Epigenetics Has Become Dangerously Fashionable

Brian Boutwell & J.C. Barnes in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_1960 May. 22 20.20For the past few years, social scientists have been buzzing over a particular topic in molecular biology—gene regulation. The hype has been building steam for some time, but recently, it rocketed to the forefront of public discussion due to a widely circulated piece in the New Yorker. Articles on the topic are almost always fascinating: They often give the impression that this particular area of biology stands poised to solve huge mysteries of human development. While that conclusion may be appropriate in fields like medicine and other related disciplines, a number of enthusiasts have openly speculated about its ability to also explain lingering social ills like poverty, crime, and obesity. The trouble is, this last bit isn’t really a feeling shared by many of the genetics experts.

Social scientists’ excitement surrounds what we can refer to broadly as transgenerational epigenetics. To understand why social scientists have become enamored with it, we must first consider basic genetics. Many metaphors exist for describing and understanding the genome; they all capture the reality that genes provide the information for building and running biological machinery like the human body.

From the moment sperm manages to infiltrate an egg cell, genes (segments of our DNA that ultimately produce proteins) are at work knitting together the necessary components to make life possible. This requires exquisite coordination. Even though every cell in your body (minus red blood cells) carries your complete genetic code, not every gene is “turned on” all at once all over the body.

More here.