Epigenetics, the study of how environmental factors and lifestyle choices influence our genes, has flourished to become one of the most groundbreaking areas of science over the past decade. Studies have shown that, among other things, toxins, stress, socio-economic status, bullying, racism and the lifestyles of our parents and grandparents can all turn on or off certain genes in our DNA. The field is radically changing how we think about nature and nurture – giving it an impact far beyond the lab.
But what are the wider implications now we no longer seem to be just a product of our genes? If it is possible to improve the functioning of everyone’s genes with the right environment, it may seem that a better understanding of epigenetics will lead to a more liberal and egalitarian society. But in my recent book, Political Biology, I note some worrying signs that the opposite could also be true.
Despite big research efforts, there are still uncertainties about the exact nature of epigenetic effects. This is especially true when it involves claims that changes to genes persist for generations. For that reason, epigenetics remains a controversial science, although progress is being made rapidly.