Histories and Meanings of Epigenetics

  • Tatjana Buklijas


The fast evolving field of epigenetics is currently generating interest and excitement, but also controversy. With its main proposition that environmental influences, from food to stress, can be rapidly inherited through molecular mechanisms that supplement or modulate information contained in DNA, some have come to see epigenetics as a bridge between social and natural sciences, reigniting the nature/nurture debate. Others, however, argue that epigenetics, while important, is part and parcel of genetics and not paradigm-changing. These contrasting views go along with opposing historical narratives and understandings of future promise of epigenetics. I examine these different histories and juxtapose these different meanings, to sketch how epigenetics came to high public prominence and what kind of larger developments in science and society this prominence indicates.



This chapter is an early output of the project titled ‘A history of the “epigenetic revolution”’, supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund. I am grateful to the book editors for their valuable comments; to my Liggins Institute colleagues—in the first place Sir Peter Gluckman, Allan Sheppard, Sherry Ngo, Felicia Low and Alan Beedle, and many others—for numerous conversations about epigenetics over the years, and to Klaus Taschwer of Der Standard, Vienna, for an insight into media perceptions of epigenetics.


  1. Anonymous. 2012. Grandma’s Curse: Some of the Effects of Smoking May Be Passed from Grandmother to Grandchild. The Economist, 3 November 2012. Accessed 9 November 2016.
  2. ———. 2015. Denise Barlow: A Career in Epigenetics. RNA Biology 12 (2): 105–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Aronova, Elena. 2007. Karl Popper and Lamarckism. Biological Theory 2 (1): 37–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Baader, Gerhand. 2007. Eugenische Programme in der sozialistischen Parteienlandschaft in Deutschland und Österreich im Vergleich. In Eugenik in Österreich: Biopolitische Strukturen von 1900–1945, ed. G. Baader, V. Hofer, and T. Mayer, 66–139. Wien: Czernin.Google Scholar
  5. Beutler, Ernest. 2002. Susumu Ohno. 1928–2000. Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 81: 1–13.Google Scholar
  6. Bird, Adrian. 2013. Genome Biology: Not Drowning but Waving. Cell 154: 951–952.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bird, Adrian P., and Edwin M. Southern. 1978. Use of Restriction Enzymes to Study Eukaryotic DNA Methylation: I. The Methylation Pattern in Ribosomal DNA from Xenopus Laevis. Journal of Molecular Biology 118 (1): 27–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Blech, Jörg. 2010. Gene sind kein Schicksal: Wie wir unsere Erbanlagen und unser Leben steuern können. Berlin: Fischer.Google Scholar
  9. Bonasio, Roberto, Tu Shengjiang, and Danny Reinberg. 2010. Molecular Signals of Epigenetic States. Science 30: 612–616.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Brink, Alexander. 1968. Paramutation: Directed Genetic Change. Science 159: 161–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Broberg, Gunnar, and Nils Roll-Hansen, eds. 2005. Eugenics and the Welfare State: Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Sweden. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Buklijas, Tatjana, and Nick Hopwood. 2008. Monsters. Making Visible Embryos. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.
  13. Burian, Richard M., Jean Gayon, and Doris Zallen. 1988. The Singular Fate of Genetics in the History of French Biology, 1900–1940. Journal of the History of Biology 21 (3): 357–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Burkhardt, Richard W. 1995. The Spirit of System: Lamarck and Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Churchill, Frank B. 2015. August Weismann: Development, Heredity and Evolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Comfort, Nathaniel. 2003. The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock’s Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Costandi, Mo. 2011. Pregnant 9/11 Survivors Transmitted Trauma to Their Children. The Guardian, 9 September 2011. Accessed 9 November 2016.
