The Word Of The Day Is Epigenetics

I just finished reading a fascinating–and provocative–book: Pleased to Meet Me, by Bill Sullivan. Sullivan is a professor of pharmacology and microbiology at IU’s Medical School, and unlike most research scientists I know–sorry, guys and gals– is a gifted (and witty) writer. The book is actually fun to read.

The chapter titles give a clue to the book’s approach: “Meet Your Maker,” “Meet Your Tastes,” “Meet Your…Moods, Addictions, Demons, Beliefs, Future…etc.”  Each of the chapters adds to the story of how we have come to be the person we are, thanks to the complicated role played by the genes we’ve inherited, and the mechanisms that support or depress the expression of those genes.

Whether and why a gene “expresses itself” or is “turned off” is what epigenetics is all about.

Epigenetics–I now understand–is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of genes expressions rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. As Sullivan puts it, epigenetics is the study of the “means by which the outside world interplays with our genes.”

After reading this book, I also understand why attributing any characteristic to a single gene, or even several genes, is likely to be inaccurate. It’s incomplete.

Not only can genes be switched on or off, or dimmed, their expression–i.e., the work that they do–interacts with environmental factors. Sullivan explains in great detail (and with funny analogies) why pregnant women shouldn’t drink, for example–and more surprisingly, why fathers who booze it up prior to baby-making can also have a negative effect on the fetus. (I had my children before the negative effects of drinking while pregnant were known–now I wonder whether their tendencies to be smart-asses is a result of my tippling….)

Sullivan doesn’t just want us to understand what science has discovered about our minds and bodies, he also wants us to appreciate the importance of the scientific method that led to those discoveries, and to base our personal and collective decisions on evidence. What science has to tell us should inform public policy. (Obviously, that won’t happen while Trump is in the White House–this is the most anti-science administration in American history.)

In fact, a Pew study confirms a significant partisan divide when it comes to science.

The partisan gap in Americans’ views of government spending for scientific research has grown over the long term. In 2001, there was no significant divide between the parties on this issue. This year, 62% of Democrats support increased spending for scientific research, compared with 40% of Republicans.

Sullivan has a chapter on genetic differences between conservatives and liberals that helps explain this…

If social policy were informed by what scientists now know about the effects of poverty on children, for example, America’s “safety net” (note quotation marks) would look very different. Studies have shown genetic methylation in adults who suffered economic challenges in childhood. (Methylation–another new word for me– changes the activity of a DNA sequence without changing the DNA itself. It’s all pretty complicated.) Underprivileged children don’t just suffer from unfortunate social conditions while they’re experiencing them–they also suffer observable, permanent biological damage.

The most important contribution of this very readable book isn’t the illumination it provides to non-scientists about the operation of our genetic inheritances, although that is certainly a plus. It is the recognition that scientific evidence should–must–inform government policies. Americans have always had an unfortunate habit of creating information silos, of failing to see the relevance of  information we have walled off into specialized domains to other areas of our lives.

Granted, it’s no longer possible to be Renaissance men or women. There is too much information for anyone to be an expert in everything. We can, however, reform our political system to ensure that it recognizes  the existence and importance of expertise. We can insist  that lawmakers base public policies on evidence offered by credible authorities who possess specialized understandings.

But first, we have to elect people who know what they don’t know, who aren’t threatened by people who do know, and who are willing to listen and learn.


  1. Understandable information, presented to open minded people, changing lives for the better….wow, what a concept. If only Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence and Donald Trump could read…..and be open minded…..and be interested in positive change…..

  2. “But first, we have to elect people who know what they don’t know, who aren’t threatened by people who do know, and who are willing to listen and learn.”

    Definition of the above statement; we need to elect liberals/progressives. They/we have become more easily identifiable over this past 2 1/2 years of “conservatives” marching in reverse double-time by Trump and his cronies. The quest for our personal DNA has become popular as the science becomes more available to the public. A friend sent me a membership to 23andme; the finding of 281 Neanderthal Variants had me scared till I searched further and lost count of the zeros behind the genetic code for Neanderthals. Neanderthals were larger and stronger with larger heads, thus larger brains; but they died out while the “cave man” moved forward and evolved. Of course that is all scientific evolution; epigenetics will not be found in any Bible founded on creationism which is simply conjecture by a chosen few who would never survive in today’s world.

    “Whether and why a gene “expresses itself” or is “turned off” is what epigenetics is all about.”

    Speaking as a British/Irish/French/German/Scandinavian/Greek&Balkan/American leads me to cast my lot with liberals/progressives who are found today primarily among the Democrats.
    As Theresa so aptly put it, “Finally! Tangible scientific results on the effects of poverty on children. Progress.” And to quote the theme song from Muhammad Ali’s bio movie, “I Believe The Children Are Our Future; Teach Them Well And Let Them Lead The Way”. It is the mental poverty linked to economic poverty taking the toll on our future.

    “As Sullivan puts it, epigenetics is the study of the “means by which the outside world interplays with our genes.”

  3. Sounds similar to another book we recently read “She has her mother’s laugh”. Very interesting stuff!

  4. Before my third cancer surgery yesterday, I was “joking” with my physician about why it’s a miracle that, with all the microdoses of carcinogens in our food, water and air, we all don’t have cancer of some sort.

    He said that most people DO get some form of cancer during their lives. My witty rejoinder was, “Congratulations. You’ve lived long enough to get cancer.” I guess that’s the downside of genes turning on and off…or just going crazy.

