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Science Reveals Who We Are is Determined by How We Are

Genetics

According to scientific orthodoxy, all living things were entirely determined by their genetic code. Hence the neo-Darwinian motto: DNA is destiny. But the latest news from researchers is that DNA is not destiny. As an article in Discover Magazine makes clear, the science of epigenetics has some humbling news for predestination scientists of genetics. Neither human beings nor any other animal is reducible to the nucleotide sequence in DNA. Instead, who we are is also determined by how we are.

The name of the science, epigenetics, puts genetics in its place. Genetics is the study of genes, the so-called basic units of heredity encoded in specific sequences of DNA nucleotides. Epigenetics means the study of those things over and above the gene (“epi” is a Greek prefix that means “above” or “over”).

For too long, scientists have assumed that there isn’t anything “above” the gene. That is, anything that appeared to be above the gene—the cell, and more importantly, the larger multi-celled organism and everything it is, does, and ever will do—they declared to be reducible to the gene.

Hence, the wild fervor in, and jubilation about, the Human Genome Project. If we map the entire genome—the entire genetic sequence—then human nature will be an open book. Having cracked the code, we’ll be able to read our form and fate.

Such was the doctrine of necessity, but “it ain’t necessarily so.” According to science writer Ethan Watters, the recent work of epigeneticists “has made it increasingly clear that for all the popular attention devoted to genome-sequencing projects, the epigenome is just as critical as DNA to the healthy development of organisms.”

Proof? Here’s an interesting example. We’ve been led to think that every malady we suffer—say, obesity, or proneness to diabetes or cancer—is caused by our having an unlucky gene. And even worse, we’ll pass this unlucky gene to our offspring, and they will do the same in turn.

Enter a neat little experiment with Agouti Mice, so named because they carry a particular gene, mellifluously called the agouti gene, that not only disposes them to being overweight but also to contract diabetes and cancer. A sure case of DNA is destiny.

Not so. Instead of trying to micromanage the genome, researchers did the motherly thing, and changed the mouse’s diet. Whereas before, most of the offspring of such mice were doomed to display the same traits, now, after a diet change, the majority of the offspring produced were perfectly healthy mice.

DNA is not destiny. The “diet rich in methyl donors,” a type of molecule found in many ordinary foods, such as onions, garlic, and beets, turned off the agouti gene in the offspring. The lesson: there is a big difference between having a gene, and having that gene expressed.

But things are stranger still. Let’s turn from mice to rats. As with human mothers, so also with mother rats: some are very motherly, others are cold and distant. Researchers found that affectionate mother rats actually had a positive effect on their offspring after they were born.

The nurturing activity (licking their young) actually caused the hippocampus in the brain of offspring to develop more fully and to release less of a particular stress hormone, cortisol. The result: calmer, less skittish rats. The rats with cold and distant mothers, by contrast, were nervous and timid, and developed smaller hippocampi.

Why? The mother’s motherly licking released serotonin in her little pups’ brains, which nudges the hippocampus to send a protein message to turn on genes that inhibit stress. A little motherly love, and DNA is no longer destiny.

From mice (and rats) to men? What does it mean?

To begin with, this crack in reductionism cannot help but become bigger and bigger. If mere diet changes and a little motherly love can have such dramatic effects, what else might change our DNA expression from a pre-written script, to a story we help write, both for ourselves and our offspring?

Epigenetics therefore represents a major shift back to common sense. Predestinarian DNA-ism denies the common sense notion that what we choose to do and not to do has a real effect on our lives and the lives of others. But if such small changes makes such large differences in mice and rats, what we human beings choose to do and not to do could make a world of difference. Free will is not only real; to a yet undetermined extent, it can override DNA.

But these latest scientific discoveries also spell the end of the reductionist paradigm of neo-Darwinism. As with Darwinism, neo-Darwinism wanted to keep everything simple. The chant that DNA is destiny was a way to make life, including human life, so simple that it needed no other explanation than that provided by brute materialism.

Neo-Darwinians therefore claimed that they could explain all of human life in all its complexity in terms of genes—bodies, minds, romance, art, literature, passions, pursuits, politics, religion, music. All could be put down to which genes won out in the struggle for survival, and some occasional happy mutations.

Now it seems like the reverse. The greatest effect on our genes might be epigenetic. Beautiful music, deep romance, and great art could yield just as significantly beneficial results as motherly and fatherly affection. Suddenly, epigenetically caused gene expression is as much if not more important than the genes themselves.

