Does epigenetics justify ‘early intervention’?

Sunday 29 October, 10:0011:30, Garden RoomScience and ethics

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For the past century, the Biblical notion that the ‘sins of the fathers’ can be visited upon future generations has been in retreat before the ascendancy of the science of ‘hard heredity’. According to this theory, the material of heredity – codified via the DNA genome – is fixed at conception and cannot be affected by changes in environmental or parental characteristics.

In recent years, however, the disappointing results of the Human Genome Project and the emerging science of epigenetics suggest that traits may be inherited without any alteration in DNA sequence and have led to a revival of ‘soft heredity’. From this perspective, popular since antiquity, environmental factors, including parental behaviour as well as diverse toxins, may have a transformative effect on hereditary material that can be passed on from parents to their offspring.

Over the past decade, research in epigenetics has challenged scientific orthodoxies and has had a major public impact. Advocates claim that it offers a biological explanation for obesity, criminality and sexual orientation, as well as for the enduring generational effects of historical catastrophes – like slavery and famine – and familial trauma. Epigenetics has been embraced by public health activists as a scientific justification for programmes of intensive early intervention in pregnancy and childhood.

This session draws on two new books. In one, Maurizio Meloni focuses on the history of the troubled interface between biology and politics; the other, by Sue White and David Wastell, examines the contemporary application of the science of epigenetics to social policy. Are the claims of epigenetics enthusiasts legitimate? If not, why does such a deterministic outlook continue to have such appeal? Does some scientific thinking lend itself to political appropriation? What is the place of scientific evidence in political decision-making?