Tag Archives: Bill Sullivan

The Word Of The Day Is Epigenetics

I just finished reading a fascinating–and provocative–book: Pleased to Meet Me, by Bill Sullivan. Sullivan is a professor of pharmacology and microbiology at IU’s Medical School, and unlike most research scientists I know–sorry, guys and gals– is a gifted (and witty) writer. The book is actually fun to read.

The chapter titles give a clue to the book’s approach: “Meet Your Maker,” “Meet Your Tastes,” “Meet Your…Moods, Addictions, Demons, Beliefs, Future…etc.”  Each of the chapters adds to the story of how we have come to be the person we are, thanks to the complicated role played by the genes we’ve inherited, and the mechanisms that support or depress the expression of those genes.

Whether and why a gene “expresses itself” or is “turned off” is what epigenetics is all about.

Epigenetics–I now understand–is the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of genes expressions rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. As Sullivan puts it, epigenetics is the study of the “means by which the outside world interplays with our genes.”

After reading this book, I also understand why attributing any characteristic to a single gene, or even several genes, is likely to be inaccurate. It’s incomplete.

Not only can genes be switched on or off, or dimmed, their expression–i.e., the work that they do–interacts with environmental factors. Sullivan explains in great detail (and with funny analogies) why pregnant women shouldn’t drink, for example–and more surprisingly, why fathers who booze it up prior to baby-making can also have a negative effect on the fetus. (I had my children before the negative effects of drinking while pregnant were known–now I wonder whether their tendencies to be smart-asses is a result of my tippling….)

Sullivan doesn’t just want us to understand what science has discovered about our minds and bodies, he also wants us to appreciate the importance of the scientific method that led to those discoveries, and to base our personal and collective decisions on evidence. What science has to tell us should inform public policy. (Obviously, that won’t happen while Trump is in the White House–this is the most anti-science administration in American history.)

In fact, a Pew study confirms a significant partisan divide when it comes to science.

The partisan gap in Americans’ views of government spending for scientific research has grown over the long term. In 2001, there was no significant divide between the parties on this issue. This year, 62% of Democrats support increased spending for scientific research, compared with 40% of Republicans.

Sullivan has a chapter on genetic differences between conservatives and liberals that helps explain this…

If social policy were informed by what scientists now know about the effects of poverty on children, for example, America’s “safety net” (note quotation marks) would look very different. Studies have shown genetic methylation in adults who suffered economic challenges in childhood. (Methylation–another new word for me– changes the activity of a DNA sequence without changing the DNA itself. It’s all pretty complicated.) Underprivileged children don’t just suffer from unfortunate social conditions while they’re experiencing them–they also suffer observable, permanent biological damage.

The most important contribution of this very readable book isn’t the illumination it provides to non-scientists about the operation of our genetic inheritances, although that is certainly a plus. It is the recognition that scientific evidence should–must–inform government policies. Americans have always had an unfortunate habit of creating information silos, of failing to see the relevance of  information we have walled off into specialized domains to other areas of our lives.

Granted, it’s no longer possible to be Renaissance men or women. There is too much information for anyone to be an expert in everything. We can, however, reform our political system to ensure that it recognizes  the existence and importance of expertise. We can insist  that lawmakers base public policies on evidence offered by credible authorities who possess specialized understandings.

But first, we have to elect people who know what they don’t know, who aren’t threatened by people who do know, and who are willing to listen and learn.