Epigenetics and Darwin's Update
February 11, 2010
"The potential is staggering," gushes Time Magazine (Jan 6, 2010) over the benefits epigenetics might bring humanity. "For decades, we have stumbled around massive Darwinian roadblocks. DNA, we thought, was an ironclad code that we and our children and their children had to live by. Now we can imagine a world in which we can tinker with DNA, bend it to our will."
Yes, they can imagine it, but as ought to be apparent to anyone grounded in reality, it won't work that way. Epigenetics will not be our salvation. However, it just might give insight into today's worsening conditions.
Who has not entertained the suspicion that today's folk just aren't made of the same stuff as previous generations...that those old-timers were just plain tougher than we are? Tom Oxgoad, the Bethelite, made that point with me once. "Those old-timers must marvel at how frail we are," he said. "In the old days...say...back in the 1950's or before, one Bethelite might counsel another: 'you've got a rotten attitude and you'd better straighten up!' And that fellow would straighten up, and he'd say 'thanks for the counsel!'" Or maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he'd decide "this is not the life for me," and leave. But either way, he wouldn't melt into a puddle of mush, his fragile self-esteem dissolving, as we can so easily picture happening today. Does the newly explored field of epigenetics offer an explanation?
The upshot of epigenetics is that heredity works not just through Darwin's mutation and natural selection...a painstakingly slow process. We also pass along traits acquired via environment factors; furthermore, these changes can be dramatic and quick, manifesting themselves in but a generation or two. Thus, Time says, a "long-standing deal" we've had with biology is now off the table, namely: "whatever choices we make during our lives might ruin our short-term memory or make us fat or hasten death, but they won't change our genes - our actual DNA. Which meant that when we had kids of our own, the genetic slate would be wiped clean."
No longer applies. Choices we make do change our genes, and our kids do not start with a slate wiped clean. The very idea is heresy to Darwin True Believers, but scientists are now quite sure of it. To put it more accurately, our genes do not physically change from generation to generation, but whether they are expressed or not changes. The epigenome sits just outside the genome and switches the various genes "on" or "off." It does so by smothering – masking gene portions meant to be “off” and leaving visible gene portions meant to be “on.” The illustration now in vogue is that of hardware (the genome) being manipulated by software (the epigenome). Hardware alteration via the Darwin heredity, as we all learned about in school, comes about slowly. But the new-found software changes happen quickly.
Furthermore, life-style and environment factors…..such as stress, such as smoking, such as gluttony, alters the epigenome, which in turn alters the genome, which in turn inflicts adverse results upon one’s children and grandchildren. Dr Lars Bygren studied a rural population of two centuries past, a physically isolated population that literally vacillated between feast and famine, depending upon the harvest. When the harvest was bountiful, youngsters gorged themselves. Their grandchildren, Bygren discovered, had life expectancies reduced by as much as three decades!
In another study, published in 2006, Drs Bygren, Marcus Pembrey, and Jean Golding found the sons of those who began smoking before age 11 were at higher risk for obesity and various other health problems. Time Magazine summed it up: “you can change your epigenetics even when you make a dumb decision at 10 years old. If you start smoking then, you may have made not only a medical mistake but a catastrophic genetic mistake.” And to think I’ve been lectured before by atheists...capitalizing these very words....that, whereas I do what some god TELLS me to do based on a BELIEF, they act upon REASON based upon EVIDENCE. But in this case, as in so many others, you were far better off to quit smoking because God TOLD* you to, trusting he might be AWARE of EVIDENCE as yet UNDISCOVERED by humans.
*as inferred from 2 Cor 7:1
All this goes to show, BTW, that you need not lose your cookies when evolutionists rule creation absolutely out of the question. Nor should you feel you must wait for them to come on board. Opinions change fast. In 1996, Dr Pembrey, mentioned above, had a hard time getting published. Major scientific journals rejected his paper. Ten years later, it is “considered seminal in epigenetic theory.” Is that not a tidal change in scientific thought? For decades evolutionists carried on as if they knew all there was to be known - the essence of their subject was well-understood, and little remained but to mop up a few relatively insignificant details. With the discovery of epigenetics' role, if history is any guide, they will act as if now they know all there was to be known, save for a few odds and ends. Heaven help you if you choose a course of faith before it has been authorized by them. Yet the mapping of the human epigenome (already underway in Europe) will, when complete, "make the Human Genome project look like homework that 15th century kids did with an abacus," says Time. How immodest to have made grandiose, dogmatic claims, based upon a supposed thorough understanding of the genome, which now turns out to be but the tip of a submerged iceberg.
