March 20, 2011

Charles Darwin's Grandfather and Epigenetics

Andrew Ellington's essay in The Scientist on Erasmus Darwin's influence. Says Dr. Ellington, a chemistry prof at the University of Texas, Austin, "Erasmus believed that environmental influences, in particular the “Imagination” of the parents, greatly influenced the phenotype of the child. How very pre-Victorian (and post-). Erasmus anticipated Charles in many ways, but surprising results in the field of epigenetics—heritable (and reversible) changes in gene expression—suggest that he may have been very far ahead of his time indeed."

Discussing the current paradigm shift in theories of how evolution works, Dr. Ellington notes, "We can expect that epigenetics will be held up as the forerunner of that bastard child of Creationism, Intelligent Design. Dribs and drabs of this are already appearing on the Interwebs, but it may soon come to a school board near you. Second, the notion that environmental tags are embedded in our genome within a human time frame has got to be one of the best things to happen to tort law in a long time. DNA typing has led to the conviction of the guilty and the freeing of the innocent. Epigenetic typing may now lead to expert testimony regarding the presymptomatic impact of environmental disasters on susceptible populations. This may seem fanciful, but where there are moneyed interests (on either side), the science will inevitably follow."

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