August 2, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich
Making the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance of trauma real
Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance (TEI) is a contested hypothesis within the complex field of epigenetics. The guess is that there are molecular mechanisms (‘beyond the gene’) through which social, cultural and physical experiences impact the human body and are transmitted to future generations. Some aspects of TEI have been demonstrated – but mainly in worms, not humans.
Despite its scientific complexity and precariousness, TEI has established itself within a certain niche of public discourse, a discourse that focuses in particular on the molecular transmission of trauma.
We can now, for example, read articles about trauma and TEI related to the detention centers established by President Donald Trump. Such articles link back to earlier ones talking about epigenetically transmitted trauma originating in war, famine and Nazi concentration camps.
Spreading the word
These articles portray the epigenetic transmission of trauma as a scientific fact based on scientific consensus. This is not the case. However, big names in epigenetics writing in newspapers and giving TED talks, as well as blogs and briefings emerging from reputable organisations, such as Johns Hopkins and the American Psychological Association, make it seem that way.
This also means that social scientists take TEI and the epigenetic transmission of trauma seriously, albeit with some caveats, and try to extrapolate social and political consequences from the, so far, tenuous scientific evidence for TEI in humans. On that basis, they rightly point to, for example, the potential dangers of labelling and stigmatising people said to carry epigenetic marks of trauma (what Charlotte Church once called so aptly: “witness marks”).
Social scientists warn natural scientists of the dangers inherent in not thinking about questions such as: “Exactly what phenomena am I making real with my research? Which categories do I use to describe and label that which I seek to explore? Which silent assumptions about the social world might I integrate into my research designs and the interpretation of my results, possibly without further reflection? Have I considered the possible social and political implications of my work in the way I communicate my results?”.
These are good questions, but questions that social scientists also need to ask themselves, as their own work makes something highly contested real; an act of social science writing that is as real in its consequences as the natural science research they reflect on.
This increase in assuming that TEI is ‘real’, contributes to lay people asking, for example on twitter: “Does this mean we’re going to stop treating epigenetics like new-age folklore???? Inter-generational trauma is real and valid”. This tweet refers to a study illustrated with a gloomy image of barbed wire, evoking concentration camps.
Words and images
TEI first appeared as a phrase on the scientific scene in 1998 in an article by Jablonka and Lamb (according to Scopus) (Jablonka is “an Israeli theorist and geneticist, known especially for her interest in epigenetic inheritance”, who has strongly influenced social science thinking on epigenetics). Interest in TEI began to increase, first around 2003, then more definitely around 2009/10, and is now waning a little bit (both times Emma Whitelaw wrote important articles summarising research in this field; she also became a source for journalists, it seems).
TEI soon trickled down from scientific publications to popular ones. News and website articles drew abundantly on the work spearheaded by prominent proponents of TEI. According to the news database Nexis, TEI first appeared in the news around 2007 quoting sources such as Jablonka, Whitelaw, Jirtle, Skinner, Pembrey, and Meaney.
Alongside reports on research carried out by proponents of TEI, the media also published striking images which sought to anchor epigenetics – a new and exciting field – in some more familiar and related visual representations. As Nexis doesn’t provide access to images, one way to look at visual representations is to search Google News.
TEI first appeared, it seems, on Google News in 2009 with an image of cells under a microscope and an artistic rendering of sperm swimming. Many other images were used in in news items available on Google news after that, including gloomy and dark images of Holocaust survivors, battlefields and other traumatic and stressful situations.
It may be time to study how TEI has been made public and popular, through words and images, in such a way that TEI now seems to be common-sense when it comes to understanding trauma.
Trauma is transmitted through words, images and behaviour and so is the way we think about trauma. Over the last decade, epigenetics has become a new way of thinking about trauma, verbally and visually. We need to know how this happened and what that entails for public understanding of science and of trauma.
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