Further thoughts on Epigenetics and Public Policy

Shea Robison of Epigenetics and Public Policy has kindly replied to my previous comment there with a post of his own, Why Epigenetics and Politics?

To briefly quote Robison:

In general, there are two main emphases for my interests in epigenetics: the scientific side, and the political/philosophical aspects. These are necessarily related to each other in many different ways (e.g., the political and philosophical aspects would not exist without the scientific work being done in epigenetics, just as politics has had a substantial influence on the development of the science—again, a major focus of my book), but they can also be quite disconnected from each other in different contexts (e.g., political uses can be made of the science which ignore important findings or critical assumptions).

He points out that there is in fact a fair amount of legislation criminalizing drug use during pregnancy:

… just after I read this comment someone posted an extensive thread on my Twitter feed loaded with references on just this issue of ‘crack babies,’ and particularly about the differences in framing and policy narratives due to politically salient issues such as race (here: http://bit.ly/2KQHWFh). I also did a quick Google search on “criminalization of drug use during pregnancy” (http://bit.ly/2wrpvE4), which came up with 31,900,000 results about all the different ways that this kind of thing is actually a substantial focus of public policy and government action. …

An interesting subject in its own right, but I shan’t quote the whole post; you can read it on Robison’s blog.

For those of you following along, here is my response:

Disclaimer: a friend of mine was a crack baby. She’s a lovely person, but is constantly in pain. I don’t want people to end up like her, but I’m glad she exists. My first impulse is that someone who would do such a horrible thing to a baby deserves to be punished, but would this kind of legislation simply encouraged her (biological) mother to have an abortion? My friend is not suicidal; she wants to be alive, even if life is difficult.

In general, such legislation strikes me as misguided. Getting the police involved is highly punitive (what are the effects on a developing fetus of being arrested and involuntarily committed?) and has a major negative effect on people’s ability to do the kind of productive behaviors that are associated with getting off drugs, like hold down a job or have stable housing.

We can look at the gov’t’s history with public health programs. Some turned out better than others. Prohibition went quite badly. Everything “Opioid Epidemic” looks like it’s spiraling out of control. On the other hand, regulation on cigarette advertising has probably been beneficial; I suppose the jury is still out on the long-term effects of marijuana deregulation in some states.

Gov’t nutrition policy was probably good when it gave people food stamps but quite bad when it promoted trans fats (based on nutrition “research” that was not nearly as sound as people thought it was–which should be a sobering lesson about the urge to let politicians make public policy off what they think the science says.)

Not that my opinions count for much, but I think programs that promote healthy behaviors would be more effective and beneficial in the long run.

But let’s look at another example. Drug use is generally limited to individual behavior, often of very poor or otherwise marginalized people. What about mining disasters, toxic waste spills, wars, etc? Perhaps the guilty parties should be made to pay–but mining companies already routinely declare bankruptcy to avoid paying for their mistakes–I doubt this behavior is going to change. Any legislation in this direction, while well-intended, seems likely to be ineffective at best.

Of course the gov’t itself has certain obligations. What about the children of the men marched into atomic bomb blasts, or exposed to agent orange? (eg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWSMoE3A5DI) But the gov’t has so far been really bad about paying up for the damage it caused directly, much less the claims of the children of those hurt, so I’m not holding my breath on this. [“I got tortured in a Nazi POW camp and all I got for it was an accusation of going AWOL.”]

There seems also a risk of discounting people’s present abilities based on epigenetic claims. Right now the left likes to claim things like “Native Americans suffer epigenetic trauma that makes them do badly in school and continue the cycle of violence,” but it is easy to see how this can morph into “Native Americans are helplessly destined to be dumb and violent.”

I think the Left wants epigenetics to be a “get out of genetics free” card, but in the process they’re replicating genetic determinism, just at a different point in the organism. They’re going to be very disappointed if the results of their advocacy are the police arresting poor black women because they couldn’t afford prenatal vitamins.

Philosophy:
The question of what exactly the Founding Fathers (and common man) thought in 1776 is fascinating, but not necessarily relevant to current policies. Those Americans believed a wide variety of things, from Puritans (predestination) to Southern aristocrats (slavery) to affable Quakers. I suspect equality was not so much a philosophical position for the average man so much as a practical one–the man who survived by his wits in the wilderness, clearing the land, building his farm, etc., far from the civilizing and protective umbrella of the cities, was a law unto himself, enforced by violence or not at all. In essence, man was free not because he had read Locke, but because he had a gun and would shot anyone who said otherwise.

