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Are individuals empowered or imperilled by these new types of risk information [ 52 , 53 ]? Still others investigate how genetic types of health information contribute to the formations of new norms of what counts as rational and responsible behaviour with regard to health risks, disease prevention and care for the self, family and society [ 54 , 55 ]. This type of research is an important contribution to understanding how genetic research impacts society, which kinds of distinctions between human beings it might create, and what kinds of political and legal frameworks are needed to mitigate potentially negative impacts, particularly on vulnerable groups in society.

Yet, as genetics is increasingly complemented by epigenetic perspectives on health and illness, notions of health risks shift in ways that create novel and distinct social and political questions. To explain this shift, we will briefly compare the specific characteristics of genetic and epigenetic notions of health risks and elaborate why this difference is central for understanding the new forms of social and scientific responsibility that arise with epigenetic approaches to health, illness and inheritance.

The genetics of the late 20th century introduced a new category of risk—genetic risk—and with it new possibilities for its assessment and management, e. Social science studies of those who live with the knowledge of a genetic mutation, for example a BRCA 1 or 2 mutation, show that their experience of genetic knowledge and testing technologies is also often characterized by this ambivalence [ 57 ]. On the one hand, the possibility of genetic testing is perceived as a life-saving technology.

On the other hand, worries about continued access to health insurance or discrimination on the job market if the information about their risk became known are also part of their experiences [ 53 ]. These worries are, depending on the national context, more or less substantiated [ 58 , 59 ].

At the advent of the HGP, it was assumed that genetic risk would explain the distribution and clustering of common diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. What is crucial is that these groups and families can be found in different social locations in society, with different class and ethnic backgrounds.

Discourses about the social responsibilities connected to genetic risk thus also remain largely confined to at-risk families and the genetic clinics that work with them. And third, the first two points often become linked to larger discussions about whether at-risk individuals have an obligation towards society to address their health risks in a responsible way, which is often equated with practices of knowing and sharing risk information and engaging in prevention, in order to save health care costs and be responsible citizens [ 57 ].

Social science research indicates that discussions of guilt and individual failings remain largely confined to these three levels of responsibility. They do not become, however, linked to the disease risk itself: whether one does or does not carry a genetic mutation is largely interpreted as fate and hence beyond individual control. What changes now if we move from a genetic to an epigenetic perspective on risk? Epigenetics introduces new forms of risk that are not linked to the gene per se, but to its relationship with the environment.

Just like the environment itself, epigenetic risk is thus dispersed and omnipresent.

In a sense, it concerns everyone. Everyone lives in an environment that might affect their epigenome.


However, epigenetic risk is, at the same time, strongly related to the social conditions of our lives: the contexts we live in and the ways we live in them. This leads to a key difference between genetic and epigenetic risk: as epigenetic risk becomes linked to life circumstances, it holds the potential to discriminate between people along traditional categories of social segregation that impact their life circumstances [ 63 , 64 ].

In the beginning of this section, we revisited how the genetic sciences of the late 20th century worked hard to explicitly set themselves apart from one of their historical precursors: eugenics. Eugenics assumed that different groups in society had different biological properties. Positive eugenics, which was prominent, for example, in South America, assumed that better life circumstances would improve human biology and hence worked on improving hygiene, medical care and education to improve the population.

Negative eugenics, which is what we mostly think of when we say eugenics, aimed to exclude those who were deemed biologically inferior from reproduction, often violently, while encouraging other groups to reproduce [ 65 ].



Historians of science have shown that it was key for the emerging genetic sciences after WWII to emphasize how they were different from eugenics see [ 49 ] for a critical overview. A key message of the HGP, for example, was: On a genetic level, all humans are pretty much the same. Post WWII genetics also cast itself as a humanitarian project that lent unity to the human race after the atrocities of the first half of the 20th century.

With regard to the health sciences, the major research object it produced—the genetic mutation—turned out to mostly work within this framework, as it appeared as dispersed among different groups in society. Nevertheless, a focus on genetic mutations also enabled new forms of discrimination and stigmatization by introducing novel at-risk groups as discussed in the previous section , and in some cases forged associations between specific genetic health risks and distinct social groups, as illustrated, for example, by the long-held assumptions that African—Americans have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease due to genetic factors, a hypothesis that has come to be increasingly challenged in the life sciences [ 66 ].

