Epigenetics Prehistory: An Historical Science

“At the International Congress on the History of Science and Technology in London in 1931, they were galvanised by the dramatic intervention of a delegation from the Soviet Union led by Nikolai Bukharin…The Soviets rejected the Whiggish view of the history of science as a progressive, disinterested search for truth, insisting instead that science – even its greatest and most theoretical achievements – was driven by the political economy of the time…When, a few years later, an English translation of Engels’s Dialectics of Nature appeared with an introduction by the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, a close associate at Cambridge, the group felt that at last they had the theoretical tools they needed.

Life could not be reduced to mere molecules, they argued, but neither was some non-materialist vital principle required to explain it. The material world consists in a multitude of entities and processes of various levels of complexity. Each level is governed by a set of organising principles dependent on, but irreducible to, those that govern lower levels. The properties of water cannot be deduced from the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. At each level of complexity, from molecule to cell to organism to ecosystem and society, new properties and organising relationships emerge, and to each belongs its proper science. Above all, the TBC insisted, the living world is self-organising and dynamic: it should be understood not so much as an assemblage of things but of dialectically interacting processes. Biology, unlike physics, is a historical science.”

Rose, Stephen. 2016. “How to get another thorax.” London Review of Books 38(17): 15-17.

Sociology, like biology and unlike philosophy, is an historical-comparative science, a product of the Enlightenment and the issuing, fraught, capitalist semi-tendency to attach some contested value to work, rather than simple, pure, brute warlord power over territory, assets, and life. As  historical-comparative sciences, biology and sociology are knowledges built upon and adjusting for both human capacities–including capacity for development, senses and dexterities, capacities of communication and organization, logic and rhetoric– and human limitations –non-omniscience, domineering organization and underdevelopment, environmental and social disorganization, resilience and adaptability through suffering and stunting, misdirecting rhetoric and marketing, and large-scale, pervasive violence capacity.

Science contrasts to philosophical knowledge, historically built upon and adjusting for the mere interests and autocratic perspective and experience of a hierarchy apex, asserting impossible, superhuman omniscience and refusing to recognize collective contribution–refusing humanity.

But just as capitalism easily drifts into brute power, sociology wrestles with both the diminishment of science to the commercial laboratory, and how to incorporate masterful philosophical arguments and styles derived to discredit and supplant democratic knowledge and to support imperial warlord power. In either case, the integrity of the difference is threatened with collapse.

When science is diminished to the commercial laboratory, in inegalitarian societies, it is funded and feted as a privileged site of highly-specified, secured-conditions knowledge. For example, a lab identifies as unreliable a technique for isolating and identifying epigenetic modification. That that technique is faulty is actually an inference from the observation that the epigenetic modification seems too prevalent. But what is the norm? This feeling and the inference are not pure logic, as it is presented in marketing. Rather they constitute an hypothesis, an expectation given by a specific theory. Nonetheless, when the argument is presented and marketed, it is quickly sold as an example of the superiority of efficient laboratory experiment, implicitly in contrast to the full range of scientific methodologies.

Yet science is not simply efficient knowledge. Philosophical knowledge and the knowledge of warlords–these are efficient knowledge. The laboratory scientists are producing one study; even published, it’s not yet definitive, it’s not scientific knowledge. It is a contribution. It is not science, which is definitively collective and aggregate. Science incorporates a range of craft contributions to knowledge over time and across physical and social space. Science has not yet established to what extent that lab’s theoretical interpretation of the finding–The epigenome should not, per theory, be so widespread; therefore the technique that finds it so must be unreliable.–corresponds to reality. We need more contributions to adjudicate the validity of the contribution. Hold yer horses, marketeers. Make way for science.

Superhuman agents in particular have the capacity to use this kind of knowledge, commercial lab knowledge, to intervene in the world, conforming it to a design that locks in incentives, ideas and feelings, and that directs a flow of power. Yet the reduction of science in theory and method to the commercial laboratory threatens the scientific difference with collapse, as Canguilhem’s successors through to Latour’s philosophical knowledge machine have demonstrated. The commercial laboratory dispenses with key components of science as an Enlightenment craft knowledge.

By scientific craft, we mean the methodical interpolation of theory–with its resistance supplied by logic and craft precedence–and thoughtful, rigorous, collective empirical exploration and verification–with its resistance supplied by the socio-physical world beyond the mind community. Without privileging and using these scientific kinds of resistances as knowledge resources, we do not dispense with resistance’s role in directing and shaping knowledge. We only revert to social power as the resistance directing and shaping our knowledge–as is done in religious knowledge and marketing. The specification of metaphysics is crucial to distinguishing the resistance our knowledge is based on.