This presents a serious difficulty to neo-Darwinism. The charm of neo-Darwinism was that it was simplicity itself. All complexity could be explained by a simple, one-way mechanism. Beneficial genes caused beneficial traits; natural selection picked off the less fit; those with more beneficial traits survived to hand on their genes.

But epigenetics opens up the possibility that there are literally countless things above the level of the gene that could contribute to something’s ability to survive, be it mouse or man. That is not simplicity itself, for the genes only tell half the story. The other half is epigenetic.
 
 
Originally published in To the Source. Used with permission.
(Image credit: Health Hub)

Dr. Benjamin Wiker

Written by

Dr. Benjamin Wiker is, first of all, a husband and a father of seven children. He graduated from Furman University with a B.A. in Political Philosophy. He has an M.A. in Religion and a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics, both from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Wiker taught full time for thirteen years, first at Marquette University, then St. Mary's University (MN), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and finally Franciscan University (OH). During these many years, he offered a wide variety of courses in philosophy, theology, history, the history and philosophy of science, the history of ethics, the Great Books, Latin, and even mathematics. He is now a full-time writer and speaker, with eleven books published including 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn't Help (Regnery, 2008); The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Regnery, 2009); and Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God (Emmaus Road, 2008). Some of Benjamin's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Follow Dr. Wiker at BenjaminWiker.com.

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  • William Davis

    Epigenetics was first discovered in the late 60s, and the nature vs. nurture debate goes back much farther than that. To act as though all scientists agreed that it was all genetics until recently is completely false. To me it has always been clear it is BOTH. In general, biologists have been on the side of genetics (since that is what they study) and psychologists on the side of nurture (since this is what they study). The Church is on the same side as the psychologist here, not surprisingly, though most psychologists now agree it is both. Tabula Rasa is as false as complete genetic predestination (though in the grand scheme of everything, predestination may be a fact we can't be sure yet).

    • William Davis

      To put it in a sentence, this article is knocking down a "straw man".

      • Mike

        Might Dawkins disagree with you?

        • William Davis

          Probably, but he never represented any sort of "orthodox" science. In the debate between religion and science, most of the non-zealous rational scientists get forgotten because of loud mouths like Dawkins. I do not like Dawkins, and he is blinded by his own arrogance and the field he studies, animal behavior (which is almost purely instinctive unlike homo sapiens). Saying Dawkins represents "orthodox" science is like saying Westboro baptist church represents orthodox Christianity (ok maybe it isn't quite that bad, but you get the point ;)

          • Mike

            Yes i get your point; thanks.

        • Doug Shaver

          I'm not going to judge Dawkins' scientific orthodoxy, but I don't think he would agree with what Wiker says about the orthodoxy in his field of expertise any more than I do.

          • Mike

            He was the alpha determinist of old; but i agree if you agree that his time has past and that today most scientists would readily concede that 19th century style determinism is out.

          • Doug Shaver

            He was the alpha determinist of old

            I've read a few of his books, starting with The Blind Watchmaker. I have not found an explicit endorsement of determinism in any of them.

          • Mike

            Then why did he seem to go on and on that "our genes just are and we dance to their music"?

          • Doug Shaver

            I'd have to see the statement in context to know exactly what point he was trying to make. But are you trying to suggest that our genes have whatsoever to do with what we are?

          • Mike

            I think it's from the selfish gene; John Lennox in his debate with dawkins refers to it i think.

          • Doug Shaver

            And what was Dawkins's response?

          • Mike

            I think it was that "we are nothing more" than our genes; there is no point to our existence except to propagate the gene, that's it the rest is some kind of grand illusion.

          • Doug Shaver

            That is not consistent with what I've read in his books.

          • Mike

            But he doesn't actually believe that morality is either objective or real in any transcendent sense does he? it's just an elaborate put on by our genes.

          • Doug Shaver

            But he doesn't actually believe that morality is either objective or real in any transcendent sense does he?

            I don't recall his addressing that particular question.

            But if the question is whether we ought to believe in some or any form of genetic determinism, the opinions of any particular scientist are irrelevant. The evidence either does or does not support the notion. Whether Richard Dawkins thinks it does is quite beside the point.

          • Mike

            But he's an authority on the subject, i know arguments from authority can be wrong but not always as when the authority really is an authority.

            Anyway it doesn't matter: dawkins i believe is right if naturalism is correct ie if we really are just a fluke on a tiny speck of a planet then we are only our genes the rest is some grande illusion a seemingly beautiful and horrific story but nothing more it begins and ends in us in our genes and sensory organs, then we die and are gone for ever, full stop.

