyping the contribution that (what they regard as) epigenetics can make to revolutionising the sociological enterprise.

I also observed something positive though. As with neuroscience, which had given rise to a movement that one can call the neurobollocks movement, I found more and more scientists beginning to engage in what one might call an epi-bollocks movement.

Kevin Mitchell in particular has shone a sceptical light on speculations around transgenerational epigenetic inheritance and especially on speculations regarding supposed ‘social implications’ of epigenetics. In fact, he tweeted “There are no social implications of epigenetics. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.” There are however potential social implications of over-hyping unfounded social implications.

And, of course we should not forget the twitter account called EpigeneticsBS which has great stuff like this to offer: “chant this 11x a day – the spiritual work you do clears the epigenetics in your family 7 generations forward & back”. Epigenetic control hype in a nutshell!

Other researchers, Jerry Coyne in particular, have thrown cold water on claims made by some philosophers and social theorists that epigenetics is in the process of over-throwing traditional genetics and traditional theories of evolution. As Ute Deichmann (and many others) have pointed out “[r]esearch labelled epigenetics has not replaced the centrality of genomic information” (Deichmann, 2016: 249).

Epigenetics and social science

Epigenetics is a field with enormous potential but surrounded by a penumbra of vague promises, where fantasies are crowding out facts, whatever they may be. This was noticed quite early on by one of the giants in the field, Edith Heard, who has recently talked about this disjunction between fundamental science and fantastic expectations yet again.

What should be the role of social scientists in this situation? Especially when calls are being made for interdisciplinary collaboration? An article entitled “Epigenetics: Core misconcept” by Mark Ptashne ends by saying: “The important point is to attend to how things actually work.” (Ptashne, 2013: 7103) This should be an indispensable foundation for interdisciplinary work between sociologists and life scientists.

Such interdisciplinary work cannot be founded on hype, extrapolation, exaggeration, and speculation. It should be based on a mutual “appreciation of the conceptual and methodological foundations of modern experimental biology” (Deichmann, 2017: 291).

Posts about epigenetics

Epigenetics: Switching the power and responsibility from genes to us

Making epigenetics public: A problem with metaphors (with Aleksandra Stelmach)

Epigenetics, hype and harm

The epigenetic muddle and the trouble with science writing

When epigenetics gets under your skin

Making sense of plasticity

Epigenetic hype and woo

Biology and sociology: Estrangement and entanglement

Epigenetics and sociology: A critical note

Epigenetics: Grappling with definitions (with Aleksandra Stelmach)

The exposome – the what?

From epigenetic landscapes to epigenetic pancakes

Epigenetics: Between fundamental science and fantastic expectations

Epigenetics in popular culture: The case of turkey dinosaurs

Witness marks: On the trail of an epigenetic metaphor (by Aleksandra Stelmach)


Image: Pixabay: DNA



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