Friday, January 18, 2013


Nearly two years ago, I posted an article entitled Sin, Sanctification, and Genetics. It was in writing that article that I was first introduced to the genetic term "epigenetics" or "epigenetic change." I will quote from that article to explain the meaning of this term:

 "The structure of a DNA molecule can undergo physical change due to interaction with the physical environment. (Dr. Burton) Webb points to a study done on macaques. Macaques carrying a mutation in a specific serotonin transporter were more likely to experience anxiety and engage in antisocial behavior when raised with peers carrying similar mutations. When macaques with this same mutation were placed with family groups that reinforced good social skills and behavior, both their behavior and their DNA changed. In other words, nurture altered nature in a significant way. Webb states that there is a human orthologue (a term from genetics referring to one of two or more homologous gene sequences found in different species) to the macques gene."

Why should Christians be interested in epigenetics? This question can be answered with a question. What is the most significant intellectual challenge to the Christian faith? Is it the New Atheism, or Darwinism? The answer is neither. But the New Atheism and Darwinism are important ingredients in the answer. What is this most significant challenge? Neuroscience, or more specifically, the belief among many neuroscientists that genetics explains everything about human beings, including love, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and even religious belief (See my article, God on the Brain). This belief has already made its presence known among evangelicals. Tim Keller, in his paper Creation, Evolution, and Christian Lay People, postulates that our very belief in God is determined by genetics. (The paper first appeared on the Biologos website, which is dedicated to convincing Christians to embrace evolution. Keller's paper was written to further that cause. See my response here.) Epigenetics, which shows that DNA molecules can change in response to their physical environments, challenges the belief that genetics alone explains why human beings are the way they are.

Here are some recent articles on epigenetics:

From Cornelius Hunter's Darwin's God blog: An article concerning the scientific study of epigenetics (with a brief explanation of it) at Cornell. Here is another post from Hunter explaining epigenetics.

A study on the connection between a monkeys genetic makeup and its rank within its group shows that a positive change in social status can alter the genetic makeup of a monkey. From Uncommon Descent, which provides a link to the whole article from Science Daily.

Two studys on twins sheds light on epigenetics. One study, conducted by genetic epidemiologist Tim Specter, head of the Department of Twin Research at Kings College, London, shows that "twins are not two uniform halves of a single whole." Despite sharing the same set of genes, they show remarkable differences as their genetic makeup interacts with their surrounding environment. Spector envisions a day when we view are genes as malleable, not as the determiners of our destiny. From The New Scientist. Here is a report from Science Daily on a new study which shows that the environment in the womb defines a baby's epigenetic profile. Both articles from Uncommon Descent.

Scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have discovered that the genome of a living organism can be modified to prohibit the introduction of a foreign DNA fragment. This modification can be passed on to subsequent generations. From Uncommon Descent. Here is a quote from the article: "To the extent that epigenetics plays a role in evolution, it undermines the ubiquitous just-so stories for how Darwin’s natural selection on the random mutation of stable existing genes (via differing survival rates of offspring) did it all.
"In epigenetics, the genome is being modified by the environment during the life form’s existence, and the mutation isn’t random. It is a (programmed?) response to a threat, and the information is passed on."

Uncommon Descent links to a recent issue of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. The issue apparently contains articles full of information supporting Intelligent Design and ID's view that epigenetics supports the idea that the universe came about through design.

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