          • Doug Shaver

            i know arguments from authority can be wrong but not always

            They are always fallacious. Nothing, but nothing, is true just because an authority says it.

            dawkins i believe is right if naturalism is correct ie if we really are just a fluke on a tiny speck of a planet then we are only our genes

            No. The antecedent does not imply the consequent.

          • Mike

            Ok thx for engaging!

      • Doug Shaver

        A straw man indeed.

        According to scientific orthodoxy, all living things were entirely determined by their genetic code.

        I've been reading orthodox science for over 60 years. I have never seen that affirmed by any scientist.

        But the latest news from researchers is that DNA is not destiny.

        That is not the latest news. It is very old news.

        For too long, scientists have assumed that there isn’t anything “above” the gene.

        I've never heard of any scientists who assume that.

      • Lion_IRC

        Nope.
        Sounds like you are under the influence of the fallacy fallacy.

    • OverlappingMagisteria

      Agreed. The part that really got was when he claimed that "Neo-Darwinists" think that genetics explain "...politics, religion, music..."

      Really? Find me anyone who has claimed tat there is a Christian, Jewish, or Buddhist gene. Does anyone think there is a Democrat/Republican gene as well? Do I have the Beatles gene? Nobody thinks that.

      • Mike

        Sometimes i think lefty progs think there is a "republican/hate" gene ;)! In fact if i remember correctly some researchers were asserting as much recently.

      • David Nickol

        Does anyone think there is a Democrat/Republican gene as well? Do I have the Beatles gene? Nobody thinks that.

        I agree it is nonsense to imagine there is a Republican gene. People clearly don't become Republicans because they have a specific gene or set of genes, but rather because they are missing certain genes that other, normal people have. :P

        • Pinker talks about this in The Blank Slate, I don't think he said there was anything conclusive.

          We also should note that alleles are determined by multiple genes nota single gene.

    • Lion_IRC

      The Op isn't saying all scientists agree all the time on everything - sheesh!
      You don't think determinism/repeatability is central to the scientific method?
      ...orthodox science that is.

      • William Davis

        Either you didn't read the article and my post or you didn't understand them. The fact that DNA alone does not determine behavior does not mean behavior is not deterministic. No scientist (much less orthodox science, if there is such athing) have EVER said DNA alone determines behavior in my experience, though many have misunderstood. I don't really know what to say because you aren't even wrong.
        What kind of grades did you make in science class and how many have you taken? (Hopefully you were joking about the fallacy fallacy, though I fail to see the humor) For the record I made straight As in everything, including advanced physics. I did a B in a class on fourier series and it's application to signal analysis, but I blame the fact my teacher was Indian and very hard to understand (we all rationalize away our failures :P)

      • Doug Shaver

        You don't think determinism/repeatability is central to the scientific method?

        Repeatibality is central. Determinism is not. The scientific method could falsify determinism. So far, it has not, but it could. If determinism were falsified, then some science would become difficult to do, but science would go on.

        • Lion_IRC

          I would argue that without determinism, testable repeatability disappears.

          • Doug Shaver

            I would argue that without determinism, testable repeatability (as a scientific method) disappears.

            That depends. The alternative to pure determinism is not pure randomness. Cause and effect could be probabilistic. Up to some point, that would complicate repeatability, but it would not eliminate it.

            Got a real-world example of empirical evidence that would falsify determinism?

            If such evidence existed in the real world, then falsification would already obtain. The whole idea of falsification for some proposition P is to stipulate, "If such-and-such were to happen, then we would have reason to doubt P." P is then not falsified until such-and-such actually is observed.

  • Loreen Lee

    Just one little comment on the nurture argument. The effect of the parent was considered for some time, but dropped because of the causative effect it had in producing guilt (particularly in the mother, in cases of schizophrenia particularly) which was not good for family relationships generally. Just read another article this morning in which the history of psychiatry included removing intestine, and later as you know, portions of the brain, in order to get rid of 'toxic' agents. Another attempt to find 'the' specific answer.
    So as with Tracy's argument in the last post, yes, thankfully science will continue to look for answers. But I remain committed to the 'idea' that the distinction between brain and mind is not a what? misnomer? In this respect, I also read this morning a long piece on the Buddhist Tathagata, the description of which reminded me of the definition of God in the Old Testament. To reach a Buddhist mind, as I understood it was to overcome all 'particulars', even that of 'self'. A most interesting read. Perhaps the Buddhist conception is not that far from a possible description of a transcendental God. Just wondering again. Keep up the good dialogue everyone!!!!!!!