Epigenetics is a case in point that scientific knowledge has the capacity to transcend  social power, including as it works through the efficiency bluster of commercial lab marketing. But at least under inegalitarian social conditions, science is still efficient in the sense that it takes only a century of biological science and science reduced to the commerical lab, contributors to science at marketing and funding odds, to tentatively merge, inform, and emerge in fuller scientific knowledge.

“In the nineteen-forties, Conrad Waddington, an English embryologist, had proposed an ingenious answer: cells acquired their identities just as humans do—by letting nurture (environmental signals) modify nature (genes). For that to happen, Waddington concluded, an additional layer of information must exist within a cell—a layer that hovered, ghostlike, above the genome. This layer would carry the “memory” of the cell, recording its past and establishing its future, marking its identity and its destiny but permitting that identity to be changed, if needed. He termed the phenomenon “_epi_genetics”—“above genetics.” Waddington, ardently anti-Nazi and fervently Marxist, may have had more than a biological stake in this theory.”–Mukherjee, S. 2016. “Same but different.” New Yorker, May 2. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/02/breakthroughs-in-epigenetics.

Epigenetics emerged out of a scientific approach at explicit odds with capitalist social power’s knowledge, and while it could not dominate the scientific research agenda in such a socially-marginal position, it incubated through the scientific community’s collective, multi-method efforts to build knowledge, finally collectively identifying the limitations of genetic determinism with the Human Genome project. The Human Genome Project played an important turn-of-the-21st century role in confirming the limitations of genes, and thereby moving and expanding biological craft knowledge, thus the biological theory of genetic-environmental interpolation, into a broader research agenda-governing knowledge.

To advance scientific knowledge, commercial lab knowledge had to both contribute to the constraints of capitalist-directed socio-environmental design, and at its limit, eventually submit a bit to biological knowledge that could not fit an inegalitarian agenda systematically discounting universal life development and interaction. The commercial lab scientific reduction will try to incorporate and redirect anticapitalist scientific knowledge, as where a psychology lab was given huge grants in the early aughts to  use the lab to reduce epigenetic knowledge into a Mother-blame knowledge, where mothers are conceptualized, per psychological theory, as a sovereign, discreet, autonomous environment of preferences and individual choice. The marks of capital upon science that emerge in the commercial lab science reduction, that distort even trained scientists’ understanding of the scientific difference, continue to be branded by unchanged socio-environmental requirements to marketing in a capitalist social world of manufactured scarcity. But even diminished and partially-exiled, scientific knowledge advances beyond domineering interest, if perhaps in doing so, it functions less efficiently than philosophical decisionism or marketing.

An excellent example of fuller scientific knowledge is given in the revealing contrast between commercial laboratory’s confinement to medical knowledge versus biological knowledge. Biological knowledge–across basic animal and plant breeding, through entomology, and most strongly in the Marxist-fueled developmental biology knowledge forwarded by the research of Lewontin, Levin and Gould–has long scientifically established that organisms’ development is conditioned by the environment, including but not reducible to progenitors’ living conditions. By contrast, medical epigenetic knowledge is in its infancy and its findings are still highly contested. Commercial labs are only starting to work out experimentation with the environment-driven epigenetic intermediaries, histones, methylations, and RNA interactions modifying gene expression–for the purposes of producing profitable (if state-subsidized) interventions for the medical market, particularly cancer drugs.

What has been accomplished over the last century is that biological craft knowledge has been reunited with narrower commercial-lab medical knowledge. That is a mighty shift, not to be dismissed. This biological restoration produces anxiety, but some confidence that with privileged funding and the universalization of marketing, commerical-lab knowledge can control and contain fully-scientific biological knowledge. The latent threat to the power order is that, emerging from the same Enlightenment, sociological knowledge has, like biology, a comparative historical-materialist scientific core. Within the social sciences, great idealist capacity, enhanced by the capacity to work with positivism to bury metaphysics out of sight, has been built up over the neoliberal period. As per its method, “expert” cherry-picking and fetishizing historical cases of cartesian-boundary flaunting injustice–particularly focusing on Gilded-Age eugenics, this philosophical tradition will police the boundary between epigenetic findings and sociological knowledge of social construction. It will attempt to forbid, by its justice-of-the-exception argument, the organization of egalitarian collective agency to reduce crippling violations of shared humanity.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s