Look, don't think I'm anti-science. I'm not. Whenever scientists say they have discovered this or that I tend to accept it, but I do so tentatively, always with the caveat that these guys are frequently full of themselves, bursting with pride at human accomplishment, and intolerant of any layman who would question their theories, until they themselves revise them. Or - I suspect, its not so much those front line empirical scientists who are the problem, but a second buttressing layer of scientist-philosopher-cheerleader-atheist types, who ram science down all of our throats as the be-all and end-all. Me, I tend to side with that famous scientist and ex-Beatle John Lennon, who said "everything they told me as a kid has already been disproved by the same type of 'experts' who made them up in the first place." [quoted in interview with Playboy, so plainly I got this second-hand] As if to confirm Lennon's cynicism, Time writes of an upcoming epigenetics book by David Shenk: The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is Wrong.
You know, the epigenome comes a lot closer to explaining Rom 5:12 than does any Darwinian explanation, since Adam’s sin is obviously an acquired characteristic:
"That is why, just as through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned..."
Furthermore, back to the present, Time reports Dr. Pembrey speculating: what if the environmental pressures and social changes of the industrial age had become so powerful that evolution had begun to demand that our genes respond faster? What if our DNA now had to react not over many generations and millions of years but, as Pembrey wrote, within “a few, or moderate number, of generations”?
Extrapolating from his statement, could it be that epigenetics in our stressful times sheds light on the outworking of 2 Tim 3:1-5?
"But know this, that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, disloyal, having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, betrayers, headstrong, puffed up [with pride], lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God, having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power; and from these turn away."
We all know in our heart of hearts that these ugly traits are on display today as never before. Yes, I know, I know....such is human nature and people have always been that way. But it’s a matter of degree; the unrestrained expression of these traits is what's new. After all, Paul's contemporaries might easily have labeled his ‘prophesy’ a yawner: "People will be ugly, Paul? So what's new?” But they didn't say that. They knew what he meant.
In seeking to understand these ugly, seemingly accelerated traits, Alan Greenspan's book The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, offers insight with regard to the barbarous slaughter that began in 1914. He writes: "World War I was more devastating to civility and civilization than the physically far more destructive World War II: the earlier conflict destroyed an idea. I cannot erase the thought of those pre-World War I years, when the future of mankind appeared unencumbered and without limit. Today our outlook is starkly different from a century ago but perhaps a bit more consonant with reality. Will terror, global warming, or resurgent populism do to the current era of life-advancing globalization what World War I did to the previous one?"
Could the barbarism unleashed in 1914, augmented by ever-increasing stressors of modern life, be triggering harmful genetic changes, as Dr Pembrey suggests can occur? The more one ponders the astounding woes that afflict persons today, the more plausible the idea sounds.
******* The bookstore
Today's "Latest Scientific Understanding!" frequently becomes tomorrow's discredited theory. How many times have we seen that we can't really trust cutting-edge research and discoveries? But people latch onto these things like they're the latest gadgets from Apple! I think the real explanation for the faith people put in science is that it tells them what they want to hear: "There is no God to whom you are accountable. Do what you will--no one's watching!"
But consider the record of science and the record of the Bible and pick your faith: the shifting views of science or the time-tested and unchanging views of our Creator. Which has "proved to be" solid and reliable?
Posted by: ChrisL | February 11, 2010 at 08:00 AM
I also wonder if evolutionists' tendency to alway think they have it figured it out is not an intuitive response to the supposed accidental nature of mutations refined by natural selection. After all, just how complicated can something that came about by accident BE?
With God, we plainly know that we'll never match his mind, but with some accidental process - surely we can hope to get on top of that.
Posted by: tom sheepandgoats | February 11, 2010 at 04:23 PM
Hi Tom. I really got a laugh from this story today in the UK Times. I agree with the post that says..
"Apparently the DNA of 4,000 year old revealed higher intelligence levels than most MP's of today,combined."
Posted by: laceysquarepants | February 11, 2010 at 04:33 PM
I suppose I'll through my two cents into the ring here. In my opinion, the Time article overstated its position by a fair bit, and I feel the need to correct a few statements in your post.
