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What Is ‘Epigenetics’ and Why Does It Matter?

What Is ‘Epigenetics’ and Why Does It Matter?: (photo by Thierry Ehrmann)

(photo by Thierry Ehrmann)

Have you heard of the relatively new field of study called epigenetics? It examines how our environment interacts with our DNA. At the moment, researchers are investigating how what we eat, breathe, drink, sit on, bathe in, and sleep between, affects our health, changes the activity of our genes, and influences the genetic makeup of future generations. For instance, what if the fact your grandfather was born during a famine determined your metabolism? How starving grandfathers affect the health of their grandchildren’s DNA is exactly the sort of invisible connection that epigenetics reveals. In an article for Aeon Magazine, professors Julie Guthman and Becky Mansfield, elaborate on how our “environment not only influences the human body, it comes into it, shaping what it is – and who you are.”

As Guthman and Mansfield explain, “The field has yielded thousands of studies that show how certain nutrients, environmental toxins and psycho-social stressors can affect genetic expression without changing the underlying DNA sequence.”

If your genes are constantly being affected by your environment, what does that mean for any sense of personal responsibility? If you can’t control your environment, how can you possibly control your health?

Because epigenetic processes demonstrate that the body’s boundaries are porous and permeable, they raise fundamental questions about an individual’s ability to control his or her own body. This flies in the face of the overwhelming emphasis on individual responsibility […] epigenetics offers social, political and economic explanations for disease and disorders that heretofore have been attributed to bad choices or bad genes. Instead, such problems might be the biological imprint of unjust histories that cannot be rectified with better choices.

Beneath the questions of health and safety, there also lurks a dangerous morality. We run the risk of using our newly gained understanding to reinforce old and harmful stereotypes, as well as perpetuate restrictive world views.

At its worst, epigenetics offers us a biomedical future in which the perfect human is engineered: thin, smart, outgoing, heterosexual, gender-conforming, lacking physical disabilities, able to sit still and work hard, and (given widespread preference for light skin) white.

At present, we tend to use epigenetics research like Big Ag uses science, only, instead of growing the perfect pig, hopeful parents are trying to avoid toxins to make perfect babies. But is this the best application of epigenetics? Guthman and Mansfield caution that the growing body of research indicates a far more important lesson: humans exist on spectrums; it’s best to forgo restrictive and misleading ideas like “normal,” especially, when our bodies are constantly in flux with the environment.

Here’s the full article.


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