Critical: Does Social Injustice Alter Our Epigenome (for generations to come)?

A new subset of genetics—“epigenetics”—appeared on the horizon in the 1990s and has been getting a lot of attention lately because it suggests some fascinating and frightening things about how “lifestyles and environment can change the way our genes are expressed” over the course of our lifetime. It has even reintroduced the once discredited idea that “traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime could be passed on to future generations”, and several studies on plants and animals have already shown that such modified gene expression can be inherited. Unfortunately, other more problematic scientific theories—that activists and social scientists worked hard to debunk—are also being resurrected in the wake of epigenetic research, including genetic (or epigenetic) determinism”.

On one hand, research into epigenetics has the potential to strengthen social justice movements, especially environmental justice, by uncovering yet another way in which low-income communities of color are disadvantaged on a global scale. We already know that the so-called “Green Revolution” has wreaked havoc on women’s health, a fact which becomes even more ominous in light of epigenetic research showing that exposure to pesticides (in mice) has negative impacts on their offspring’s health for at least four more generations. This is not good news for migrant farm workers and their families in the United States or Yaqui girls in Mexico who are already unable to breastfeed due to pesticide exposure. Although epigenetic studies of human populations are just beginning, there is already some cutting edge research that supports these findings- for instance, Kaati, et al, analyzed a century of demographic information from Sweden, exposing that even temporary famine experienced by grandparents can affect the life expectancy of grandchildren.

On the other hand, in our neoliberal age that stresses “personal responsibility” it may be more likely that this research will be used to blame people rather than help them. In his appearance on the PBS show about epigenetics, Dr. Randy Jirtle, Director of the Epigenetics and Imprinting Laboratory at Duke University, says that people have a responsibility to consider their lifestyle choices in light of the impact it could have on their children. In a similar vein, Dr. Szyf, professor of pharmacology and therapeutics at the McGill University School of Medicine, explains the relevance of epigenetics for psychiatry as follows:

the environment early in life anticipates the kind of life the person is going to live, for example whether it is going to be a stressful life or a calm life…The mother can convey to the offspring the type of world they are going to live in; that changes DNA methylation in the brain, and now we know, also in peripheral cells… I think that social environment can be as toxic as the chemical environment, if not more so.”

This sounds frighteningly similar to twentieth-century psychiatric theories on the etiology of mental illness- for instance, the once popular belief that children developed schizophrenia because they had a “schizophrenogenic mother”. In fact, schizophrenia.com has already jumped at the opportunity to re-open the mother-blaming theory- the website uses epigenetics to assert that “Research findings suggest that a mother’s parenting style can affect the activity of a child’s genes”, leading to mental illness. As always, no mention of the father’s (or other guardian’s) parenting style here.

In their interview for PBS, Szyf and Meaney explain their research on rats: offspring put in cages with “attentive” females could deal with stress better later in life than those raised by more “neglecting” females. To prove this was an epigenetic response, Szyf and Meaney gave the rats a drug that undoes the effects of epigenetics, which miraculously made the neglected rats “normal” again. How is this a women’s issue? Well, to build on this research there is a “10-year study, now underway, that will look at children from both nurturing and neglected backgrounds”. Szyf predicts that as a result of this research scientists will be able to show how stressful childhoods lead to poor health in adulthood, including depression, anxiety, drug abuse, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. In other words, being a “neglecting” mom can give your kid heart disease. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly) the show fails to explore the idea that other stresses in a child’s environment—such as aspects of social inequality—might have similar effects. Given that disadvantaged groups, such as low-income African American women, often have disproportionately high levels of these illnesses (depression, obesity, heart disease, diabetes), will epigenetics be used to investigate the links between stress and poverty, racism, and sexism, or to blame these women for their children’s poor health?

In the Psychological Bulletin, Lawrence Harper (Chair of the Human Development program at UC Davis) does argue that social injustice can alter epigenetic expression:

oppression, is another recurrent, if unpredictable, and often long-term event that also meets the criteria for a selective advantage for epigenetic transmission. In this case, the nature of an adaptive response is not so obvious, but some aspects of temperament would be likely candidates for consideration….To the extent that undue bravery in the face of a potential enemy could lead to anything from reduced access to resources to death, caution would be an adaptive trait” (p. 11).

In other words, disadvantaged individuals may pass on “advantageous” personality traits to their children, like timidity. That’s a troubling assertion. Moreover, Harper decides that women are most likely responsible for this: “because the egg provides the larger contribution to the developing zygote, any epigenetic modifications are most likely to be transmitted via the mother”.

