Writing Deprivation in the Body: Epigenetics Friend or Foe?

Sue White and David Wastell sketch out the risks if we don’t question ‘what is this knowledge for and what does it do to us?’ in relation to the new science of epigenetics. Arguably a question we should be asking ourselves about all kinds of knowledge…


As Lankelly Chase begin their action inquiry on knowledge, it is timely to reflect on changing contemporary understandings of social inequality and its intergenerational effects.

Social policy is currently making significant use of neuroscientific and epigenetic arguments to support claims about both the soaring potentialities and irreversible vulnerabilities of early childhood.

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 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.  This invites an interest in the impact of adverse conditions, such as deprivation or ‘suboptimal’ parenting. These have far reaching implications.

That gene expression is not immutable means it can be changed, for the better or worse. What implications arise, we may ask, from 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? What happens if certain behaviours are designated as toxic, on the precautionary principle that they might be damaging the epigenome for the next and even subsequent generations?

Political positions are already emerging and at the same time, epigenetic arguments potentially create newly 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 also spin hopeless stories of biological damage.

Current developments in biotechnology are not historically unique; arguably they form part of an enduring project to ‘fix’ people. Women, as is usual throughout history, seen as responsible for optimizing good biological influences, making the right choices and consuming the remedies and therapies on offer to ‘optimise’ their offspring.

Epigenetics is about difference and inevitable variation in response to the outside world, but by equating difference with disease we create a myth of perfectibility. ‘Good enough’ is no longer ‘good enough’.

We therefore ask, where are these developments likely to lead and is this what we want? They may 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 a fundamental problem.


Sue White, University of Sheffield @ProfSueWhite

Dave Wastell, University of Nottingham @ProfDaveWastell

These arguments are developed further in

Wastell, D. and White, S. (2017) Blinded by Science: Social Implications of Neuroscience and Epigenetics, Bristol: Policy Press.

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