  18. Dawkins, Richard. 2004. Extended Phenotype—But Not Too Extended. A Reply to Laland, Turner and Jablonka. Biology and Philosophy 19: 377–396.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Exner, Gudrun. 2013. Die Soziologische Gesellschaft in Wien (1907–1934) und die Bedeutung Rudolf Goldscheids für ihre Vereinstätigkeit. Wien: New Academic Press.Google Scholar
  20. Fox-Keller, Evelyn. 2000. The Century of the Gene. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Gilbert, Scott. 2000. Diachronic Biology Meets Evo-Devo: C. H. Waddington’s Approach to Evolutionary Developmental Biology. American Zoologist 40: 729–737.Google Scholar
  22. Gissis, Snait B., and Eva Jablonka, eds. 2011. Transformations of Lamarckism: From Subtle Fluids to Molecular Biology. Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  23. Gitschier, Jane. 2009. On the Track of DNA Methylation: An Interview with Adrian Bird. PLoS Genetics 5 (10): e10000667.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gluckman, Peter D., Tatjana Buklijas, and Mark A. Hanson. 2015. The Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) Concept: Past, Present, and Future. In The Epigenome and Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, ed. Cheryl S. Rosenfeld, 1–13. London: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  25. Graham, Lauren. 2016. Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Grunstein, Michael, and Adrian Bird. 2015. Max Birnstiel 1933–2014: Gene Pioneer. PNAS 112 (2): 302–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Haig, David. 2004. The (Dual) Origin of Epigenetics. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology 69: 67–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Harwood, Jonathan. 1993. Styles of Scientific Thought: The German Genetics Community, 1900–1933. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  29. Heard, Edith, and Robert A. Martienssen. 2014. Transgenerational Epigenetic Inheritance: Myths and Mechanisms. Cell 157 (1): 95–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Ho, Dao H. 2014. Historical Perspective of Transgenerational Epigenetics. In Transgenerational Epigenetics: Evidence and Debate, ed. Trygve Tollefsbol, 17–23. Amsterdam: Elsevier.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Holliday, Robin. 1985. The Significance of Epimutations in Somatic Cell Genetics. Heredity 55: 280.Google Scholar
  32. ———. 1987. The Inheritance of Epigenetic Defects. Science 238 (4824): 163–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. ———. 1988. Successes and Limitations of Molecular Biology. Journal of Theoretical Biology 132: 253–262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. ———. 1989. DNA Methylation and Epigenetic Mechanisms. Cell Biophysics 15: 15–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. ———. 1996. DNA Methylation in Eukaryotes: 20 Years On. In Epigenetic Mechanisms of Gene Regulation, ed. V.E.A. Russo, R.A. Martienssen, and A.D. Riggs, 5–27. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Press.Google Scholar
  36. ———. 2011. Autobiographical Sketch. The Recombination, Repair and Modification of DNA. DNA Repair 10: 993–999.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. ———. 2012. Epigenetics and Its Historical Perspectives. In Epigenomics: From Chromatin Biology to Therapeutics, ed. Krishnarao Appasani, 19–29. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Holliday, Robin, and John E. Pugh. 1975. DNA Modification Mechanisms and Gene Activity During Development. Science 187: 226–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Hopwood, Nick. 2009. Embryology. In The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 6: The Modern Biological and Earth Sciences, ed. Peter J. Bowler and Jonathan V. Pickstone, 285–315. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Interlandi, Jeneen. 2013. The Toxins that Affected Your Great-Grandparents Could Be In Your Genes. Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed 10 November 2016.