Epigenetic research is still in its infancy and there are certainly many scientists—perhaps even the majority—who think that the above studies relating to humans are correlational at best. However, the potential implications of future epigenetic research are virtually endless. In all likelihood, the field will lead to significant advances in medicine, including therapies for cancer that “turn off” the expression of certain genes. Yet the seemingly endless human propensity for using science to support ideological agendas makes it imperative that academics outside of the “hard” sciences, and activists, are included in the discussions about epigenetic findings in the coming decades.

“Please don’t waste me”: Women, Mal(e)development, and Environmental Injustice

Majora Carter

In response to Kelly Cooper’s “Develop or Die”, I would add that the West’s self-image as a proponent of sustainable development also hides the realities of the environmental injustice within its own communities. As Majora Carter explains in her excellent talk, “Greening the Ghetto”, being forced to develop AND die is not something that just happens in less developed countries.

In the United States, race and class reliably predict one’s environmental health risk, with Black residents being twice as likely to have air pollution as their number 1 health risk and 5 times as likely to live within walking distance of power plants or chemical treatment facilities. Where Carter lives in the South Bronx, city planning has caused 40% of NYC’s commercial waste to end up in her neighborhood and, as a result, 1 in 4 children there have asthma. “From a planning perspective, economic degradation begets environmental degradation which begets social degradation. The disinvestment that began in the 1960s set the stage for all the environmental injustices that were to come- antiquated zoning and land-use regulations are still used to this day to continue putting polluting facilities in my neighborhood,” says Carter. In “Women’s Survival Economies and the Questions of Value”, Rachel Riedner writes about urban gardens in many parts of the world. Majora Carter’s South Bronx grassroots organizing also involved creating NYC’s first green and cool roof demonstration project- a roof covered with soil and living plants that could retain up to 75% of rainfall.

Although the environmental justice movement in the US has exposed serious race and class disparities related to pollution and health risk, until recently there was not much focus on how these issues affect women’s health. According to Jill Gay, “Few studies of pesticide exposure have been done concerning women. Farm women are often not classified as farmers but as farmers’ wives, excluding them from large studies of pesticide-induced cancer.” Still, evidence indicates that women are put at increased risk for environmental health problems for a number of reasons, including socio-economic status and gender roles. The Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment combines scholarship and activism to address these issues, pointing out that “Everywhere in the world, women do different work, in different places, and they fill different social roles, than do men. Women everywhere have primary responsibility for meeting the daily needs of their families. This often means that, literally, women are in the front lines of exposure to toxins in the environment. Because of their social location, (which also often has a real locational correlate), women are much more likely than their male counterparts to have early and prolonged exposure to water-borne pollutants, pollutants in the food chain, and household pollutants including indoor air pollution”. Yet, as you may have noticed, there is a growing concern in public media and discourse about the impacts of pollution on men’s health, especially in reference to male fertility- prompting discussion about the “vulnerability” of male reproduction, as in a recent article by Environmental Health News, entitled “Fish study proves “the pill” is NOT man’s best friend”.

Meanwhile disadvantaged groups of women continue to be pressured into coercive sterilization through programs like C.R.A.C.K. (“a national population control organization [in the US] that offers a $300 cash incentive to people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol to undergo a form of long-term (and often dangerous) birth control or permanent sterilization. C.R.A.C.K.’s tactics disproportionately targets poor women, incarcerated women, and women of color”.

Unlike the message propagated by the BBC and other media programs, the best examples of sustainable development come largely from outside the West. As others have pointed out here, women play a vital role in conserving the genetic diversity of crops like maize (as a 2002 study conducted in Guatemala by the UN and the International Plant Genetic Resource Institute established). Majora Carter’s inspiration came from Bogota where mayor Enrique Peñalosa “thinks cities in the developing world are at a critical moment where they can learn from the mistakes of industrialized nations and choose to develop in a way that is more people-friendly” and that “for these cities to prosper, they must provide happiness for their citizens”.

In the West, this is still a rare sentiment- as Carter says in her talk: “That development should not come at the expense of the majority of the population is still considered a radical idea here in the US, but Bogota’s example has the power to change that”. Mayor Peñalosa created walkways and bikes lanes, libraries, parks, and public plazas, planted trees, and produced one of the most efficient mass transit systems in the entire world, resulting in significantly reduced littering and crime rates. Carter notes that “His administration tackled several typical urban problems at one time and on a third world budget at that. We have no excuse in this country…”. Near the end of her talk, Ms. Carter argues for a bottom-up approach that incorporates grassroots movements into the development decision-making processes. Her words could apply equally well to the need for women’s involvement: “of the ninety-percent of the energy that Mr. Gore reminded us that we waste every day, don’t add wasting our energy, intelligence, and hard earned experience to that count….Please don’t waste me”, she says.

(Photo / Video Credit: TED)