Environmental epigenetics and particularly the proposition of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, however, already challenges the aspirational ideal of sameness that was foundational to modern genetics [ 19 ]. Social location comes to matter for physical and mental health outcomes through its effects on gene expression—potentially across generations.

While studies often aim to point out the health impacts of possibly unjust living conditions, at the same time they run the risk of defining already disadvantaged groups in society as biologically different and disadvantaged. This ambivalence is a challenge that epigeneticists will have to face, particularly as research from their field becomes increasingly important for public health [ 68 ].

As with genetics, insights from epigenetics can present both means of empowerment—to understand the links between social location and health outcomes—but also means of possible discrimination [ 69 , 70 ]. Individuals and groups exposed to certain socio-material experiences are understood to be marked as biologically different at the level of gene expression. As we have shown, historically marking specific social groups as biologically different has mostly been to their disadvantage. Rather than leading to the betterment of their living conditions, it has often served to legitimate existing social hierarchies [ 71 ].

In contemporary environmental epigenetics, numerous studies using animal models and human cohorts currently explore how trauma, deprivation and exposures affect physical and mental health in later life and across generations. While their insights are unquestionably important, from a social science perspective a key question is: Will these studies contribute to the betterment of living conditions or increase the stigma and discrimination that disadvantaged groups are often already facing? Certainly, the answer to this question will highly depend on the social and political development of our societies, which has in many countries taken a downturn when it comes to the commitment to social solidarity, inclusion and the sharing of wealth and resources across societal strata.

However, scientists, too, have an important responsibility to consider the social context of their work when they design and conduct their studies and interpret their results. The biological in general and the molecular in particular hold a certain power: in our societies, phenomena that can be traced to the materiality of the biological and the molecular are often considered to be more real and credible than descriptions based on other data alone [ 4 ].

That goes hand in hand with a certain responsibility on the part of life science researchers. Exactly what phenomena am I making real with my research? Which categories do I use to describe and label that which I seek to explore?

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Which silent assumptions about the social world might I integrate into my research designs and the interpretation of my results, possibly without further reflection? Have I considered the possible social and political implications of my work in the way I communicate my results? However, the degree to which life science researchers—individually and as research communities—can engage with such questions is highly dependent on the social organisation of the scientific system as such, particularly on its reward and incentive structures [ 72 ].

Currently, the scientific system and its funding and career structures tend to encourage a focus on fast-paced scientific work that aims to score well in terms of quantitative performance metrics such as the Journal Impact Factor [ 73 ]. As has been discussed in much greater detail elsewhere, one of the often-detrimental effects of this orientation are specific time-regimes of work that discourage scientists from engaging in activities that will not be easily translatable into the next high-impact paper [ 74 ].

This effect is particularly pronounced for current postdoctoral and tenure-track scholars who are in the process of building a career in science and who constitute the next generation of the scientific leaders of the field. Yet, socially and politically important and challenging fields such as environmental epigenetics clearly point to the limits of the kinds of work that can be accomplished within the current normative structure of science.

Time-pressured and impact-factor-oriented modes of work make it difficult for life scientists and researchers in other fields, too! Nevertheless, as research in environmental epigenetics is so intimately tied to the social world, it will be crucial to enable processes of exploring its social and political dimensions before, during and after the research process. Research funders will play a particularly important role in this process, as will institutional leaders, in both funding and rewarding careful research proposals that also include explorations across disciplinary boundaries that seek to responsibly account for the biosocial nature of research in environmental epigenetics.

Particularly for research that explores the biological impact of unequal living conditions and experiences across generations—may it be in a model organism or in cohort studies—it will be of uttermost importance to engage with its inherent connections to questions of social and environmental justice. Below, we want to highlight just two aspects that are particularly important to consider at the intersection of social justice and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.

Social and bioethical studies of science [ 63 , 75 , 76 ] have indicated that exploring the molecular aspects of a social issue often leads to locating the responsibility for addressing this issue on the level of individual instead of the level of society. In the case of nutrition, food often becomes viewed as an individual choice instead of a complex social phenomenon [ 78 ]. The focus on the molecular thus often tends to shift attention away from the complexities of society to the actions of the individual.

While this can be politically powerful in terms of enabling individual agency, it also means that more collective questions and answers are often neglected. Swedish political scientist Maria Hedlund [ 75 ] reminds us that it will be pivotal to discuss epigenetic responsibility on the collective level—that environmental pollution is not considered as something that needs to be managed by the individual, but as something for which states and companies are held responsible.