    • William Davis

      One thing Christianity gets right, and agrees with Buddhism on, is the power of belief. Parents matter if you believe they do, if you don't think they matter, than they really don't. One thing we have to have is a view of ourselves, and that view can have a dramatic impact on our psychological and emotional well-being. We can view much art, religion, philosophy and even many of the sciences as giving us tools to imagine ourselves. There some hard rules of human behavior (such as everyone is born with an instinct to acquire language, prefer faces to random objects, sex drive, and fear of death) but most everything else tends to be more like guidelines. The genome itself is much more a guideline than a blueprint, but that doesn't mean the guideline doesn't matter. There is a massive amount of room inside of those guidelines, and even some, like fear of death and sex drive, can be broken with enough training and belief that the training will work.

      • Loreen Lee

        Yes, but then the issue come up: what to believe? This within religious terms can be translated into a 'belief' in God; even if thought of as some kind of 'umbrella' concept. What is important for me is to find coherence within my own individual beliefs, thoughts, etc. And of course, I continue to struggle with the reality of Platonic ideas! (I understand Christian theologians also had a problem with Platonism, as it contested in some way the reality of a Triune God- subtle arguments here, as usual!!).. I do 'believe' that every moment we live is 'important' and an opportunity to learn 'something'!!!!

        • William Davis

          Exactly. The position many of us find ourselves in is this. We've killed the old superstitions, but now what? Believe nothing? What can that possibly accomplish and how can that not make us feel hollow inside. I can understand the need of many to cling to old religions because it can be a bit uncomfortable loose in the sea of ideas with no guide. I have no choice but to be here though, and have found I have begun to enjoy it because it gives me freedom to concoct my own point of view. Like you, I find that there are almost an infinite number of "valid" points of view within the realm of what we know to be true in this age. I've begun to look at embracing one point of view as a problem for me, because it would inhibit me from continuing to explore and "imagining" other views of the world. I think an excess of mental energy is required for this, but at this point I wouldn't have it any other way :)

          • Loreen Lee

            Yeah! I guess you could call me a cherry picker. I think there is an excellent metaphysical structure within Catholicism. I've expressed this on this site as the impossibility I have of relating 'faith' to 'belief' as in the Creed. Although, I am accepting of many 'facts'! But as the atheist philosopher Jurgen Habermas said, although the onus is on them, conceptual development of many articles of 'belief' could be developed. After all, the four elements, plus the quintessence remained standard until when? the l7th century. And we still have such ideas as melancholia in our vocabulary. I don't want to discard the past. Like with my life, I know it is important to integrate, (even accept) what i before it is possible to move on. But I have had to discard so many elements within my faith, and some new one that have developed recently, which may even have been considered 'corrupt' within former dogma. I just go on. I'll be buried a catholic, but possibly a heretical one. I pay my dues.

            I found it very difficult however, to accept where some post-modernism is leading. Did Nietzsche prophesize or encourage the development of what is called nihilism.
            And the Charlie Hebdo guys did profess that they were proud nihilists. Things are not looking good. There's even the prophecy regarding the church, but this could be treated as superstition. I just try and pay attention to what is going on, and believe there 'can be' good in everything.
            So I'm just a very limited human being, because that is what I am. I think there are two mistakes you can make. You can totally reject the idea/reality of God? or The Church?, or you can identify with it Am I making any sense? (I'm not a nihilist, I 'believe')

          • William Davis

            15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits. Mathew 7. There is a version of this in all synoptic gospels. To me, the spirit of Christ is the spirit of compassion, and I believe in THAT whole heartedly. To me, however, the writers of the synoptics were warning us to think for ourselves, and consider doctrines by the fruit they bear. Maybe we are more "Christian" than the Christians who just follow the crowd? As for the rest, I like to think that we are experiencing a reaction against all of the ways religion has been abused for power and control over the years. It's a little scary (I'm only 33 so I have a ways to go before my ticket is up) but probably necessary to move forward. Either way, it is going to be an interesting ride.

          • Loreen Lee

            Thanks William. I wrote a little hastily and thinking over my comments I would make things a little clearer. But -let it be.

            "To me, the spirit of Christ is the spirit of compassion, and I believe in THAT whole heartedly".

