Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Lewontin and Epigenetics

Jonathan Lee
Prof. Adam Johns
Seminar in Composition
October 14, 2014

Prompt: Go read some articles in popular but respectable sources that touch upon genetics (example: the science section of the New York Times). Either use Lewontin to make an article about the essay, or use the essay to make an argument about Lewontin. You especially need to show a good understanding of the relevant parts of Lewontin. Do not stop by using, for instance, Lewontin to show what is right or wrong or problematic in a particular article: show us why that matters. How does our understanding change by reading one through the other?

            British newspaper The Guardian, in an article entitled “Epigenetics: genes, environment and the generation game,” asserts that “environmental factors affect not just an individual’s genes, but those of their offspring too.”  The idea is that epigenetic markers are left on our DNA, which determines which portion of our DNA is used for RNA transcription and translation, and that these markers can be passed on to future generations.  This assertion, in one way, contests the much reviled “biological determinism” as described by Lewontin, but is still guilty of the assumption that ours is a “clockwork universe” as conceived by Descartes, wherein we dissect the world and isolate its components in order to ascertain an understanding.  In spite of its shortcomings, epigenetics represent an improvement to widely held beliefs regarding genetics, as epigenetics undermine genetics’ ability to legitimize the inequality of society.
            Lewontin describes the extent to which modern science accredits every aspect of our existence to our genes.  The tenants of biological determinism contend that “we are ‘lumbering robots’ whose genes ‘created us body and mind” (Lewontin 13).  He argues that this doctrine is instrumental in legitimating our social hierarchy as being inevitable.  This is due to the fact that, given our genetic blueprint, our innate characteristics are predetermined, and so are our particular tendencies to arrange ourselves within society.
            The notion that our genetic blueprint itself is influenced by the effects of the environment over generations is quite divergent from the type of biological determinism which Lewontin is aiming to debunk.  Epigenetics ascribe a lot of responsibility to environmental factors, certainly a great deal more than traditional genetics.  Using epigenetics, phenomena such as obesity can be ascribed to the tobacco use of one’s grandmother.  It has been “found that men who had started smoking before they were 11 had sons who were more likely to be obese by the time they were teenagers. Meanwhile, the grandsons of grandmothers who smoked, even if their mothers didn't, were bigger” (The Guardian).  These findings contradict the idea of “fixed genetic effects,” allowing for an understanding of an individual’s characteristics that is more independent from his or her genetic code.
            Epigenetics do, however, still adhere to the notion of naked and “’unaided’ ability” in the sense that our characteristics are still predetermined at birth.  Proponents of epigenetics confine themselves to a closed understanding of human existence.  This is because they view our various characteristics and tendencies as being the result of both our genetic make-up and the environmental conditions to which our ancestors were subjected.  The idea continues to ignore the fact that many of our features are determined by random variation.  Lewontin notes an example this variation’s effects regarding what exactly determines the number of bristles a fruitfly has under each of its wings.  “The differences between left and right side are caused neither by genetic nor by environmental differences but by random variation in growth and division of cells during development: developmental noise” (Lewontin 27).

            Weaknesses aside, the strength of epigenetics is that they have the potential to erode traditional genetics’ ability to justify “differentiation between racial groups in characteristics such as behavior, temperament, and intelligence” (Lewontin 36).  This justification via genetics clearly goes beyond the differentiation between racial groups; it is applied to the entirety of society.  The intent of this justification is to dispel any wariness towards societal inequities by, as Lewontin puts it, “putting a biological gloss” over injustice, thereby making it seem inevitable.  It is for this reason that Lewontin would probably condone the implications of epigenetics.


  1. Let it be known, that I still have no clue whether I'm supposed to revise the prompt spatially, or chronologically "above" mine. Ah well.

    >Topic: ON

    Anyway, pretty nice essay. Some suggestions: First off, considering your audience, you may want to expand the summary/explanation of the article you chose somewhat. At least, do it in a single paragraph, so the reader has a general idea as they go through your prompt. Right now, I have no clue whether or not to agree or disagree, because I have no clue about the context in which the article was written. Either that, or cite your article (but the former would probably be better).

    Your arguments seem pretty solid. Not much to comment there, but it would benefit from having a general summation of the article in question. For context, and so on.

    Lastly, some of the wording seems needlessly verbose, and whatever they said could easily have been said with a much more concise term or phrase. The wording just ends up feeling bloated. Like, many of the words just don't feel *right* the way they're being used. For example:

    "The notion that our genetic blueprint itself is influenced by the effects of the environment over generations is quite divergent from the type of biological determinism which Lewontin is aiming to debunk"

    The word "divergent" implies a common origin, like a path that splits. While you can argue that they do share a common origin, that origin isn't really important in the first place..

    "Epigenetics do, however, still adhere to the notion of naked and “’unaided’ ability” in the sense that our characteristics are still predetermined at birth."

    Adhere is a strange word to use, seeing as how it deals more with someone's beliefs. Epigenetics is a method, something people use, and those people are the ones adhering to certain beliefs.

    Why would something be determined in advance, at a specific time? Go with either "determined at birth" or remove the "at birth" part entirely.

    And so on. Words tend to have subtle implications, and aren't as interchangeable as they seem. Before choosing a word, consider the context in which those words are generally used, and what they may end up implying used the way they are.

  2. Sam's feedback, especially his first paragraph, seems quite valuable. Your argument is clear, and makes good sense, although it's also a little unambitious. Certainly in a revision that would need to change. I'd like additional clarity about whether your primary concern here is to understand how Lewontin reinforces the value of epigenetics, or vice versa - you don't take as much of a position here as you might.

    I agree with Sam that a brief summary of your article would have been very useful, helping orient the reader and even helping to generate a potentially clearer argument. Perhaps your real interest here, following Lewontin, is in arguing that epigenetic replaces excessive attention to genes with excessive attention to environment - your discussion of developmental noise is a good start, but in a more polished essay might have actually been at the start.

    As an aside (which does relate to Lewontin), I wonder if epigeneticists get accused of working in the tradition of Lysenko?


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