Epigenetics and Society

By Andrew D. Ellington Epigenetics and Society Did Erasmus Darwin foreshadow the tweaking of his grandson’s paradigm?

By | March 1, 2011

Epigenetics and Society

Did Erasmus Darwin foreshadow the tweaking of his grandson’s paradigm?

We can expect that epigenetics will be held up as the forerunner of that bastard child of Creationism, Intelligent Design.

The potent wish in the productive hour
Calls to its aid Imagination’s power,
O’er embryon throngs with mystic charm presides,
And sex from sex the nascent world divides…
—Erasmus Darwin,
“The Temple of Nature,” Canto II

I was first introduced to Charles Darwin’s flamboyant grandfather when I was an undergraduate searching through Michigan State’s wonderful Special Collections. In between bothering the curators for archived copies of Howard the Duck, I read Erasmus’s prose and poetry, and was treated to a great mind grappling with ideas that presaged one of the truly great ideas of modern times, the theory of evolution. As the passage above hints, Erasmus believed that environmental influences, in particular the “Imagination” of the parents, greatly influenced the phenotype of the child.

How very pre-Victorian (and post-). Erasmus anticipated Charles in many ways, but surprising results in the field of epigenetics—heritable (and reversible) changes in gene expression—suggest that he may have been very far ahead of his time indeed. In the current issue, David Berreby cites the increasing body of work that correlates childhood trauma with DNA methylation with suicide. One’s personal epigenome is modified by environmental perturbations, and that influences behavior. Certainly the Victorians could have related to the notion of an Original Sin that made its heritable mark on the genomes of parents created innocent, passing the curse down to their descendants. That said, the Victorians did have their biases, and it was of course the father who had the predominant influence over the child. But recently published studies of genetic imprinting show that the two parents’ influence on their offspring is more akin to a tug of war.

The Lamarckian idea that giraffes’ reaching for leaves resulted in longer-necked progeny seems silly to us today, primarily because we know so very much about the underlying mechanisms of genetics. And yet Lamarck may have a last laugh—think inheritance patterns in ciliates, or the effect of diet on the coat color of agouti mouse offspring. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in our understanding of how evolution can act…on evolution, yielding mechanisms that allow both adaptation and heritability within the course of a lifetime. And such paradigm shifts almost always have societal consequences. Manel Esteller shows that epigenetics also impacts the “dark genome” in a way that may improve cancer diagnostics. An even more far-reaching consequence is that it may prove possible to engineer epigenetics, as Bob Kingston’s Thought Experiment tacitly suggests. If so, will epigenetic engineering be subject to the same restrictions as genetic engineering? Or will this be a way that we can not merely treat disease, but possibly engineer human health into future generations?

Andrzej Krauze

Such possibilities will be the rational outcome of a great deal of research and debate that is yet to come. However, there are at least two outcomes of the revolution in progress that would seem to have more near-term consequences. First, the overturning of a purely Darwinian paradigm will undoubtedly be viewed as the overturning of Darwin and his Theory itself. It matters not a whit that science will have been shown, once again, to be self-correcting, and to provide a means of advancing knowledge through the application of the experimental method and mechanistic naturalism. We can expect that epigenetics will be held up as the forerunner of that bastard child of Creationism, Intelligent Design. Dribs and drabs of this are already appearing on the Interwebs, but it may soon come to a school board near you. Second, the notion that environmental tags are embedded in our genome within a human time frame has got to be one of the best things to happen to tort law in a long time. DNA typing has led to the conviction of the guilty and the freeing of the innocent. Epigenetic typing may now lead to expert testimony regarding the presymptomatic impact of environmental disasters on susceptible populations. This may seem fanciful, but where there are moneyed interests (on either side), the science will inevitably follow.

Andrew D. Ellington
Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology
University of Texas at Austin


Avatar of: Ernest DuBrul

Ernest DuBrul

Posts: 4

March 1, 2011

Time to go back to your copy of The Origin, preferably one of the later editions. Ol' Charlie himself held on to acquired characteristics as a way to generate diversity, even going so far as to use giraffe necks as an example. He was especially convinced of the environmental effects in causing blindness in cave animals. So, let me make a prediction: Future epigenetic research will verify Darwin's ideas and an epigenetic cause of the initial blindness in cave fish will be discovered.
Avatar of: Dr HP Pandey

Dr HP Pandey

Posts: 3

March 1, 2011

An organism is the expression of sum total of interactions between its genotype and environment. Truly speaking, genotype and environment are the deciding factor of phenotype of each and every living being. Fundamentally the there are two families of genes; 1. Constitutive or Housekeeping genes and 2. Luxury or Temporal genes in which the former is regulated by feedback mechanism and is least affected by environmental fluctuations, however, the latter is controlled by environmental complexes; may be internal or external. In my opinion the whole of the Epigenetic story is controlled by the luxury or temporal components of the genome which are Time & Space specific in deciding the phenotype of an organism.
Avatar of: Jules Levin

Jules Levin

Posts: 3

March 15, 2011

Darwin spent summers at his grandfather's estate and read in his library. Erasmus had a copy of Sir William Jones' writings on the relationship between Sanscrit, Greek, and Latin, and their descent from a common unknown language. This was the beginning of Indo-European linguistic studies, and it offered up the notion of gradually diverging languages descended from a common ancestor. This was a big idea in scholarly circles in England at the turn of the 18th Century.\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

March 16, 2011

The basic idea of evolution is the STABLE inheritance of variations in reproductive fitness. How stable are epigenetic modifications, over a time scale of multiple generations? If the answer is "not very stable", then environmentally induced epigenetic changes are irrelevent to evolution.
Avatar of: Michel Luc

Michel Luc

Posts: 1

March 17, 2011

I don't approve the use of "bastard child of creationism", even if many ID supporters don't deny their religious bias (an atheistic bias is in scientific regard not any better), they don't support the young earth dogma of creationism, furthermore, they are scientists, and epigenetics will answer some of their questions about how complex structures can evolve naturally, however your tone in this article shows clearly, that there is more at stake in this "revolution" that you dare to express, but truth will prevail at the end
Avatar of: John Collier

John Collier

Posts: 5

March 20, 2011

Jean Piaget pointed out some time ago that behavioural diversity can lead to later fixation of the traits. This also seems to me to be possible with epigenetics. Consequently, I think it can be evolutionarily significant. It may well not be washed out over time.

Popular Now

  1. Scientists Activate Predatory Instinct in Mice
  2. Superbug Resistant to Every Antibiotic in the U.S. Killed Nevada Woman
  3. Next Generation: Mobile Microscope Detects DNA Sequences
  4. Tenure Under Attack in Two More States
    The Nutshell Tenure Under Attack in Two More States

    Proposed legislation would eliminate academic tenure at public universities in Iowa and Missouri, echoing a move that has already gutted such permanent posts in Wisconsin.