Similarly, questions of nutrition and lifestyle cannot be negotiated at the scale of the individual alone.


Socially stratified patterns of food intake also need to be understood as expressions of distinct social hierarchies and the unequal distribution of social, political and economic resources. Approaches that seek solutions on the individual scale alone often end up holding the most vulnerable members of our society responsible for improving their own health and that of future generations without addressing the structures that significantly contribute to creating the problem [ 68 ].

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The environmental epigenetics research community can contribute to a more complex understanding of epigenetic responsibilities across generations by considering how they themselves frame the problems they seek to address, which contexts they consider in their experimental designs and how they interpret their findings. We have outlined that in the history of biosocial approaches to body, health and inheritance, studies often focused on the negative effects of certain exposures, with much less attention given to exploring reversibility and the effects of positive environments.

As we briefly discussed before, a similar trend has become visible in contemporary environmental epigenetics research. While it is of course of uttermost importance to understand the detrimental effects of environmental toxins, trauma or other biosocial exposures, it is equally important to consider the possible social impact of scientific research focused often almost exclusively on harm. While insights from environmental epigenetics holds the prospect of banishing or avoiding detrimental exposures in the future [ 63 , 75 ], the question emerges of whether there is a retrospective responsibility towards already affected individuals to invest more in studies of reversibility.

On a societal level, it needs to be considered if a message of damage without hope of reversibility might contribute to the stigmatization of individuals and groups, potentially across generations. While studies of reversibility alone are no cure for the possibility of discrimination [ 80 ] and potential suggestions of social or medical interventions based on notions of reversibility will need to be carefully scrutinized regarding their social and political impacts, more attention to questions of reversibility in the study of heritable epigenetic effects can be an important step. We have highlighted these two questions as they are particularly important challenges for science and society in the context of environmental epigenetics in general, and specifically with regard to the proposition of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.

They are challenges that life science researchers need to become more aware of, but, at the same time, we believe that they do require engagement from across the disciplines in order to be addressed productively.

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Together with a growing number of social scientists, humanities scholars and life scientists, we propose that epigenetic research and, particularly, work on such a sensitive topic as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance needs interdisciplinary exchange and collaboration to thrive responsibly. To date, there are a few initiatives where scholars from these different fields have to come together to work on integrating social science perspectives that foreground questions of social responsibility, justice and equity into research designs and the interpretations of studies [ 70 ].

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These forms of collaboration require bringing together expertise from disciplines that might appear radically different and which might focus on topics that seem very distant from each other at first glance—such as gene regulation, methylation patterns, cellular signal cascades, social structure, war trauma, racism, gender discrimination or agrarian economics. But it is the power and the challenge of a field like environmental epigenetics that it works on topics that intersect the social and the biological world so profoundly that all of these different types of expertise might need to interact to make sense of the complex phenomena that environmental epigenetics seeks to describe.

Thus, we argue for forms of engagement that build on combining different types of expertise and exchanging perspectives, but that are, at the same time, open to transformative processes that might profoundly alter the viewpoints with which each participant has entered the engagement.

This continued separation has been criticised by many social scientists as insufficient for addressing the inherent social and political character of life science research see e. A field such as environmental epigenetics that brings together the social and biological in such complex ways makes it even more apparent that such a mode of engagement built on critique from the outside alone and persistent disciplinary separation is not enough.

Hence, we envision more integrative processes of collaboration in which scholars from different disciplines participate in the design, conduct and interpretation of experiments and studies. Becoming aware of the troublesome histories of biosocial research must be an essential part of such processes in order to not repeat historical injustices.

Responsibility is thus in its essence a doing, a practice. The practice of responding well to the challenges and potentials of environmental epigenetics and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance will require pooling our resources across the disciplines and working together to understand life and inheritance in all its social and biological complexity. It will require developing a new language that goes beyond simple notions of determinism, whether social or biological, and that can begin to address the interplay between social and biological life as always already a scientific and a political question.

The intent, then, of interdisciplinary conversations and collaboration is to render scholars in different disciplines articulate in ways that allow them to speak across disciplinary divides to explore the biosocial aspects of life in ways that live up to these inherent political responsibilities. National Center for Biotechnology Information , U. Journal List Environ Epigenet v. Environ Epigenet. Published online Jul Isabelle Manusy, Managing Editor.

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