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Epigenetics and Intelligent Design

October 9, 2013

Guest post from Marta Robertson

I study epigenetics, a field that has quickly become high profile among people who want to debate evolution. Epigenetics (literally meaning “above” genetics) refers to changes in traits not based on DNA sequence alone. These changes can be responsive to the environment, which helps us explain why individuals with the same genetic code, like twins, can grow to be different people during their lifetime. More specifically, I ask how epigenetic code can be inherited from parent to offspring, in much the same way as DNA. This means that a parent’s life experiences can affect their offspring; when a mother smokes, her children have an increased risk of asthma, and so do her grandchildren even if they never smoke. It’s awesome that everyone is as interested in epigenetic inheritance as I am, but unfortunately, sometimes epigenetics is misconstrued to support ideas that are not supported by science.

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            The really cool aspect of my research is that it is possible to have evolutionary change in a population without changes in DNA. This idea adds a new component to our general understanding of evolutionary change. It helps us explain how things change over time, and how big changes in traits can occur very quickly. Unfortunately for us, proponents of Intelligent Design (ID) think this outcome is pretty cool, too.

Intelligent Design is the idea that life on Earth is so complex, it could not exist without a “designer” or creator. Intelligent Design was the subject of the famous Kitzmiller v. Dover lawsuit, in which the school district in Dover, PA tried to include Intelligent Design in textbooks. The court saw Intelligent Design as disguised creationism and they lost. But some people still push Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolutionary theory, and they jump on the epigenetics bandwagon.

            Why? Because, as ID supporters say, epigenetics undermines evolution, or “Darwin’s theory,” by side-stepping DNA. But evolutionary change is not just changes in DNA. Sometimes DNA changes. Sometimes epigenetic code changes. Sometimes full traits change. It’s all part of evolution. Epigenetic code helps create variation in traits, some of which are better than others. Since that’s the same way we think about DNA changes, epigenetics isn’t really a big leap, and doesn’t come close to undermining evolution.

Recently, comments my advisor made in a news interview made their way on to uncommondescent.org, a popular Intelligent Design website. She said there is controversy about where epigenetic inheritance fits within the current understanding of evolution. However, on that website, people are using her comments as proof that evolution is not fact and “experts” are wrong. Of course, this is not what my advisor was saying, but it sounds good to anyone who wants to challenge evolutionary theory. I’m excited that so many people want to talk about epigenetics. But let’s talk about it accurately. Epigenetics isn’t mind over matter. Epigenetics doesn’t disprove evolution. Epigenetics is offering an increased understanding of cancer. Epigenetics is contributing to a better understanding of disease. And epigenetics is contributing to more robust agriculture. Let’s switch the focus to that!

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