  41. Jablonka, Eva, and Marion J. Lamb. 1989. The Inheritance of Acquired Epigenetic Characteristics. Journal of Theoretical Biology 139: 69–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Jablonka, E., and Marion J. Lamb. 2005. Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Cambridge, MA and London, UK: MIT Press/Bradford.Google Scholar
  43. Jaehner, D., H. Stuhlmann, C.L. Stewart, K. Harbers, J. Loehler, I. Simon, and R. Jaenisch. 1982. De Novo Methylation and Expression of Retroviral Genomes during Mouse Embryogenesis. Nature 298: 623–628.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Jenuwein, Thomas. 2006. The Epigenetic Magic of Histone Lysine Methylation. The Sir Hans Krebs Lecture Delivered On 6 July 2005 At The 30th FEBS Congress In Budapest, Hungary. The FEBS Journal 273: 3121–3135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kevles, Daniel. 1985. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Knapton, S. 2014. You Are What Your Grandmother Ate. The Telegraph, 17 February 2014. Accessed 9 November 2016
  47. Koestler, Arthur. 1971. The Case of the Midwife Toad. London: Hutchinson.Google Scholar
  48. Laland, Kevin N., Tobias Uller, Marc Feldman, et al. 2014. Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink? Nature 514 (7521): 161–164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Landecker, Hannah. 2011. Food as Exposure: Nutritional Epigenetics and the New metabolism. BioSocieties 6 (2): 167–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Landecker, Hannah, and Aaron Panofsky. 2013. From Social Structure to Gene Regulation, and Back: A Critical Introduction to Environmental Epigenetics for Sociology. Annual Review of Sociology 39: 333–357.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Landman, Otto and Sydney Halle. 1963. Enzymatically and Physically Induced Inheritance Changes in Bacillus Subtilis. Technical Manuscript 76. U.S. Army Biological Laboratories, Fort Detrick, Frederick, Maryland.Google Scholar
  52. Lappé, Martine, and Hannah Landecker. 2015. How the Genome Got a Life Span. New Genetics and Society 34 (2): 152–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Levine, Philippa, and Alison Bashford. 2010. Introduction: Eugenics and the Modern World. In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics, ed. P. Levine and A. Bashford, 3–24. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Lillycrop, K.A., E.S. Phillips, A.A. Jackson, M.A. Hanson, and G.C. Burdge. 2005. Dietary Protein Restriction of Pregnant Rats Induces and Folic Acid Supplementation Prevents Epigenetic Modification of Hepatic Gene Expression in the Offspring. Journal of Nutrition 135 (6): 1382–1386.Google Scholar
  55. Lock, Margaret. 2013. The Epigenome and Nature/Nurture Reunification: A Challenge for Anthropology. Medical Anthropology 32: 291–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Logan, Cheryl. 2013. Hormones, Heredity, and Race: Spectacular Failure in Interwar Vienna. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Lombardo, Paul A., ed. 2010. A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indian Experiment to the Human Genome Era. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  58. López-Beltrán, Carlos. 2007. The Medical Origins of Heredity. In Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology, Politics and Culture, 1500–1870, ed. Staffan Müller-Wille and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, 105–132. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.Google Scholar
  59. Maher, B. 2008. Personal genomes: The Case of the Missing Heritability. Nature 456 (7218): 18–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Meloni, Maurizio. 2015. Heredity 2.0: The Epigenetics Effect. New Genetics and Society 34: 117–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. ———. 2016. Political Biology: Science and Social Values in Human Heredity from Eugenics to Epigenetics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Meloni, Maurizio, Simon Williams, and Paul Martin. 2016. The Biosocial: Sociological Themes and Issues. The Sociological Review Monographs 64 (1): 7–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Müller-Wille, Staffan, and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger. 2012. A Cultural History of Heredity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Nanney, David L. 1958. Epigenetic Control Systems. PNAS 44 (7): 712–717.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Nature. 2012. Life Stresses. Nature 490 (7419): 143.Google Scholar
