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Epigenetics: A look at a pioneer and his field

A most interesting article in Science sticks its collective toe into what epigenetic inheritance means for Darwinian biology via a profile of Michael Skinner, an epigeneticist portrayed as a controversial figure (but, of course he would have to be, wouldn’t he?)

Epigenetics just means that genes can be altered during an organism’s lifetime and passed on that way (Lamarckism). Darwin became more of a Lamarckist as his knowledge progressed, but his followers have tended to be hostile to the idea because it detracts from the hunt for evidence for Darwin’s natural selection acting on random mutations as the almost exclusive source of change.

In fact, it means that hereafter research is required to determine what is causing a change. All change can’t just be attributed to Darwinism, whatever the true cause.

Behind the paywall, we can learn:

Michael Skinner is gleefully listing the disciplines that he’s ruffled with his contention that, without altering the sequence of DNA, certain chemicals can cause harmful health effects that pass down generations. Toxicologists are so outraged that they have tried to block his funding, he says. Geneticists resist having their decades-old understanding of inheritance overturned. Then there are the evolutionary biologists, who have “the biggest knee-jerk reaction of all.” Skepticism is to be expected, Skinner acknowledges: “This is probably going to be the biggest paradigm shift in science in recent history,” he declares.

Like he doesn’t much care how many squawkers get knocked off their nest eggs?

Skinner seems to relish the role of maverick. He wears a suede Stetson and a long black coat during a recent interview in a downtown yogurt shop in Washington, D.C. He is in town to receive an “American Ingenuity” honor from Smithsonian magazine, awarded to 10 people who “are having a revolutionary effect” on their fields. A related profile in the magazine is the latest in a stream of favorable media articles recorded on Skinner’s online curriculum vitae and lab website.

It all started when he didn’t believe a postdoc, Andrea Cupp, and made her repeat an experiment “about fifteen times.” Ah, but that would be telling.

To those who don’t flatly dismiss Skinner’s findings, he has raised a tantalizing glimpse of a new phenomenon, one that should be explored further. Transgenerational epigenetics “is either going to be blown away or it’s really going to be confirmed and expanded on and that’s what I find exciting” says epigenetics researcher Wolf Reik of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, U.K. Skinner doesn’t expect answers anytime soon. “I suspect that for the rest of my career, there will be skeptics,” he says.

Skeptics, that’s one way of putting it.

See also:

Epigenetics: Dawkins’ “selfish gene” discredited by still more scientists you should have heard of

Richard Dawkins responds to “Die, Selfish Gene, Die”: Mere adversarial journalism (Wonder what he thinks of the Science profile of Skinner?)

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One Response to Epigenetics: A look at a pioneer and his field

  1. Great post! Maybe “skeptics” is shorthand for “dogmatic proponents of naturalism that reject testable, repeatable science in favor of belief in their version of the unobservable past.”

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