“The Surprisingly Sociological Progression of Our Understanding of Human Genes”
Intro: Epigenetics’ Journey Through the Sciences
Epigenetics regards the influence of future generations being genetically shaped by current lifestyle choices that individuals make. Though genetic material has a strong influence on each individual’s different physical traits as well as their personality, it’s important to explore the influence that environmental and developed, learned, and rewritten traits have on genetic expression. The genes of each individual throughout their life rely heavily on environmental factors, but also hereditary factors involving expression of different diseases present in a person’s bloodline. Factors in each person’s life and the lives of past family members exert an influence on how their genome and personal characteristics are defined. It is noted that epigenetics is often explained in terms of how the experiences that past family members have, namely traumatic or horrific ones, can negatively shape the mental health of a future member of the family. Social aspects of family and home life, as well as political influences that an individual may experience, outline the importance that social experiences have not only an impact on a person’s current life, but also the lives of future generations.
Biological to Social Epigenetics
Biological Genetics refers back to the simple theory of DNA. We’ve learned that our genes are made up of DNA, which consists of instructions from both our mother and father. It is semi random, the genes we inherit from either parent however, these genes in return help us determine what illnesses and diseases we are prone to. In an article: “Explaining Epigenetics,” written by Alicia Park, she talks about the recent study progression of epigenetics. The article talks about how each individual cell in the human body possesses the complete set of genes that are needed for the cell to progress efficiently. For example, the genes in a liver cell instruct it to become a liver cell as well as the genes in a bone cell instructs the cell to operate as a bone cell.
Biologically, Epigenetics is the study of how each cell is able to tell which genes to turn on or off in the genome so that the cell can establish the correct identity. Now the real question: can social epigenetic changes be passed on from parent to offspring? In a recent study done by Azim Surani of the Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research Gurdon Institute at the University of Cambridge, it is hard to say. Surani and his colleagues studied how an egg and sperm come together and are formed in an embryo. While doing so, they came to find that any methyl group that was added from the egg and the sperm were erased so that the fetus could produce its own. However, Azim Surani explains how 5% of the methyl changes are not completely gone, which can result in the reappearance of certain epigenetic changes within the offspring.
The text defines Sociological Epigenetics as the study of fluctuations in gene expression-some that can be passed off to our offspring-formed without completely altering the original genetic code. Genes signify the possibility of certain traits, however, how that trait is shaped depends on physical and social environment that the person belongs to and their geographic location. One of the examples that was given to us in the text was about the similarity of genes when it came to height. If a particular child is born in a wealthy household and has a decent nutritional diet, versus a child who is born into poverty and does not have the same opportunity for a decent diet, it is likely that the child born into poverty is more likely to be shorter when he/she grows up. Just as physical factors contribute to the forming of certain genes so do social factors (Croteau 251). The readings discussed how a certain social environment helps form certain traits. The example given was that of how childhood abuse can to lead to antisocial behavior as an adult. For example, for young boys who carry both the gene and have been a victim of abuse, are twice as likely to become antisocial as adults. In comparison, young boys who do not have the gene but have suffered from abuse and boys who have the gene but have not been a victim of abuse are less likely to grow up and be antisocial men. However much of this can be resolved. Studies show that although negative social factors can be overcome with a helpful social environment. Similarly, physical factors can trigger certain traits, but they can also limit them their impact.
Following these studies, Epigenetics has been reevaluated in accordance with new research that proves negative effects of extreme environmental factors can actually cancel out standard evolutionary adaptations from one generation to the next.
Macro-level Sociological Epigenetics Versus Biological Genetic Adaptation
In addition to the study of hereditary consequences of lifestyle choices, the field of Epigenetics has expanded to research the intergenerational effects of major societal events. Particularly in regards to traumatic or volatile changes, recent studies have shown a connection between an individual’s altered mental state and their predecessors’ experiences.
In her study of epigenetic changes within the Jewish community, trauma specialist Rachel Yehuda determined that adult descendants of holocaust survivors suffer from altered levels of stress hormones compared to others of the same age (Yehuda 6). Children of the holocaust generation also complain of heightened levels of anxiety and depression, despite their self-described comfortable living situations.
Biological epigenetic changes are designed to prepare a child’s body for their parent’s extreme environment (in this case, a baby would be more adept to stabilize themselves during periods of starvation). Parental social changes to genes, too, serve to prepare a second generation for a similar lifestyle as the parent. However, macro-level or political sociological pressures seemed to have overpowered the body’s defensive response, actually making the child less able to adapt (Yehuda 8). In this way, traumatic or stressful political events experienced by one’s parents could potentially be more impactful on his or her genes as inherited physical traits like disease susceptibility and hair color, as well as the micro-level lifestyle influences explored in part I.
