Epigenetics, Neo-Lysenkoisianism, and the New Cultural Wars

“[A]n ideology that tacitly appeals to biological equality as a condition for human emancipation corrupts the idea of freedom Moreover, it encourages decent men to tremble at the prospect of ‘inconvenient’ findings that may emerge in future scientific research ” — Bressler, 1968

Neo-Lysenkoisianism is a derogatory often tossed out at biological egalitarians, given their denial of a genetic basis for inter- and intra-individual diversity. Lysenkos, of course, was a Lamarckian and as such did not deny a genetic basis for differences, but rather the Darwinian-Mendelian model of genetic differentiation.

Now, Lamarck’s view has been partially vindicated. Some genetics change is epigenetic. While this isn’t exactly new stuff and hereditarians have long noted this, of late, the (ideological) Neo-Lysenkoisians have been rather excited about the possibilities of (scientific) Neo-Lysenkoisianism — and there is no secret as to why this is. As Edith Heard recently commented:

It is amazing to see how epigenetics has been propelled into the headlines over the past decade. On the one hand, it has been hailed as an explanation for inter- and intra-individual diversity, and on the other, as a purveyor of hidden information — beyond genes — that can be influenced by intrinsic and extrinsic fluctuations. The ‘hype’ surrounding epigenetics may partly be due to the fact that, since the human genome was sequenced 10 years ago, we have been confronted with the reality, and perhaps inevitability, of our genetic constitution. Epigenetics may provide hope that we are more than just the sequence of our genes — and that our destiny and that of our children can be shaped, to some extent, by our lifestyle and environment. The recent groundbreaking discoveries on induced pluripotency have also brought the reversible nature of epigenetic states to the forefront. Such reversibility brings much hope for treating diseases such as cancer, which have not just a genetic but also an epigenetic basis, for which ‘epidrugs’ can be used to reverse aberrant epigenetic changes (epimutations).” (Heard et al. 2010. Ten years of genetics and genomics: what have we achieved and where are we heading?)

A large part of the hype is due to the perceived political-ideological ramifications of the genomic age. To Quote Johnathan Haidt:

“A wall has long protected respectable evolutionary inquiry from accusations of aiding and abetting racism. That wall is the belief that genetic change happens at such a glacial pace that there simply was not time, in the 50,000 years since humans spread out from Africa, for selection pressures to have altered the genome in anything but the most trivial way (e.g., changes in skin color and nose shape were adaptive responses to cold climates). Evolutionary psychology has therefore focused on the Pleistocene era – the period from about 1.8 million years ago to the dawn of agriculture — during which our common humanity was forged for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle…

…The protective “wall” is about to come crashing down, and all sorts of uncomfortable claims are going to pour in. Skin color has no moral significance, but traits that led to Darwinian success in one of the many new niches and occupations of Holocene life — traits such as collectivism, clannishness, aggressiveness, docility, or the ability to delay gratification — are often seen as virtues or vices. Virtues are acquired slowly, by practice within a cultural context, but the discovery that there might be ethnically-linked genetic variations in the ease with which people can acquire specific virtues is — and this is my prediction — going to be a “game changing” scientific event. (By “ethnic” I mean any group of people who believe they share common descent, actually do share common descent, and that descent involved at least 500 years of a sustained selection pressure, such as sheep herding, rice farming, exposure to malaria, or a caste-based social order, which favored some heritable behavioral predispositions and not others.)

I believe that the “Bell Curve” wars of the 1990s, over race differences in intelligence, will seem genteel and short-lived compared to the coming arguments over ethnic differences in moralized traits. I predict that this “war” will break out between 2012 and 2017.

There are reasons to hope that we’ll ultimately reach a consensus that does not aid and abet racism. I expect that dozens or hundreds of ethnic differences will be found, so that any group — like any person — can be said to have many strengths and a few weaknesses, all of which are context-dependent. Furthermore, these cross-group differences are likely to be small when compared to the enormous variation within ethnic groups and the enormous and obvious effects of cultural learning. But whatever consensus we ultimately reach, the ways in which we now think about genes, groups, evolution and ethnicity will be radically changed by the unstoppable progress of the human genome project. ”

In some ways, much as Eppig, Fincher, and Thornhil’s “Parasite prevalence and the worldwide distribution of cognitive ability (2010)” allowed Newsweek to open up discussion on national differences in intelligence, a previously taboo subject, epigenetics will allow many biological egalitarians to open their mind to the real possibility of significant intra and inter human genetic difference. Which is good, whatever the explanatory power of parasites and epigenetics turns out to be.

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2 Responses to Epigenetics, Neo-Lysenkoisianism, and the New Cultural Wars

  1. Pingback: social descunstruction « Occidental Ascent

  2. Pingback: Empirical Fickleness, Philosophical Superficiality « Occidental Ascent

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