You go back and forth a bit about whether our choices do change our genes through epigenetics. You clear it up a bit in one sentence, but go back to this statement a little later. This is, by definition, false, and is also one my primary problems with the article itself. Any actual changes to the genes is not epigenetics. Epigenetics are, if we're looking for a fair definition, those factors that affect the expression of the genome without changing the genome itself, or to put it another way, histone and DNA modifications that alter chromatin structure and thus gene expression.
Second, this is not heresy to "Darwin True Believers" and has been known about, and accepted, for some time (the Time article has one sentence about this buried in the middle of the argument, but, of course, has to trump up the 'new-fresh-exciting' feel). Evo Devo is a field that, while not entirely dedicated to studying epigenetics, uses that information intensively. As do all those viral and medical researchers who use evolutionary principles every day in the lab to create more effective anti-viral medications or study how something like HIV works. In fact, ERVs are quite important in the whole epigenetic research - epigenetic silencing keeps a large portion of those ERVs from becoming active and killing you within your own genome (KRABs bind to ERV DNA and recruit epigenetic machinery to silence the ERV [ http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7278/full/nature08674.html ] if you're interested). So, epigenetics has been around and has been known about for a while. It is a relatively young field, yes, and there is still a lot of research to be done, but I don't think it's quite the whippersnapper that the Time article makes it out to be.
A problem with it being a young field, though, is that there is still a lot of confusion over what exactly the limits of "epigenetics" is going to be. For most researchers, they limit themselves to changes in the chromatin structure that affect gene expression, or siRNA. But there are others, like Eva Jablonka (mentioned pretty heavily in the Time article, which seems to be leaning toward her view) that want to say epigenetics covers absolutely any sort of non-genetic transfer. Thus, bird songs, breastfeeding, culture, religion, music, etc are all epigenetics. In a sense, this is correct (i.e., these are all things outside the genome). In another sense, this doesn't seem to be particularly useful.
To paraphrase someone else, there seems to be two basic kinds of people in science. There are those who are convinced they are leading a revolution or changing paradigms. These people tend to be a little loony and go beyond the bounds of science. Andrew Wakefield comes to mind, and Jablonka seems to fit into this category as well. Then there are other people who just do the research thing, stumble on something sort of interesting, and argue their position, with scientific evidence, to move the scientific community. Some of these people end up winning Nobel Prizes and actually leading revolutions without knowing it. Note how often there is talk about "paradigm changes" and what-not through that article. It's enough to make anyone who wants to do serious science a little wary.
Posted by: Ragoth | February 19, 2010 at 01:24 PM
Third, "Darwinian" evolution can enact changes rather quickly, especially with either a) a small founder population or b) a chaotic and stressful environment. Are epigenetic changes faster? In general, yes, but natural selection doesn't require millions of years to make some subtle changes. That can happen within a generation or two, on the same time frame as "epigenetic inheritance." I'm a little wary of that phrase in itself, but there is some evidence to show that at least some of the epigenetic machinery is wiped clean during gestation, and a lot of ERVs can get woken up during this period.
One point I will agree with. There are scientists and people who actually get science, and then there are science fans. There is, unfortunately, a rather large divide between these people. Scientists go into science because they know that there is more to discover, especially these days, and we are far from any point where we have little to do but "mop up a few points" - the hubris of a few 19th century astronomers non-withstanding. And in science there is the understanding that all things must be and are questionable - Einstein has been proven right on a great deal of things, but that doesn't mean he won't be overturned later, and there are plenty of people actively trying to do that because that's what science does - you put out an idea into the battlefield and it gets absolutely trashed. If it can stand up to this trashing and still give good evidence, then it's accepted until it's destroyed. Otherwise, it's discarded, laughed at, and you go back to the drawing board. It's vicious, it's often fast-paced, and some people get their feelings hurt...but that's the way it is - you don't use science to show that you're right, you use it to become right, or at the very least as right as you can possibly be at the time. This is no guarantee that you have the truth, but it does allow you to get as close as you are able to that truth and show why it is correct and how you know it. That doesn't mean that it won't be overturned the next day, or the next year, or the next century...but that's the beauty of science for those that practice it - we will admit our mistakes and carry on, trying our hardest to arrive at some vista from which to glimpse the truth and, for most of us, try to help people along the way. Scientists are hated and reviled, receive death threats and watch while people misunderstand, misinterpret, skew, and decry their work, or try to get it kicked out of schools, and yet most of them are happy to accept new medications, new technology, and all the benefits that come from science. It's...frustrating. As someone whose primary interest is in cognitive psychology, and in understanding memory and problem-solving, I'll admit I've been incredibly frustrated in arguing with people who want to say that science cannot say much about the human mind, or is defiling the human spirit, but then are frustrated that we do not have a cure for Alzheimers yet, or are interested in taking psycho-active medications for their mood.
