Nature vs Nurture?  Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Vitalism and Epigenetics

by Michael A. Osborne

Epigenetics is linked to inheritance, health, and longevity

For portions of the next three years I’ll be a Senior Fellow at the Aix-Marseille Institute for Advanced Study and working on epigenetic inheritance systems.   I have mapped out collaborations with European colleagues on the theme of “Scientific and Social Physiology in Context.”  Why Marseille? Because the project investigates the historical linkages between human physiology and the social determinants of health and does so through focused examination of a style of physiology promoted in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Provence, the region around Marseille.  I am trying to link scientific conceptions about the body and health with ideas about society and (possibly) spirituality.  The project constitutes a socio-cultural parallel to contemporary work on epigenetics and on how environmental context influences inheritance, health, and longevity though the process of methylation and modulation of gene expression.  In contrast to recent research on so-called ‘moral molecules’ like oxytocin, which may influence altruistic and philanthropic behavior, my project is historically sited and examines holistic ways to envision the lived physiology of the organism in relation to his or her life in the community.  My approach also differs from paths pursued by my colleagues Emily Ho and Roderick Dashwood, who actually do epigenetics research under at the Linus Pauling Institute.

The new science of epigenetics challenges fundamental biological assumptions, especially the reductionism of classical Mendelian genetics, a style of modern genetics responsible for the Human Genome Project. New journals are devoted to the topic, and even Time Magazine has featured it. Yet epigenetics is less novel than it may seem. Theories of environmental influence on inheritance have been quite common since the birth of modern biology. James Griesemer, a noted philosopher of biology, has even asked “What is ‘epi’ about epigenetics?” Most certainly biochemistry and biophysics, and a research paradigm of physiological determinism derived from Claude Bernard’s work on experimental medicine, and laboratory methods applied to animal models, have advanced human physiology.  These tools have been productive in virtue of their ability to isolate and explain phenomena such as the glycogenic function of the liver.  But when we study health and the environment, we need to climb out of our silos of academic disciplinarity.  Scientists have advanced beyond the humanities in this regard, and we historians are playing catch up.  An essential question in this larger issue of nature vs nurture is:  “Could a life style and spiritual view of the world mandated by physiological vitalism or medical holism, which could include altruistic behavior, be one element capable of influencing gene expression and health?

The general style of thinking inherent in epigenetics resonates well beyond molecular biology and the central dogma of the Watson-Crick model of DNA. It has historical roots in the study of human diet, health, and the general biological theories of Jean Lamarck, Charles Darwin, and others. More broadly, just to stick with Lamarck’s home turf, medical vitalism and medical holism have been significant features of French medicine for much of the last two centuries.  The environmental dimensions of this style of thinking are part of our scientific heritage, and I wonder if we could deploy the best of these views of the body to help us define what is natural or healthy in these times of rapid environmental change?   Most certainly, climate change continues to impact our lives. Let’s not imagine our Emerald Empire of the Pacific North West will be spared.  One only needs to leaf through the new Oregon Climate Assessment Report to review the challenges we face.   I hope my research will help us to prepare for accommodation, restoration and remediation of our environmental heritage.  In this way, I am trying to link individual physiology with societal health. My collaborator Richard Fogarty, will address some of these themes with special reference to alpine environments at a September conference in Paris on “Climate, Knowledge, and Politics.”

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