            Yes. But it's difficult. With any personality. And with Jesus Christ especially. I cannot find any 'judgment' even of homosexuals for instance, although there is possibly such within other new testament scripture. And with the law, he disobeys the laws of the Sabbath, and yet is most strict about marriage fidelity, etc. etc. etc. He even warns about damnation and the fires of hell. Is this but the warning of the inevitable karma/result/consequence of certain actions. I've certainly experienced 'hellish' moments, even periods of time on this earth. So perhaps this could even be considered 'compassionate'.

            It is interesting with regard to the comment I made recently that there is no truth, only interpretation (Nietzsche) that it is indeed possible to find the 'truth' within another. Gospel is after all narrative, and Jesus said I AM the truth. It is more difficult to interpret this!!!
            I constantly find contradictions. That God is the means of our objective truth? countered with - but God is a person and therefore a 'subject'. And so it goes. The expression in language always being constant challenge to understand.

            Yes. You are young. Young than my 'kids'. Even if the Liar Paradox is true, as it relates to our 'subjectivity', we can 'go on searching'. I enjoyed reading that short passage from scripture. There is so much wisdom in that book. You don't need to read any 'novels'!!! The best.

          • Loreen Lee

            I felt a little responsible for my comment that it was good to see the best in a person, in case you took it as advice. It has taken me almost a life time to develop the capacity to see when another's self interest could possible be 'dangerous' for me. But I guess you're alright!

            Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

          • Loreen Lee

            Just read this on New Advent. (Having a computer keeps one busy) http://www.opednews.com/articles/3/Progressives-and-Liberals-by-Thomas-Farrell-Capitalism_Clergy_Culture_Individualism-150125-471.html This and left wing news reports, and keeping track of the Koch Brothers, and Islam, etc. etc. etc. I'm glad I'm retired. What changes since I was a child in the 40's.

    • Loreen Lee

      My closing remarks could be interpreted as being 'off subject', except that the question 'what is consciousness' is important not only to the religionists but also to the scientists. I remembered the quote: John Stuart Mill: 'We'? are nothing but a bundle of perceptions. He's being very Buddhist there, my interpretation. No Kantian 'unity of apperception', there. Just another conglomerate.

      But just as there is a need for continual experiment within science, I also feel it is important to consider that religions have produced many, yes even contradictory conceptions of what God, (or perhaps consciousness) IS. Shall I give as an example the difference even within OT/NT I am that I am - the one I compared to a Buddhist description of mind, and the proofs resulting from Aristotle? I do believe it is important to practice what I learned from being with the Mahayana monks, i.e. self awareness. But I did leave them, to get back to Samsara and the world, and then from Kierkegaard back to my roots in Catholicism, and an 'ownership' of the material world and all the 'suffering' that entails. Of course, 'illusions' are now being thought of as consistent with what, since Kant, has been called phenomena in contrast to Noumea, - -(mind/will/whatever which we cannot know according to Kant, and contested by others. ) So perhaps my thought here may be thought of a straw man argument that even those who call themselves a-theists/naturalists cannot escape the possibility that there is something- what? 'ineffable'? about their own consciousness that cannot be reduced to neurons, dna, whatnot, even with the thesis that everything we do is important only because of its relation to the evolution of our DNA - I guess you too have heard of that one!!!!.

  • Mike

    I wonder if thoughts can also affect gene expression. I wonder if 'peaceful thoughts' affect our genes differently than 'violent thoughts'.

    I wonder if routine is good for kids bc it has some tangible effect on the propensity of their genes to express some traits and suppress others. This is generally good news for ppl who were always skeptical of the "your genes are you" school of genetics.

    • William Davis

      Yes, they do. We don't think thoughts "directly" affect the genome, but they cause your brain to produce hormones. These hormones then literally turn genes on and off. This idea is directly related to the fact that chronic stress shortens life spans. These hormones also feed back and affect the brain, leading to stress loops that can be very hard to escape. We humans are also primarily creatures of habit. This feeds into having a good routine for kids. Sleep itself is a habit, and getting into bad sleep habits can be very problematic. I know about bad sleep problems myself, they can make this life seem like a very bad place indeed.

      • Loreen Lee

        Of course you realize that as soon as you take on the thesis that the 'mind' can affect the 'brain', you are not too far from acceptance of the metaphysical expression of same: i.e. the mind/word/Logos made flesh!!! grin grin.

        • Doug Shaver

          The mind is just something the brain does. Of course the brain can affect itself. It's a process called feedback, and it is very orthodox, scientifically speaking.

