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.

 

 

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Post-cartesian Epigenetics Bibliography

Costa, DL, N. Yetter & H. deSomer. “Intergenerational transmission of paternal trauma among US Civil War Ex-POWs.”

Hendrickx, K. & I. Van Hoyweghen. 2018. “An epigenetic prism to norms and values.” Perspective 9(63): 1-5.

Loi, M. 2013. Social epigenetics and equality of opportunity. Public Health Ethics 6(2): 142-153.

M’hamdi, H.I., I. de Beaufort, B. Jack & E.A.P. Steegers. 2018. “Responsibility in the age of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) and epigenetics.” Journal of Development Origins of Health and Disease 9(1): 58-62.

Morriseau, T. 2019. “Continuing the legacy: Discovering new insights into the role of genes and the environment in Type 2 diabetes in Oji-Cree youth.” Research Life, Winter V. 1: 17.

Mukherjee, S. 2016. “Same but different.” The New Yorker, May 2. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/02/breakthroughs-in-epigenetics

Notterman, D.A. & C. Mitchell. 2015. “Epigenetics and understanding the impact of social determinants of health.” Pediatr Clin N Amer 62: 1227-1240.

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

Rothstein, M.A., H.L. Harrell, and G.E. Marchant. 2017. “Transgenerational epigenetics and environmental justice.” Environmental Epigenetics: 1-12.

Sadler-Riggleman, I. & M.K. Skinner. Environment and the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease, Chapter 15 in .

Vandenbergh, M.P., D.J. Vandenbergh & J.G. Vandenbergh. 2017. “Beyond Lamarck: The implications of epigenetics for environmental law.” Mich J. of Envtl. & Admin. Law 7: 1-31.

TBC

The Canadian Right-wing Academic Argument Against Environmental and Social Justice

A McGill historian of science, looking as much like Foucault as he can, in 2018 published an article, with a fellow conservative holding physical science credentials, in which he makes an argument that epigenetics should not be linked as a rationale to egalitarian policy change.

After a two-paragraph intro to epigenetics, Canadian Foucault-Latour coins three neologisms, three sins, to package his argument for prohibiting a bridge between physical science findings and egalitarian social policy:

1) “Mischaracterization”: This is the (dubious) problem where the Historian of Science doesn’t agree with findings–for example, that epigenetic information can be transmitted intergenerationally, and he selects those particular epigenetic findings to dismiss as inconclusive.

2) “Extrapolation”: This is the problem (for Canadian Foucault-Latour) where scientists bridge the physical and social sciences, particularly including social epidemiologists, to suggest that with the theory-backed, mechanism-identified evidence of correlation and time-order, we can make a scientific claim that the material world and institutionalized social relations impact human health, and thus changing institutions, design, and infrastructure can reduce the socio-material harm.

Canadian postmodernist doesn’t say here how he defines science, but it’s probably commercial laboratory science, per postmodernism’s capitalism-accommodating idealist reduction. Along with positivists, discourse-totalizing postmodernists are a Cartesian Praetorian guarding the sacred boundary between the human, idealist world(s) and the base, material projection.

The article is basic, and extremely light on the empirical evidence. Yet with masculinist aesthetics, it presents errant pedantry as technocratic rigor. The McGill third arm of policing–not particularly well supported– is to attribute to mostly-unidentified other scholars a lack of his own fine appreciation of the connection between genetics and epigenetics. He decides this is the 3) “Exceptionalism” sin. This is raw crank. Even in pop culture accounts of epigenetics, the historical relation between the Human Genome Project and the growth of epigenetics is emphasized. The authors need to spend more time reading other people’s academic work, and less time in the patio party conversations.

It is a very thin article evincing a cursory familiarity with the substantive topic–which is not a survey of epigenetics. It is how epigenetics are being approached by anti-cartesians. Extremely thin on data, the article is only justifiable by an overinvestment in either positivism or in the postmodern, idealist, theoretical reduction of science to the commercial lab. It is a “textbook” recent case in reactionary “critical” idealism. It is the embodiment of the institutionalized Canadian settler-extractivist theoretical approach to reconciling private-property-reifying liberalism with hierarchy-reifying conservatism: effacing the inequality while censoring the inegalitarianism.

