Science, Culture and Epigenetics
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Science, Culture and Epigenetics

AMIDST THE DISCOVERIES, discussions and disputes in neuroscience, there are some things that we know about our brains with certainty. There are a massive number of cells in the brain doing different things; some that we use often become more dominant in the mass as the less-used atrophy. On how we developed such an adaptive brain, however, there is less agreement, but for most involved in theoretical neuroscience our brains evolved along Darwinian lines. Accidental genetic mutations in individuals that were advantageous to survival became more frequent in subsequent populations. The processes that have delivered the kinds of brains we see in humans today were active at least 200,000 years ago, and today's brain is the consequence of a massive number of accidental mutations at the molecular level. More recently a global effort to identify laws and develop theories has had wide influence on how we think about individual destiny and familial heredity.

Under the rubric of genetics, science has found itself back at the center of key debates in the humanities concerning determination and free will that were at the core of the universities from which science emerged in the medieval and early modern periods. David Wootton, in his recent book on the scientific revolution during this period (roughly the 14th and 15th centuries) [1], claims that the majority of students studied natural philosophy in the faculty of arts in a strictly secular context. Wootton's argument is that science emerged from a humanities-based exploration of Greek, Chinese and Islamic texts. The foundational emphasis on communicating findings during the experimental turn by letter (and later journals) is testament to the legacy of the arts and humanities in the construction of scientific knowledge. The 2015 STM Report [2], celebrating 350 years of journal publishing, reveals some startling statistics such as that the number of annual downloads of scientific papers is 2.5 billion and that the average reading time for papers has dropped from 45 minutes in the mid-1990s to just over 30 minutes today, which adds up to about 143,000 reading years per annum. And with reviewers reporting an average of 5 hours per paper—of which there were c. 2.5 million in 2014 taking up another 1,000 years at least—it is clear that modern science is a significantly literary practice, with its origins and current practices firmly in the arts and letters.

From time to time this philosophical heritage surfaces almost irresistibly, as for example in the recovery of some Lamarckian thoughts about evolution in the most recent turn in epigenetics. A resistance to a perceived mechanistic determinism and loss of free will in the understanding of molecular inheritance has revived interest in C.H. Waddington's 1940s work on hereditable features that cannot be fully accounted for by gene-centered explanations. Waddington conducted experiments that showed that the biological and behavioral consequences of a particular environmental condition were passed on to subsequent generations even when the condition was no longer a determining force. Inasmuch as some environmental conditions are within our control, this suggests that our social and cultural choices, particularly as they impact on our cognitive processes, might actively contribute to the ongoing evolutionary journey of humans and, by association, the rest of the natural world.

Perhaps it is some surprise that in epigenetics—at the core of contemporary biology and neuroscience—we have the strongest case for arguing that any division between science and culture is both unsupportable and foolhardy.

Michael Punt
Leonardo Reviews Editor-in-Chief
Email: <mpunt@easynet.co.uk>

References

1. David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution (London: Penguin, 2016).

2. The STM Report, Fourth Edition: Celebrating the 350th Anniversary of Journal Publishing (The Hague: International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers, 2015). An overview of scientific and scholarly journal publishing. [End Page 118]

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