  66. Newton, Tim. 2016. The Turn to Biology. The Sociological Review Monographs 64 (1): 117–133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Ngo, Sherry, and Alan Sheppard. 2015. The Role of DNA Methylation: A Challenge for the DOHaD Paradigm in Going Beyond the Historical Debate. Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease 6 (1): 2–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Niewoehner, Jörg. 2015. Epigenetics: Localizing Biology Through Co-Laboration. New Genetics and Society 34 (2): 219–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Olby, Robert. 2013. Darwin and Heredity. In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolutionary Thought, ed. Michael Ruse, 116–123. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Peterson, Erik. 2016. The Life Organic: The Theoretical Biology Club and the Roots of Epigenetics. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  71. Pick, Daniel. 1989. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848–c.1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Reik, Wolf, and G. Kelsey. 2014. Cellular Memory Erased in Human Embryos. Nature 511 (7511): 540–541.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Reik, Wolf, Andrew Collick, Michael L. Norris, Sheila C. Barton, and M. Azim Surani. 1987. Genomic Imprinting Determines Methylation of Parental Alleles in Transgenic Mice. Nature 328: 248–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Renwick, Chris. 2016. New Bottles for New Wine: Julian Huxley, Biology and Sociology in Britain. The Sociological Review Monographs 64 (1): 151–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Richardson, Sarah S., Cynthia R. Daniels, Matthew W. Gillman, et al. 2014. Don’t Blame Mothers. Nature 512: 131–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Riggs, Arthur D. 1975. X Inactivation, Differentiation, and DNA Methylation. Cytogenetics and Cell Genetics 14: 9–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Riggs, Arthur D., Robert A. Martienssen, and Vincenzo E.A. Russo. 1996. Introduction. In Epigenetic Mechanisms of Gene Regulation, ed. Vincenzo E.A. Russo, Robert A. Martienssen, and Arthur D. Riggs, 1–4. Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.Google Scholar
  78. Robertson, Alan. 1977. Conrad Hal Waddington. 8 November 1905–26 September 1975. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 23: 575–622.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Sapp. 1987. Beyond the Gene: Cytoplasmic Inheritance and the Struggle for Authority in Genetics. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  80. Shildrick, Margrit. 2000. Maternal Imagination: Reconceiving First Impressions. Rethinking History 4 (3): 243–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Shulevitz, Judith. 2012. Why Fathers Really Matter. The New York Times, 8 September 2012. Accessed 9 November 2016.
  82. Skinner, Michael K., and Matthew D. Anway. 2005. Seminiferous Cord Formation and Germ-Cell Programming: Epigenetic Transgenerational Actions of Endocrine Disruptors. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1061: 18–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Slavet, E. 2008. Freud’s Lamarckism and the Politics of Racial Science. Journal of the History of Biology 41 (1): 37–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Smith Hughes, Sally. 2011. Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Szyf, Moshe. 2009. Epigenetics, DNA Methylation, and Chromatin Modifying Drugs. Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology 49 (1): 243–263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Taschwer, Klaus. 2016. Der Fall Paul Kammerer: Das abenteurliche Leben des umstrittensten Biologen seiner Zeit. Munich: Carl Hanser.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Vargas, Alexander O. 2009. Did Paul Kammerer Discover Epigenetic Inheritance? A Modern Look at the Controversial Midwife Toad Experiments. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution 312B (7): 667–678.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Vargas, Alexander O., Quirin Krabichler, and Carlos Guerrero-Bosagna. 2016. An Epigenetic Perspective on the Midwife Toad Experiments of Paul Kammerer (1880–1926). Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution. doi: 10.1002/jez.b.22708.
  89. Waddington, Conrad H. 1940. Organisers and Genes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  90. ———. 1942. Canalization of Development and Inheritance of Acquired Characters. Nature 150: 563–565.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Weaver, Ian C.G., Moshe Szyf, and Michael J. Meaney. 2002. From Maternal Care to Gene Expression: DNA Methylation and the Maternal Programming of Stress Responses. Endocrine Research 28 (4): 699.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Webb, Jonathan. 2016. The Gene is Still Selfish: Dawkins’ Famous Idea Turns 40. BBC News: Science and Environment.
  93. Weindling, Paul. 2009. A City Regenerated: Race and Welfare in Interwar Vienna. In Interwar Vienna: Culture Between Tradition and Modernity, ed. Deborah Holmes and L. Silverman, 81–111. Rochester, NY: Camden House.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tatjana Buklijas
    • 1
  1. 1.University of AucklandAucklandNew Zealand

Personalised recommendations