Epigenetics: Big New Changes in Genetics
Above the Codeby Marc Hodges
Advances in technology have confirmed the growing suspicions that the linkage between DNA and what you see in the cell is not a one-to-one relationship: what you see in the DNA is not fully what you get in the creature.
The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field…
— Matthew 13:44
In the Science vs. Scripture debate, scientists lay exclusive claim to the firm ground of objective facts. Believers in Christ often feel obligated to conform Scripture to the scientists’ latest conclusions. Neither approach is correct, and this harms the people on both sides.
The new science of science, scientometrics, which studies the predictable patterns of how and when humans acquire scientific knowledge, tells us that many scientific facts are more like shifting sand than solid rock. And, recent discoveries show that the Bible can point the way to major scientific breakthroughs. Everyone can be confident in the reliability of Scripture.
Mathematician and network scientist Samuel Arbesman lays out the latest in scientometrics in his new book: The Half-Life of Facts.1 He discusses the work of French investigators who compared conclusions from hundreds of scientific articles on hepatitis and cirrhosis published over the past 50 years to what is known today. They found a clear pattern of decay of facts: as new findings emerge, old conclusions are overturned or become obsolete at a predictable rate. As each year went by, a slightly greater number of the remaining facts were shown to be false or obsolete. It took about 45 years for half of the accepted facts to become no longer fully factual. After 50 years, only 25% of scientific articles from 50 years prior were still considered fully factual.
Arbesman reports similar patterns in the decay of facts in all major scientific disciplines. Facts from some disciplines are overturned faster than those from others, and the rate also varies with the techniques used to measure it. However, the overall implication is clear: much of what scientists say is true today will be replaced by new facts in the future. But why?
It’s partly because people and science are flawed. In his recent and widely cited (and controversial) article, Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,2 Tufts University researcher John Iaonnidis identifies major sources of error in the scientific process itself. These include the complexity of the subject being studied, study design, and interference by the scientists’ own desires and biases.
Is all science unreliable then? Based on common experience, no. Much of the natural world is actually knowable. And as technology and ideas improve, science is supposed to produce a long series of rejected facts strewn by the wayside as it seeks this truth. The process yields a refinement of knowledge about the natural world. We rely on this knowledge on a daily basis. Although this knowledge is very limited compared to what can and will be known one day, it is useful now and it generally works.
Still, we all need to be judicious when accepting scientific conclusions as facts. Most facts should not be extrapolated very far. And Christians should reject scientific conclusions that contradict properly understood Scripture. The passing of time will show Scripture to be correct, and we’re seeing a bit of this now.
Not all facts are equal. Some are large, important, and stick around so long they seep deeply into the mind of the public and the scientists, taking on a false aura of unassailable truth, and controlling the way we see the world. These facts require a lot of data, and oftentimes more than just data, to dislodge them. When they do give way, they reveal a vast horizon of new possibilities. These are the scientific breakthroughs, the changes in the way we see most everything. A flow of rapid discoveries is the usual result.
A major change is happening now in genetics,3 an area of science used frequently (but improperly) to undermine the Bible. This change has implications for most areas of Western thought and science.
Genetics is the study of the information in cells that guides how cells and creatures grow, maintain their bodies and reproduce themselves, and how their descendants do likewise. Beginning in the 1950s, we thought that the major piece of the genetic puzzle had been identified: DNA.
Classic DNA-centric genetics insisted that DNA contains all of the cell’s instructions, that this information is shielded within a creature’s lifetime from the effects of the environment, and that DNA is the sole means of transferring information from a cell to its cellular descendants and from a creature to its offspring. DNA was seen as the library of information and the controller of body development, maintenance and inheritance. Although ruffled by discoveries of related things like mitochondrial DNA and the mutational effects of radiation, this view of DNA as the dominant player held sway in science until about the 1990s. This view continues to occupy the public mind today. We thought we had found the key to unlocking the complexities of living systems.
Things haven’t turned out that way. Advances in technology and ideas in the 1990s allowed researchers to more easily study the linkage between what we see in the DNA (the genotype) and what we get in the cell or the creature (the phenotype). They confirmed the growing suspicions that this linkage is not a one-to-one relationship: what you see in the DNA is not fully what you get in the creature.