  5. So much for the conservative political beliefs of so many that poverty programs for the poor are a waste of money.

  6. I got a laugh from “and unlike most research scientists I know–sorry, guys and gals– is a gifted (and witty) writer.” I remember telling our Medical Researchers who were preparing their grant applications that they wouldn’t be funded if nobody could read what they wrote. You’d be surprised at how unorganized many of those applications were, even though they had a format to follow. Those who were consistently funded told the story of their research and they got the interest of the peer reviewers in the first paragraph.

  7. We have no influence on public policy because we are no longer a democratic republic. As the Princeton study concludes, we are an Oligarchy. There is no profit in helping kids living in poverty — if there was, we’d have privatized the DCS by now.

    Capitalism is a barrier to change and the pharmacology industry is part of the problem — not the solution.

  8. Yes, Todd. You are absolutely correct. The Republicans have perverted and exploited all the vagaries of unfettered capitalism for the sake of the stockholders and the quarterly report. The rest of us can go pound salt as far as they are concerned. I don’t know if a Democratic Congress and President will have sufficient time or means to change much of the self-destructive tendencies shown in today’s financial/social world.

    I’m glad I’m old.

  9. Thank you for your analysis…it explains the difference I have seen in a small sample:
    I brought 4 unrelated children into my family life, the girls in ages similar to my own three boys.
    They learned to sit at a table to eat (!!!), what to do with the various dining implements. To have real conversations with others, listen to civil disagreements.
    These four girls have a very different life from both their siblings and their parents: all finished school, three went on to receive post high school education.
    This could not have happened without the love and support of my (late) husband and my sons. These girls added balance to our lives and are now productive adults: educated, taxpayers get citizens.

  10. I don’t know if this is related to epigenetics or not but how parents express themselves to their children is a big determiner in how the children express themselves to the people around them as adults.

    Some come out of the growing up process as liberals and some as authoritarians who consider the phrase “because I said so” as education.

    TrumPenceMcConnell undoubtedly think so. That’s what we hear from them each day.

    They make the common mistake of confusing “power” and “freedom”.

    Freedom means that nobody has any power over me and the price for that is me giving up power over anyone else. Obviously children don’t do well with freedom in all circumstances but they are best served if they do very well with it as adults. That ability comes from effective parenthood.

    An essential part of living free is responsibility. It comes with obligations. Education is one of them.

    So, America is at a fork in the road of our history and the good news is that we can choose which path democratically (if we can get rid of foreign funded brainwashing and Republican instituted election interference) and chose between freedom for all and power for some.

    It was a tough choice for our founders and promises to be a close race for us.

  11. There is another article I found concerning Epigenetics. It is a long article, unlike the slick unscientific sloganeering that passes itself off as facts, so dear to the hearts of the GOP.

    I suppose it is the “battle” so to speak of Nature vs Nurture, both play a part.

    IMHO, the biggest Wall or Silo is the one created by the ultra-extreme people with their religious beliefs. It is not just the bible thumping tel-evangelists, it is across the continuum of religion world wide.

    When Science and it’s methods and results clash with religious beliefs, the ultra extremists will use every subterfuge and in some cases the power of violence to force adherence to their “Chosen Way”.

    From the above by Sheila, “If social policy were informed by what scientists now know about the effects of poverty on children, for example, America’s “safety net” (note quotation marks) would look very different.”

    Agreed and it is not just poverty. How about the lack of, or inadequate health care in our society for millions of people??? Yet, we still have politicians digging in and attacking Universal or Single Payer Health Care.

  12. Knowing what I do about you, Sheila, I don’t think your “tippling” while pregnant made your children smart-asses. I think it’s in their genes! ?

  13. Pete; your first paragraph says it all, our parents’ interaction is our first source of information and how we learn to communicate. As we mature we can follow their lead or not; I came to my fork in the road at an early age but stayed silent even into my adult years. It was “safe” I thought; but the truth, my truth, came out in my mid-30s; changing my life and the lives of my children due to the changes it brought to their lives. My staying “safe” was lying to them and to myself; believing a decent home, food, clothes and love were fulfilled requirements but they didn’t have the privilege of the truth in the would around them. “Underprivileged children don’t just suffer from unfortunate social conditions while they’re experiencing them…” What form of epigenetics can we classify the overprivileged children such as the Trump “dynasty” who have no concept of the real world or that they are unaware of the lack of truth in their lives? They are morally bankrupt and “incomplete” humans with every privilege their money can buy at their fingertips. It’s in their genes.

  14. Thanks for the title — it just went at the top of my ‘must read’ list.
    Jfwiw — here’s another very witty — well, I don’t know if she was an actual scientist or not, but she wrote a number of scientific books on the Aquatic Theory of the evolution of homo sapiens. Elaine Morgan. I strongly recommend her. Her most famous work, I think, was “The Descent of Woman.”

    Now, galloping back to the point of your article, conservatives prove their disdain for science daily. Name one Democrat who brought a snowball to the floor of the Senate to prove that Global Warming / Climate Change doesn’t exist.
    Yeah, I can’t either.

    When and how did accurate information become a partisan issue? When it began costing money, I presume.

  15. Food, shelter, health care, weather-appropriate clothing, transportation, sufficient school supplies and opportunities, and loving, available parents are base line minimums for every child but an out-of-reach dream list for so many families in poverty. I SO wish our public policy would provide ombudsmen and women to every local public school who could connect poor families with a coordinated and ample menu of social safety net services to withstand and hopefully overcome the poverty.

    Children without the base line minimums will suffer much more than low test scores, and so will the society which turns a blind eye.

  16. Sadly, I have seen this partisan tendency (and it ha been noted by scientists) in every Republican administration since Reagan, the President that put a anti-abortion litmus test as a qualification to be the head of the National Institutes of Health, a position previously appointed on scientific merit.

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