March 2, 2011

WE ARE ALL DESIGNISTS NOW:

Epigenetics and Society: Did Erasmus Darwin foreshadow the tweaking of his grandson’s paradigm? (Andrew D. Ellington, The Scientist)

Erasmus anticipated Charles in many ways, but surprising results in the field of epigenetics—heritable (and reversible) changes in gene expression—suggest that he may have been very far ahead of his time indeed. In the current issue, David Berreby cites the increasing body of work that correlates childhood trauma with DNA methylation with suicide. One’s personal epigenome is modified by environmental perturbations, and that influences behavior. Certainly the Victorians could have related to the notion of an Original Sin that made its heritable mark on the genomes of parents created innocent, passing the curse down to their descendants. That said, the Victorians did have their biases, and it was of course the father who had the predominant influence over the child. But recently published studies of genetic imprinting show that the two parents’ influence on their offspring is more akin to a tug of war.

The Lamarckian idea that giraffes’ reaching for leaves resulted in longer-necked progeny seems silly to us today, primarily because we know so very much about the underlying mechanisms of genetics. And yet Lamarck may have a last laugh—think inheritance patterns in ciliates, or the effect of diet on the coat color of agouti mouse offspring. We are in the midst of a paradigm shift in our understanding of how evolution can act…on evolution, yielding mechanisms that allow both adaptation and heritability within the course of a lifetime.


It's a canny alternative to a theory everyone knows has failed, flattering us with the notion that we design ourselves.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 2, 2011 5:29 PM
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