Environmental factors like diet, stress, and nurturing are being found to have measurable effects on laboratory animals’ body weight, fur color, behavior, and susceptibility to diseases like cancer, all without any change to the animals’ underlying DNA. Some of the chemical triggers for these effects may take place within mere hours of the animals’ having experienced the environmental factor. Remarkably, even when these environmental factors are removed, some effects may be passed to the animals’ offspring, sometimes for several generations, and again without underlying changes to the DNA. Similar effects are now being explored in people.4
These early findings are a stunner. Something else besides DNA is powerfully affecting the phenotype of cells and creatures. The name given to this something else is epi-genetics, which means “above genetics” or “outside of genetics,” since these systems operate without changing the underlying DNA.
Today, as the first biochemical mechanisms for how epigenetics work have been explored, even more are being discovered. In a bit of understatement, world-renowned geneticist and co-discoverer of the shape of DNA, Dr. JD Watson, put it this way in 2010:
You can inherit something beyond the DNA sequence. That’s where the real excitement of genetics is now.5
No kidding. But Dr. Watson’s presumption is only half right. It’s not just the discovery of systems of inheritance besides DNA that is so exciting. It’s that some of these still-being-discovered systems appear to react in near real-time to environmental changes experienced by the cell or by the creature. And, these reactions may be inherited by offspring.
Epigenetics marks a major change in worldview for science. It is becoming one of the fastest growing areas of biological research worldwide. If past experience is any guide, many of the scientific conclusions coming out of this new worldview will prove to be wrong. Caution is appropriate. Still, epigenetic effects appear to be real and corroborated by the Bible.
Inheritable epigenetic effects of life choices and experiences such as smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, diet, violence and more are now being explored in people. Early findings suggest that some choices people make may have measurable physical health consequences that can be inherited by their children and grandchildren. Likewise, effects of these choices may indeed be reduced or reversed by making better choices. Already, this new and growing understanding of the existence, power and scope of epigenetics is leading to new medical therapies for human diseases.6
These new areas of research will probably impact nearly every area of Western thought and society, including law, education, and government. It happened with ideas about DNA. It will very likely happen with epigenetics.
Epigenetic discoveries will also impact society’s understanding of how we came into being in the first place. In the West, evolutionary theory and its consequences are perhaps the primary obstacles to accepting the truth of the Scripture for those with higher educations, including Christians. Epigenetic discoveries are negating the DNA-centric view of biological information systems,7,8 and are challenging modern evolutionary theory.9
Epigenetic findings support the creationist view of the adaptability of creatures within God’s created kinds. Still, some see epigenetics as a potential escape route from the damage that information theory and the ongoing discoveries of the immense complexity of life are doing to evolutionary theory. However epigenetics affects the creation/evolution debate, denial of Jesus Christ by many people on Earth will continue until the end of the age.10
The Bible signposts the existence of epigenetics in several places. These include the birth differences and lives of the twins Jacob and Esau11 and the hitherto inexplicable process by which Jacob developed his vigorous speckled flock from Laban’s herd.12 Perhaps the most dramatic example is contained in no less conspicuous a place than the second of the Ten Commandments:
For, I the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
— Exodus 20:5,6
Epigenetics offers a biochemical mechanism for the resettable inheritable effects of sin described in the Bible. Rather than rejecting the Bible as Bronze Age superstition, an enterprising scientist might do well to examine the Bible carefully for clues on the next ground-breaking scientific discovery. As epigenetics is already pointing the way to new lifesaving medical strategies, what other new life-saving scientific discoveries await, hiding in plain sight in Scripture? An enterprising scientist taking the Bible seriously might also make for herself the most amazing life-saving discovery of all: God is real and Jesus Christ is His Son.
Unlike changeable scientific facts, many of which are really false conclusions based on decaying hypotheses influenced by human desires, we do have a source of steadfast eternal Truth that is fully reliable and immediately available for the asking: God’s Word revealed through the Bible and the Holy Spirit.
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.
— Matthew 7:7
Next Month: Epigenetics—How it works and what it means for us.