Epigenetics is an interesting field, but I don't think it has quite the paradigmatic impact that certain people within the field, and the Time article, wants to give it. Certainly, epigenetic factors are incredibly important in the expression of the genome and differentiate between cell types and the like, but as the article itself mentions, this has been known for a while.
Finally, I strongly disagree with your comment suggesting that evolutionists think that we have it all figured out - we don't. What we can say is that all the evidence we have ever gotten points to evolution, and we have broad brush strokes of the evolutionary history of creatures on this planet. Even Christian taxonimists, before the religious backswing against evolutionary theory, recognized and placed humans among the primates. Do we have everything figured out? Far from it. Do we have some, important, things figured out, yes, I would argue that we do. As to just how complicated can something accidental be...well, actually, much more complicated than anything intentional. From a purely informational standpoint, something completely random and haphazard contains more information than anything purposefully done. This seems counterintuitive, I'll admit, but it largely depends on your definition of "information". In the colloquial sense, the above statement is wrong - of course a written message has more information than a random string of letters and numbers. In the mathematical sense, however, it's quite the reverse. It takes more information to specify the random string than the intentional string. There is a famous statement by an astrophysicist, to paraphrase: "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." Admittedly, Eddington was a spiritual man, but he was more a mystic than anything.
Anyway, that's my two cents. Take it for what you will - I am definitely not a biologist, nor do I do genetic research, so this is definitely the opinion of a layperson, but I would say it has at least some minimal informed-ness (no, I wouldn't even take pride in making that one up).
It's always an interesting read,
Posted by: Ragoth | February 19, 2010 at 01:25 PM
As always, Ragoth, I deeply appreciate your observations and the time you put into phrasing them.
I'll readily accept that Time bungles current science, along with most everything else, in an attempt to make it 'sexy' for the general public. Too, I'll accept that you're far more 'in the trenches' with science than I. And, that I might easily make comments confusing the real scientists with the populist/cheerleading types.
I very much appreciate your description of 'real' scientists. I confess, I rather like them as you have described. For me, the most intriguing aspect of epigenetics is the role it may play in a percieved deterioration of human morals and stamina in recent decades.
I've half a mind to offer you the position of Chief Science Officer at the Whitepebble Religious Institute. Since the resignation of Tom Tombaugh, we've been functioning without one:
And...in all seriousness, this time....here's a video clip I came across at New Scientist explaining how epigenetic changes account for accumulating differences in identical twins:
Posted by: tom sheepandgoats | February 20, 2010 at 10:17 AM
Well, likewise I appreciate your posts and comments. As far as the confusion over scientists and cheerleading types, and the whole issue with science journalism, it's a long-standing and troublesome issue. Most scientists grumble behind the scenes about it, and a lot of them are making blogs to directly write up their reports and views in lieu of going to media outlets...or things like this happen: http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1623#comic
Anyway, I do find epigenetics interesting and try to follow some of it when I can, from a layperson's perspective, of course. As far explaining the "deterioration of human morals and stamina" - that may be an interesting research question, but notoriously hard to define, or tease out from other factors. Likewise, the relative dearth of really...really...really old people, say, several centuries old, would make this very difficult to prove or test. Likewise, coming up with an exact definition of the spectrum of morality and how it changes...that would be difficult as well. There are a few ones that are likely definite - homicide rates could be a potential factor. Of course, in most of the studies I have seen, homicide rates track very well against population density. In principle, some sort of study like that may be possible, but the number of confounding variables and the low sample size would make it very, very difficult.
Hah, I'd almost accept such an offer if I hadn't accepted a three year contract here.
The video clip was good, I like it quite a bit, especially the bit where they explain that the epigenetic slate is mostly wiped clean at gestation, but some is left behind.
Anyway, good hearing from you.
Posted by: Ragoth | February 24, 2010 at 06:00 PM