          • Loreen Lee

            I'm still 'open' to both perspectives. But I certainly wasn't convinced when I read Hofstadter's I am a Strange Loop. But I've also got 'problems' with some kind of independent consciousness. And since I think that Husserl was off track with his phenomenological 'bracketing', I'm not surprised that my attempts at introspection don't work either!!! I do think that science is capable of making error both theoretically, and with evidence. As in comment below. So please understand that I reject the orthodox! As Heidegger said: We have to learn how to think! (Not that I like Heidegger's categories!!!)

          • Doug Shaver

            As Heidegger said: We have to learn how to think!

            That's what philosophy is all about.

          • Loreen Lee

            I keep trying!!!! Thanks.

    • Loreen Lee

      I believe the scientific perspective is that evolution is not directly affected by change within the individual. (I'll look for a link on this, or better maybe someone can help out with the distinction needed here. Not sure I know what to Google)

    • I wonder this too, let's test it, there are easy ways to conduct double blinded tests. It sounds much like the prayer experiments which have not discovered a link between intercessory prayer and anything actually happening.

  • David Nickol

    The mother’s motherly licking released serotonin in her little pups’ brains, which nudges the hippocampus to send a protein message to turn on genes that inhibit stress. A little motherly love, and DNA is no longer destiny.

    It seems to me this has nothing to do with epigenetics. I don't think even the most extreme proponents of "DNA as destiny" would say that the nature and quality of caregiving for developing infants makes no difference.

    • Mike

      How can it if the genes are "fixed" and ONLY random mutation can account for a new "set" of genes?

      • David Nickol

        How can it if the genes are "fixed" and ONLY random mutation can account for a new "set" of genes?

        Care during the formative days, weeks, months, or years of infancy (depending on the organism) doesn't change the genes the infant has. Expecting the nurturing behavior of mother of social animals to have no effect on their social development would be a bit like expecting the biological child of Chinese-speaking parents raised in an English-speaking environment to speak Chinese!

        To some extent, our genes determine if we are short or tall, but a boy with "tall genes" who grows up in an environment where he is poorly nourished may wind up being shorter than a boy with "average-height genes" who is kept healthy and well fed.

        In the case of the rats, it may very well be the genetic makeup of the mother rat that determines how nurturing she is, and it may also be the genetic makeup of the baby rat that determines the physiological reactions to the nurturing behavior of the mother.

        • Mike

          Yes i know what you mean; thx.

  • Mike

    Seems like we're discovering that we're more "digital" than "analog"; that information and data are a better of thinking about our body's "blueprint".

    • Doug Shaver

      DNA is not a blueprint. It is a recipe.

  • David Nickol

    I would note, first, that the OP and the Discover Magazine article it discusses both date back to 2006. I wonder if there has been nothing more up-to-date and more cogently argued in the past eight or nine years that might serve Strange Notions' aims better.

    A big problem I had while reading the article was the sense that, although the author seems thrilled at the downfall of "DNA as destiny" (which I agree with others is somewhat of a straw man, even though some have made extreme claims in the past that fit into that category), it seems to me that nothing fundamental changes when it is realized that there are other mechanisms at work than those that are strictly governed by the genome. Those other mechanisms are still mechanisms.

    It is not clear to me that feeding mother rats a diet that suppresses a harmful gene in her offspring is not ultimately a matter of DNA. It seems that the "epigenome" functions in some cases to regulate how (or whether) certain genes are expressed. So it's not matter of "DNA is destiny," but it may still be a matter of "genetics plus epigenetics is destiny." It is not as if, in mice or monkeys or whatever, "free will" has anything to do with how an organism develops. It is still determined by genetics (DNA) plus epigenetics.

  • Dave Wisker

    The very first sentence is a lie, and is the high point of this article's credibility.

    • Loreen Lee

      Please explain.

      • Doug Shaver

        Is it the word 'entirely'?

        Yes. I have never read a scientific account of genetics that claims everything about an organism, without exception, is determined by its genes. And quite a few orthodox biologists, for very many years, have argued that non-genetic influences are quite substantial.

  • Dave Wisker

    1. "According to scientific orthodoxy, all living things were entirely determined by their genetic code. "

    What you stated is called "genetic determinism", and it is definitely NOT the view of the "scientific orthodoxy". Where did you ever get that idea?

    2. "The name of the science, epigenetics, puts genetics in its place."

    Since your first sentence is wrong, then this sentence is just silly.

    3. "For too long, scientists have assumed that there isn’t anything “above” the gene."

