Ethox and WEH Seminar: Deploying Epigenetics to Identify Genetically Influenced Social Inequalities

The epigenome is the set of potentially heritable changes in gene expressions that occur in the absence of changes to the DNA sequence itself. The transfer from parent to offspring may be accompanied by some of the negative consequences of a particular environment (of the mother, of both parents, even of grandparents) for the fetus and postnatal life. I advance four arguments: (1) Epigenetics can be politically salient with respect to identifying negative determinants of human health with epigenetic sources. Such salience remains hypothetical today given the absence of clear, causal evidence of a well-understood epigenetic mechanism. (2) The epigenetic porosity between environment and body raises political issues where toxic environments are human constructions, such as those characterized for example by poverty, malnutrition, pollution, or inadequate health care. Further, If scientists cannot establish some kind of “natural” epigenetic normality that holds for all humans, then are epigenetic variants natural phenomena that can be evaluated in any objective sense? (3) Moral responsibility for health-endangering environments (in utero or in early life) does not follow simply from determining the causal connection between epigenetic mechanism and environmental exposure. For example, the lifestyles and health habits of vulnerable individuals may reflect a range of unhealthy behaviors. While this observation raises questions about a lack of personal responsibility, it might also be invoked to reject the remediation of toxic environments. (4) Still, epigenetic research may offer political promise if it can ever expose some “natural” inequalities as, in fact, epigenetically influenced.