The basis for this authority’s institutionalized expertise is that while he was a grad student, he had to work with an indigenous community, as most Canadian social science and humanities academics did by the second decade of the 21st century, and that required him to write an article denouncing the association in medical studies of Canada’s First Nations with health problems due to the colonial relationship. I know this, because that is what I was being commanded to do then. You were told, by indigenous leaders in institutions, that you had to write stories about how there is no problem. Obviously, indigenous people outside of power were not clamoring for academics to amplify this particular voice. It became a theoretical specialty to argue that the material world is radically divorced from, inaccessible, and unknowable to humans–unspeakable.

Then McGill had a short burst in 2012 of trying to set himself up as an authority on how the biome is just imaginary and a bad discourse, because its metaphysics connects the material to the social–social design, institutions, and infrastructure overdetermine human health– and so its justice telos is about reducing social, economic and political inequality. He analyzes surveys, which is what he uses to back up the idealist social science theory.

In idealist thought, human health is not a thing. Health is just a holographic projection of bad Minds. Some physical scientists twiddle around with health because the tyrannical state. In idealist thought, design, institutions, and infrastructure are not recognized to create different kinds of social relations oriented to distinct justice teloi. Their discursive ontology only permits them to recognize difference, and they reject the idea that inequality is a thing, let alone a problem. The only problem, for which idealist humanities and social science academics are the official police, is reduction of difference–for example, state policy changes that reduce social hierarchy. Reducing inequality is the ultimate injustice from the idealist position. They believe the historical-materialist justice telos competes with the idealist justice telos–to proliferate difference, including inequality.

Inegalitarianism is difficult for postmodernists. Like good imperialists, and against all historical and concurrent evidence, they believe we can have moral, tasteful, polite inequality, reconceptualized as playful, fecund difference, without the discursive rudeness of inegalitarianism, which they typically project outward upon Americans, because of the brutish conservative culture of slavery-backed capitalism that feeds the US global imperial role, or another geopolitical Other–Nazis or Russians.

Canadian Foucault-Latour also sprinkled an article in his CV about how “contagion” is really financial crisis; wholly within discourse, that was a less-reactionary effort.

When critical idealists can keep within texts, they do not necessarily support capitalist and capitalist-state efforts to repress egalitarian, developmentalist design, institutions, infrastructure, and relationships. A postmodernist, like this McGill Man or Latour, may instrumentally play with a conservative, positivist physical scientist–they share the inclination to denounce inequality recognition and egalitarian redistribution; they both bury metaphysics; and they are both keen to reduce science to the commercial lab.

Yet the alliance between postmodernists and positivist commercial scientists of course contains an inner crack. Postmodernists as idealists are distinct from physical scientists in that they abject recognition that the world we live in transcends the textual. The Postmodernists reject an ontology material and historical and social. There are only words, which is the hermetically-sealed flat universe of the social, and when the textual ontology is imported into the social sciences, the lacunae–through which, in proper discursive philosophy, the historical-material world enters–is papered over. Thus postmodernists reject expanded, scientific methodologies, rather than just authoritarian bluster (“Meritcratic” decisionism, eg genealogy, and associated speculative idealism). When they use their idealist hermeneutics against the Earthly and human material world, it is all reactionary conservatism and it has been for a long time.

McGill ref: Huang, JY & NB King. 2018. “Epigenetics changes nothing.” Public Health Ethics 11  (1): 69-81.

Note that the Swedish Universities by contrast are immersed in studies linking epigenetic difference and health effects. Canadian idealism v. Scandinavian historical-materialism. University of Washington has an anti-cartesian epigenetics lab.

white storytellin’ & nawlins

Various American researchers have cranked away over the decades trying desparately to show that blacks are naturally inferior to whites, and so, by implication, deserving of the pile of shit continuously heaped upon them. In recent incarnations of this program– that attempt to correlate race or “racial” genes with IQ, the natural-race researchers studiously avoid Stephen Jay Gould’s trenchant critique that no one has any idea what IQ measures. Does it measure natural intelligence? Does it measure inequality? We don’t know.