    No they haven't. Epigenetic phenomena (like the "maternal affect" in the cytoplasm of zygotes) have been known for decades. So have post-transcriptional changes to messenger RNAs. Where do you get this stuff?

    Epigenetic effects are fascinating enough on their own without having to resort to hyperbolic, demonstrably false statements that torpedo your credibility.

  • Mike

    Q: Isn't it a point for Christianity that it held from its beg that we are all related that we are one huge family of distant cousins even though the scientific evidence in favor of common descent didn't appear for thousands of years; and it could've pointed towards multiple lines of origin (as in for ex. that the races are not related) instead of the single theory that most scientist now agree on?

    Atheists: please let me know why this is not the right way to think of these recent scientific discoveries which at the very least appear not to contradict this Christian doctrine?

    • Well, I understood that Christianity has taught that we are all related to two individuals who lives at the same time. Science does not support this conclusion.

      But what do you mean by "point" does it make Christianity more likely to be true? I don't think so.

      • Mike

        yes i think it's more likely to mean it's true.

        isn't it weird that a thousand years ago the church INSISTED that we are all related - africans, asians, arabs, jews, greeks, franks whatever, all related by blood! to each other - what a strange thing to insist on when even into the 20th century some scientists thought that it was possible that the races evolved separately.

        kind of makes me proud to think the church was for the solidarity of man way before 'scientists' came up with their racial theories in the 18 and 19 century.

        • Doug Shaver

          isn't it weird that a thousand years ago [emphasis added] the church INSISTED that we are all related - africans, asians, arabs, jews, greeks, franks whatever, all related by blood! to each other

          I don't think it's the least bit weird.

          what a strange thing to insist on when even into the 20th century some scientists thought that it was possible that the races evolved separately.

          You can find some scientists who think anything you can imagine. If you want us to credit the church with anticipating a major scientific discovery on this particular issue, you need to show us what the scientific consensus was, a thousand years ago, about human origins.

          • Mike

            Why don't you think it's weird i mean without knowing anything about God or modern genetics wouldn't assuming that the races which look so different, wouldn't assuming that they are not related be the simplest explanation?

          • Doug Shaver

            wouldn't assuming that they are not related be the simplest explanation?

            If it were, it would have dominated prescientific thinking. I am aware of no evidence that it did.

          • Mike

            I pretty sure the chinese had their own creation myth the indians theirs the native americans theirs all did not account for all ppl but just them i think.

            Anyway it doesn't matter i know what you mean but i thought that most ancient cultures did not consider common origins a given.

            Also didn't the Egyptians thinks they were descended from gods?

          • Doug Shaver

            Also didn't the Egyptians thinks they were descended from gods?

            Maybe, but I haven't heard that they did.

          • Mike

            I think their concept of relatedness was different so if one group thought they were descended from a different stock they were not related to the other whereas christianity and for that matter judaism said no we are all related from the same stock ie God.

            Anyway thanks for the convo again.

      • Nick Cotta

        Are you sure?

        http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6145/465

        And of course it would be a point in Christianity's favor. If we say "Our revelation entails this scientific explanation" and the explanation is corroborated after-the-fact, it is most definitely a point in favor of the revelation.

        • I am not so sure based on that article, but I do note that it still has this pair separated by at least 5000 years.

          I also don't think this is corroboration for the truth of genesis, but a response to an argument saying your interpretation of genesis is contradicted by science. and a good one at that.

          • Nick Cotta

            I think it'd be more of a corroboration for an interpretation of Genesis, one that the Roman Catholic Church laid down in the 1500s, namely that Christianity as it stands entails at least one scientific fact - an original pair of humans of which we are all descended.

            The argument that the universe had a beginning and end was thought of as "theist" at one time as well and laughed at by most of prominent atheist academia specifically for being thought to be tainted by theistic subconsciousness. Obviously, we know how the consensus has turned out (but now proposes multiverses instead of steady state as the alternative scientific explanation of origin)

            At what point, does a group that holds fast to a supposedly entirely fabricated body of thought and then turns out to be right in subsequent generations get credit? Let me ask you: how many prominent scientists today would guess that Fred Hoyle and atheist academia opposed the big bang on what were clearly philosophical grounds? Every generation could have some scientific quarrel that would place theists on one side and those that wished to refute it scientifically on the other only to have the theist side prove correct and *fast forward to a new generation* then keep up the myth that Christian thought is incompatible with or refuted by science!

    • Doug Shaver

      Atheists: please let me know why this is not the right way to think of these recent scientific discoveries which at the very least appear not to contradict this Christian doctrine?

