By Jill Chanter
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Science is not neutral

This article is over 6 years, 2 months old
Issue 407

Epigenetics has become a high-profile contribution to understanding what makes us human. A relatively small body of research is portrayed as having discovered that some human conditions can be passed down through a process of interaction between genes and environment.

There are serious dangers with the way in which this is being represented, and John Parrington’s article (“Nature, Nurture: Mind the Trap”, October SR) is far from critical of the science on which these claims are based.

He states that “all the evidence points to people being no more determined by their environment than they are by their genes”. This is misleading.

John uses a number of largely speculative scientific studies that point to the link between stress and the epigenome.

For example, the Holocaust study is based on a very small sample size and has been subject to statistical and methodological criticism. The authors conclude that their study provides no more than “a potential insight into how severe psychological trauma can have intergenerational effects”.

Science does not exist in an objective vacuum. Our understanding is also informed by what studies succeed in getting published.

Mice studies that support theories of transgenerational inheritance are getting wide publicity while research papers that contradict their findings are much harder to get published.

John’s article conflates diagnoses such as Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s and epilepsy with conditions such as depression and schizophrenia that have no objective measurement. To attempt to identify a biological basis for these diagnoses is to look in the wrong direction.

When we understand mental health problems as social the solutions lie in changing society.

When we understand them as biological the answers tend to be medication and the problem is located in the individual.

This may fit a neoliberal agenda but I don’t think it’s one socialists should be part of.


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