All we know is: Someone should study how much funding and research time, over the last century, has gone into trying to show that blacks innately deserve bullshit. I’d bet those figures would be impressive. I’m all for researchers getting funding. Getting funding just for retelling the American myth with slightly different operationalizations of race and fitness is, however, moldy and pathetic.

Likewise, the white folks’ “the blacks were irrationally, randomly violent” storytelling industry (official and otherwise) always has been a staple artifact of living in the US.

Yet American blacks have almostly uniquely, steadfastly opposed human degradation–fascism–throughout American history. While congratulating themselves on the size of their cars, adopting the mantle of “honor” for fighting wars on behalf of economic elites and advertising their propensity to prayer, most other American groups cannot claim the big-picture moral clarity that blacks can.

Today a Russian immigrant coworker forwarded an email, supposedly from a letter by a paramedic, “Brian”, to his father. The letter described all sorts of New Orleans Soddom ‘n’ Gomorrah, including the rabid aggressions of the crazed, dark poor, and ended depicting a New Orleans reporter chastizing politician Jesse Jackson for “playing the race card.”

A coworker replied with a report on that email circulation by the urban legend email busters at http://www.snopes.com/katrina/personal/sells.asp. While largely unverifiable, much of the “Brian” email was of course a fake.

Slowly, we begin to see acknowledgements of the traditional white storytelling process in the case of Hurricane Katrina:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,1563470,00.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/29/national/nationalspecial/29crime.htm

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9505323/

http://ladybunny.net/blog/2005/09/black-people-loot-whites-find.html

The interesting question is always: What specific racial/political/economic interests is the apocryphalia serving this time? For starters, see:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/hurricanes2005/story/0,,1585353,00.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1577324,00.html.

Update on genome research and human genetic variation:

Culled from the article by Wade, Nicholas. 2005. “Genetic catalog may aid search for roots of disease.” The New York Times, October 27.

The “hapmap” are the human genetic findings of a research team which observed that 95% of the human genome is passed on to offspring in chunks of genes, rather than in the transfer of individual genes.


Other genomic regions bear strong marks of natural selection but contain no known gene, a highly perplexing outcome that suggests, Dr. Altshuler said, that “our current ability to predict the function of DNA is very flawed.”

The common variation picked up by the hapmap is much the same in different ethnic groups, because most of it is inherited from the ancestral human population before modern humans are believed to have dispersed from Africa about 50,000 years ago. The four ethnic groups studied so far have yielded four million sites of common variation, from which the total number in the world’s population is expected to be 10 million.

The hapmap researchers have found that the Chinese and Japanese genomes are so similar that they can be grouped together for many purposes. The genetic differences between Europeans, East Asians and Africans lie mostly in the relative abundance in each of the common DNA mutations. But the hapmap team has found a handful of fixed differences in the first million mutations it studied – 11 between Europeans and the Yoruba, 21 between Europeans and Asians and 5 between the Yoruba and Asians. The role of these mutations is unknown.

The few fixed differences tend to emerge on the X chromosome, which is more highly differentiated between ethnic groups than are the other chromosomes. The reason, Dr. Altshuler said, could arise from the fact that men carry only one X chromosome and so, unlike women, have no backup copy if a gene on their single X is inactivated through mutation. That puts the X chromosome under heavier pressure of natural selection, and the different environmental pressures experienced by various ethnic groups may have forced the X chromosome to differentiate more than the other chromosomes.

The hapmap team believe they have created a powerful new tool for exploring the human genome but they advise researchers to be careful about publicizing their work, especially when exploring genetic links to human characteristics that are not medical. “We urge conservatism and restraint in the public dissemination and interpretation of such studies, especially if nonmedical phenotypes are explored,” they wrote.