How Learned Traits Often Shape or Deviate from Genetic Material
This section is intended to illustrate through example how learned traits often shape and otherwise deviate from genetic material. Nature versus nurture defined as a disagreement about the relative importance of biology (“nature”) and the social environment (“nurture”) in influencing human behavior plays a huge role in epigenetics. There are two very different positions that have been engaged during this debate of nature versus nurture. One of them is the biological determinism which, contends that biology, specifically our genetic makeup, almost completely shapes the human behavior, and the other factor is the social determinism which, contends that culture and the social environment almost completely shape human behavior. Humans are the highly malleable product of the social learning that occurs during socialization (Croteau 150) meaning we typically absorb what’s been placed in our surroundings.
Take for example, Chris Langan, the smartest man you’ve never heard of. Chris has an IQ of over 195, nearly 100 points higher than the average American. Many would assume Chris would become a successful doctor, astronaut, or neurosurgeon but that was not the case. Chris was born in poverty and was not given the same opportunities as a child from an average middle class family. If his aptitude was based solely off of either social or genetic material, he would have received a full ride to the college of his choice and he’d be immediately successful. Since Chris’s family’s socio-economic status was poor, he was picked on and discriminated against growing up. He wasn’t given the same options or chances as that a middle class student and he definitely wasn’t given the same chances as a student from the upper class. He’s battled through many obstacles and is well known for his work on the “Cognitive-Theoretical Model of the Universe” (Nature versus Nurture). Chris could have very easily given up and let his socio-economic class determine his success but he decided to fight back. It’s because of nature (him being characterized by a drive to discover) and because of nurture (how/where he was raised) that he’s established himself as a person of high intelligence.
On the other hand, take Evan for example. He’s a computer programmer and he’s a guy that I used to work with; he was incredibly gifted and intelligent. Obviously, I’m not aware of his exact IQ as that doesn’t come up in day to day conversation but you can tell he’s brilliant. He was raised in a upper middle class family and his family had the ability to send him to the college of his choice. He chose MIT and excelled beyond belief. Due to epigenetics and his socioeconomic status, he’s been extremely successful. He now owns and runs his own IT business and works closely with Red Hat and Google. Although these men come from different classes, their aptitude is partially determined by social exposure. Despite Chris’s family’s lower socioeconomic class, his environment was heavily influenced by the same academic principles as Evan’s more privileged background.
Similarly, an interesting experimental science is behavioral epigenetics, which is the field of study examining the role of epigenetics in shaping animal (mammal) behavior. It’s an experimental science that seeks to explain how nurture shapes nature. There’s a very interesting rat experiment discovering that depending on how nurturing a mother is in the early weeks of one’s life, it determines how the offspring responds to stress later in life (BioScience).. Nurturing behaviors from the mothers showed that their offspring handled stressful events better later in life.
Epigenetics and Further Sociological Applications
When applying a sociological lens to epigenetics, the ideas of culture, power, and socialization that we previously studied come to mind. Culturally, certain characteristics are consistent throughout some cultures because of various factors including generation transmission of similar DNA codes (socially speaking). Individuals in cultures are all unique, but the idea that we’re not as different as our parents or grandparents is a factor that inadvertently creates culture. As we’ve seen in our textbook, power is definitely a generational factor. Children in working class families are taught to be more obedient that children in the middle and upper class. This may seem mostly an environmental factor than a factor created by epigenetics, but again the repetition and passing down of traits and attitudes are partially epigenetically driven. Learning about socialization comes when children observe their parents, but is also genetically programed in DNA. Looking at epigenetics through a sociological lens is a bit difficult because of the emphasis of biology in epigenetics, but the connections are definitely present and pervasive at every stage.
Powledge, Tabitha. “Behavioral Epigenetics: How Nurture Shapes
Nature.” Bioscience. Oxford Journals. Web. 26 July 2015.
Surami, Azim. “Reprogramming of Genome Function Through
Epigenetic Inheritance.” Nature 414 (2001): 122-128. Web.
Yehuda, Rachel. “Descendants of Holocaust Survivors Have Altered
Stress Hormones. Scientific American (2015): 1-10. Web.
Croteau, David, and William Hoyner. Experience Sociology. Ed. 2.
New York: 2013. Web.