      Science says that all humans are related by descent from a common ancestral population. If you want to claim, on that basis alone, that science has confirmed something that the church has always taught, then you may do so. It seems to me, though, that the church's teaching has been rather more specific than that about our origins, and science has not been so supportive of the church's specifics.

      Furthermore, the mere notion of a common ancestry for all human beings does not require any great insight. I am aware of no historically significant religion or philosophy of ancient times that taught any contrary notion.

      • Mike

        The ancient greeks thought they were not related to the barbarians i thought. Plus didn't the chinese think the same that they were "special". Didn't the incas think the spanish were mythical creatures on horses?

        • Doug Shaver

          The ancient greeks thought they were not related to the barbarians

          I have not heard that. Do you have a source?

          Plus didn't the chinese think the same that they were "special".

          Every society thinks it is special. Belief in a unique ancestry is not necessary.

          Didn't the incas think the spanish were mythical creatures on horses?

          I suspect that's just a legend meant to impugn the Incas' intelligence. Even if it's true, it suggests that the Incas at first didn't think the Spanish were human at all.

  • First I do not see what this has to do with gods, religion or atheism.

    Second, I would say there is exaggeration of the "orthodox" scientific view. Science doesn't have an orthodoxy, unless it is to be updated and change based on new information. I think you would be hard pressed to find a scientist who has ever taken the position that genetics was the only factor involved in human development. Irrespective of your DNA scientists will agree that your diet affects your weight and likelihood of getting type 2 diabetes.

    In the realm of psychiatry and psychology, there has never been a prevalent view that genetics are determinative of behaviour. Though, now psychologists believe that about half of the variability in psychological traits (not sure if trait is the right word) is due to genetics. This was characterized and well-established by Steven Pinker in the Blank Slate as early as 2002.

    I can guess that the author believes that epigenetics somehow contradicts evolution? But the Catholic Church accepts evolution and there is nothing about evolution that is inconsistent with these epigenetics findings.

    • Caravelle

      Though, now psychologists believe that about half of the variability in
      psychological traits (not sure if trait is the right word) is due to
      genetics.

      That's interesting, do you mean "about half" as in "both are important" or is the consensus that it's literally around 50% ? I'd have thought this would depend a lot on which specific psychological trait we're looking at.

      • Luke

        From: Bouchard TJ. Genetic influence on human psychological traits: A survey. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2004;13:148–151. doi: 10.1111/j.0963-7214.2004.00295.x

        Yes, it's 10+ years old now, but is probably still relevant.

      • Both are important but heredity accounts for about half of the variation in traits. We don't know what causes the other half of variation, but it is not shared home environment. Meaning what your parents do has a negligible effect on how your traits develop.

        Interesting stuff!

  • Loreen Lee

    I continue to struggle with this post for many reasons. It is possible also that there are few if any, who like me, 'see' the point the Catholics are making in this post. I have interpretated this as a basically materialistic thesis, admitting epigenetics but not an inter-relationship between thought and mind. Indeed, am I correct that it is the I am a Loop thesis, in which all that is recognized is the brain activity, and thus consciousness would be some kind of 'illusion'.
    I have over the past day accepted this possibility on some levels. But I am still finding it difficult to understand whether any distinction between rational thought, as distinct from thought associated with materiality, as a possibility, is made. I have realized at the same time how immersed I have been in the perspective both of philosophy and religious faith that I identify with, in this regard. I may indeed be in error here. Is there any evidence, I ask the researchers, whether my concerns are legitimate. How's that? A 'rationalist' wondering whether there is evidence that could confirm that it is OK to be a rationalist. I have really doubted my own questions on this one.

  • Logike

    I guess I don't see how epigenetics is evidence for free will rather than detetminisim all over again, because the mother's influence, not the baby rat's choice, again detetmines which genes get expressed and thus the baby rat's later adult behavior. The mother's own behavior toward the baby would be genetically and epigenetically determined as well, as we can see when tellng a similar story about her own upbringing.

  • Lion_IRC

    Great article. Thanks.
    A user at CAF posted a link.
    And it's not a 'strawman' to speak of determinism in science orthodoxy.

    • Doug Shaver

      And it's not a 'strawman' to speak of determinism in science orthodoxy.

      If orthodox science does not say X, then it is a strawman to say that orthodox science says X. I have been reading orthodox scientific books for almost as long as I have been reading anything, and I have not found an endorsement of determinism in any of them.

  • Susan

    We are not determined, we are deuterium.

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