Regardless, no matter how, erm, clean your genome is, you don’t get from genes to Lockeian blank slates. You still have genes, some good, some bad.

Most people (even libs) acknowledge a combination of “nature and nurture” in shaping the individual. It’s only at the extremes that people start wholesale denying that genetic differences exist (“Women only do worse than men at sports because they’ve internalized norms of feminity that make them lose;” “Dog breeds are identical in temperament; any differences in behavior are entirely due to training,”) but there is always pressure on moderates not to contradict the extremes; not to mention a fear among libs that any acknowledgement of genetic differences between people or groups will embolden the conservatives.

In this they are simply wrong–genetic differences exist; the Blank Slate is nonsense; and people who think genes influence behavior tend to be more tolerant, not less (eg https://mobile.twitter.com/SteveStuWill/status/995978801518559234/photo/1#tweet_995978801518559234 ).

Modern liberalism cannot be saved so long as it rests on incorrect factual statements about the world. Sooner or later the results are either mass suffering (eg, the Soviet Union) or mass discrediting of the idea and the rise of a new one.

>”We already have ways of describing and discussing inheritance of behaviors from environmental exposures (e.g., psychology),”

Unfortunately, much of psychology is terribly broken. Priming, stereotype threat, implicit bias, Freudianism… they’re all either nonsense or have failed to replicate. The most reliable results, imo, are drug-related. Prozac works pretty well for depression; lithium works for bi-polar; risperidone lets schizophrenics lead relatively normal lives. Any drug can be abused or mis-prescribed, but the results with some of the most effective psychiatric drugs are really quite amazing. Psychology, by contrast, is at best talking with people about their problems, giving them a supportive space to vent and think things through.

In the end, I suppose my thoughts summarize to caution. It is easy to over-estimate how much we know and toss together legislation that ends up having unexpected effects. There might be some areas where better knowledge of epigenetic effects can lead to superior policy making (various dietary/nutrition supplementation programs like the promotion of folic acid for expectant mothers, fluoridated water, iodized salt, etc., have already IMO caused great improvement in public health.)

I hope people can be on the lookout for ways to improve life, rather than merely punish.

 

A Response to Epigenetics and Ethics: Rights and Consequences

Dr. Robison–author of Epigenetics and Public Policy–asks and essential question: Where does the right to swing one’s epigenome end? Or as he puts it:

If epigenetics does introduce scientific novelties to the conventional understanding of biology, then according to the model it also has equally significant ethical and political implications.

What responsibility do I–as an egg-bearing person–have to ensure the health of my children and grandchildren’s epigenenomes? Society affirms my right to smoke cigarettes, even though they may give me cancer down the road–it’s my body and I am allowed to do what I wish with it. But what if my smoking cigarettes today causes cancer in a future, as yet unborn grandchild whom I never meet? What about her right to chose not to be exposed to carcinogens? Who am I to take that from her–and what right has society, the government, or anyone else to tell me what I may or may not do with my own body in the interests of some future people who may never come into existence?

I am summarizing, perhaps badly; you may read the whole post over on Dr. Robison’s blog. (Of course Robison is himself trying to summarize an argument I am sure he lays out in much more detail in his book.)

Here is my hastily written response, in the interest of clear conversational threading:

I’m not sure epigenetics constitutes such a fundamental shift in our understandings of genetics and inheritance as to actually warrant much change in our present policies. For example, you question whether policies should be enacted to restrict a 12 yr old girl’s right to eat what she wishes in defense of her unborn grandchild’s epigenome, but we today don’t even restrict a pregnant woman’s right to drink or smoke. Cocaine is illegal, but last time I checked, women didn’t go to prison for giving birth to crack babies. For that matter, women are allowed to kill unborn babies. I’m not commenting pro or against abortion, just noting that it is legal and most people consider death kind of a big deal. So I don’t think society is about to start outlawing stuff because of its negative effects two generations down the road.

On the other hand, if you look at the data on smoking, rates have definitely been falling ever since the tobacco-cancer link became news. The gov’t didn’t have to outlaw smoking for a lot of women to stop smoking for their children’s health.

