Blinded by science: when biology meets policy

Sue White and David Wastell, authors of Blinded by science out today, explain the rise of neuroscience and genetics and their influence and impact on social policy.

David Wastell

Sue White

“Biological sciences, particularly neuroscience and genomics, are currently in the ascent. These new ‘techno-sciences’ are increasingly seen to promise a theory of everything in the psychosocial realm.

Social policy has not been slow to conscript technological biology, and is making significant use of neuroscientific evidence to support particular claims about both the soaring potentialities and irreversible vulnerabilities of early childhood, and the proper responses of the state.

The far reaching implications of epigenetics

The last decades have also seen a profound shift in our understanding of biological processes and life itself.

Whereas genetics has conventionally focused on examining the DNA sequence (the genotype), the burgeoning field of epigenetics examines additional mechanisms for modifying gene expression in manifest behaviours, physical features, health status and so on (the phenotype).

It provides a conduit mediating the interaction of the environment on an otherwise immutable DNA blueprint, and invites a natural interest in the impact of adverse conditions, such as deprivation or ‘suboptimal’ parenting. The implications of this for social policy are far reaching.

Political positions are already emerging. The slavery reparations movement in the United States is using epigenetic arguments to support its case for compensation for the privations of slavery generations ago and there are also claims that the offspring of Holocaust survivors show enduring epigenetic changes.

Legal scholars and ethicists are further commenting on the implications for litigation in relation to the effects of a range of environmental and workplace toxins. At the same time, epigenetic arguments potentially engender newly racialized and stigmatised identities consequent on epigenetic ‘damage’, and the moral imperative to ‘optimise’ the uterine environment.

These developments can expose disadvantaged communities to increased surveillance and scrutiny.

“A moral imperative that requires each generation to maintain the quality of the human genome and epigenome…”

That gene expression is not immutable means it can be changed, for the better or worse, at the molecular level. What implications are likely to ensue, we may ask, of a moral imperative that requires each generation to maintain the quality of the human genome and epigenome, and pass it on in no worse condition than that in which it was received?

How does it change your relationship with your mother, for example, if you see yourself not as the latest in a line of anxious people, part of a family of worriers, and but instead as an epigenetically compromised individual, damaged in utero, or in early childhood by your ‘neurotic’ or distracted mother?

What happens if policy designates behavioural categories as abnormal, on the precautionary principle that a variety of quite ordinary ‘choices’ might be damaging the epigenome for the next and even subsequent generations?

The problem of prevention, targeting and early intervention

Current developments in biotechnology are not historically unique; arguably they form part of an enduring project to ‘fix’ people.

‘Early intervention’ is a hot policy topic: the current strap-line for the UK Early Intervention Foundation is ‘Right for Children, Better for the Economy’. Prevention and targeting are prominent motifs in an increasingly residual and conditional welfare settlement, providing a natural slot for technologies which claim to tease out individual susceptibilities.

Studies on ‘foetal programming’ by adverse ‘maternal mood’ burgeon, drawing much inspiration from laboratory research on rats, not humans. An initial trawl on Google Scholar yields 30,000 hits for foetal programming.

“Gestation inevitably becomes the playground for epigenetic manipulations.”

We must ask ourselves why the preoccupation with stress in utero, where the infant not the mother is focus of expert concern, and where does this activity lead us as a society?

Gestation inevitably becomes the playground for epigenetic manipulations. Women are seen as responsible for optimizing good biological influences, making the right choices, consuming the remedies and therapies on offer to ‘optimise’ their uterine environments.

We thus come perilously close to losing the category ‘normal’. It is squeezed and squeezed until the molecules squeak. This is a paradox, though this is seldom acknowledged.

Epigenetics is about difference and inevitable variation in response to the outside world, but by equating difference with disease (through the notion of suboptimal conditions) it creates the potential for a particularly potent form of neo-eugenic thinking.

‘Optimisation’ of early life environments might make the case for benignly intended public health and parenting education approaches, but it also erodes the ‘normal’ and exposes sections of the population to increasing interference in the name of prevention and social progress.

The birth of a moral project

A moral project is thus being born which manifests itself on a number of levels, from the individualised intervention to the opaque models of the macro-economists which aim to inform social policy.

The consequences of such moral and scientific settlements are that preferred policy responses are individualised and increasingly medicalised. A preoccupation with prevention, early intervention and particular forms of evidence are squeezing out conversations about different and potentially more desirable and sustainable actions to make people’s lives better.

“The idea that there is “one normal”, rather than many, is the fundamental problem.”

Are the neurological and molecular levels, the actions and processes within and between cells, necessarily the most appropriate to guide the actions of the State? They lead us in the direction of fixing people, not helping them to keep going, or building communities or, indeed, alleviating poverty.

The idea that there is “one normal”, rather than many, is the fundamental problem. Inevitably, this engenders a progressive shrinkage of the membership of the category ‘normal’, as the exclusion principle operates towards a potentially very exclusive elite.

Questions about what is expectable of parents, what are acceptable levels of care for children, and crucially the limits of freedom and what the State can meaningfully and ethically offer, surely are moral ones and need informed, open debate.

Yet, biological forms of reasoning are likely to result in greater commercial opportunities for “Big Pharma” at the expense of social housing projects and the like, which have little currency at the molecular level and often struggle to demonstrate the sort of financial ‘outcomes’ economists prefer to plug into their models.

It is easier in the short term to show the effects of a pill on a biomarker, than the benefits of access to decent food and some human company for the wellbeing on a community.

We therefore ask, where are these developments likely to lead and is this what we want?


Blinded by science by David Wastell and Susan White can be ordered here for £21.59.

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1 Response to “Blinded by science: when biology meets policy”

  1. 1 aidanatlarge April 24, 2017 at 4:36 pm

    A hundred years ago this debate played out as eugenics. I really welcome this article saying there is not and cannot be a “normal” but we still risk people thinking epigenetics is a way to improve the human condition.

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