But let’s return to the philosophical argument. All men are created equal… or are they? I do not think the Founding Fathers ever meant equality in a genetic sense. They could see with their own eyes that some men were tall and others short, some wise and others foolish, some virtuous and others criminal. They could see see that sons and daughters took after their parents and that a great many people started life in horribly unfair circumstances while others lived in luxury. They could see the cruel unfairness of disease, disability, and early death. Their rejection was not of biological or factual inequalities but of spiritual inequality. They rejected the notion that some men are created special by God to rule over others, and some men are created inferior by God, to be ruled over.

You state, “However, the evidence emerging from epigenetics suggests this is not the case. Instead of individuals of each generation being born with a pristine copy of their biological essence, they are inheriting a genetic endowment riddled with markers of the experiences of their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and so on. And these inherited epigenetic markers, as more and more research is showing, are having direct effects on the physical and mental health of individuals from causes not actually experienced by these individuals.”

I think there is a mistake here in regarding genetics as “pristine” in some form. What if my mother is an anxious person, and I, through environmental exposure, grow into a similarly anxious person? What if my mother has a gene for anxiety, and I inherit it? What if I possess a de novo genetic mutation that causes me to be anxious? And what if I suffer a genetic deletion in one of my chromosomes that causes anxiety? How is any of this different, functionally, from some trauma my mother suffered (say, a car accident) causing epigenetic changes that are subsequently passed on to me?

What is pristine about Down’s Syndrome, Williams’, or Klinefelter’s? Or just having the random bad luck to get genes for short, dumb, and ugly?

“For example, research in epigenetics shows that the choices and experiences of individuals in one generation are conditioning the basic nature of individuals of subsequent generations, which indelibly affects how those new individuals will exercise their own rights. ”

It can’t be indelible. For starters, you only inherit half of each parent’s genome–thus half their epigenome. So right there’s a 50% chance you won’t inherit any particular epigenetic marker. By gen two we’re talking 25% chance, and that’s not counting the constant re-writing of our epigenomes. However, I don’t think the policy implications for countries are all that different from our current thinking. We can say, for example, “If we have X level of pollution in the water, then Y number of people will get cancer,” and it’s a public health problem even if we don’t know “they’ll get cancer because of epigenetics.”

So let’s broaden the inquiry a bit. Not how does epigenetics impact classical liberalism (which is behind us, anyway,) but how do genetics, epigenetics, heritability, et at all influence our modern sensibilities? Modern liberalism is built almost as a reaction against former racialist notions of “blood”, with a consequent belief that people are, on average, about genetically equal. This butts up against the realization that some people are gifted and talented from birth, which many people quietly rationalize away while knowing they are being a bit dishonest, perhaps on the grounds that this is tantamount to statistical noise.

But the whole notion of “meritocracy” becomes more problematic if we admit that there’s a large genetic (or accidental, or environmental, or anything outside of free will,) contribution to IQ, educational attainment, mental illness, your chances of getting a good job, how other people treat you (because of attractiveness,) etc. Should a person who is dumb through no fault of their own suffer poverty? Should an ugly person be denied a job or a date? There’s an essential unfairness to it, after all.

But by the same token, what are you going to do about it? Declare that everyone under a certain IQ gets free money? What sort of incentives does that set up for society? And what does it do to someone’s self-image if they are Officially Delcared Stupid?

But this is all focused on the negative. What if we find ways to make people smarter, healthier, stronger? I think we’d take them. Sure, we’d have a few hold-outs who worry about “playing god,” (much as today we have people who worry about vaccines despite the massive health improvements public vaccination campaigns have cause.) But in the end we’d take them. Similarly, in the end, I think most people would try to avoid damaging their descendants’ epigenomes–even if not through direct public policy.

 

Addendum: while I am skeptical of most claims about epigenetics, eg, people claiming that epigenetic trauma can be transmitted for over a century, there do seem to be some things that cause what we can here characterize as multi-generational epigenetic effects. For example, the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), given to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages back in the 70s, not only causes cancer in the women it was given to, but also in their daughters. (It also results in intersex disorders in male fetuses.) In the third generation (that is, the sons daughters of the fetuses that were exposed to DES their mothers took during pregnancy,) there are still effects, like an increased risk of irregular periods. This is not necessarily “epigenetic” but similar enough to include in the conversation.