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Abstract

The epigenome is the set of potentially heritable changes in gene expressions that occur in the absence of changes to the DNA sequence itself. The transfer from parent to offspring may be accompanied by some of the negative consequences of a particular environment (of the mother, of both parents, even of grandparents) for the fetus and postnatal life. I advance four arguments: (1) Epigenetics can be politically salient with respect to identifying negative determinants of human health with epigenetic sources. Such salience remains hypothetical today given the absence of clear, causal evidence of a well-understood epigenetic mechanism. (2) The epigenetic porosity between environment and body raises political issues where toxic environments are human constructions, such as those characterized for example by poverty, malnutrition, pollution, or inadequate health care. Further, If scientists cannot establish some kind of “natural” epigenetic normality that holds for all humans, then are epigenetic variants natural phenomena that can be evaluated in any objective sense? (3) Moral responsibility for health-endangering environments (in utero or in early life) does not follow simply from determining the causal connection between epigenetic mechanism and environmental exposure. For example, the lifestyles and health habits of vulnerable individuals may reflect a range of unhealthy behaviors. While this observation raises questions about a lack of personal responsibility, it might also be invoked to reject the remediation of toxic environments. (4) Still, epigenetic research may offer political promise if it can ever expose some “natural” inequalities as, in fact, epigenetically influenced.

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Forthcoming events

Oxford-Peking University Joint Symposium on Precision Medicine

Thursday, 19 September 2019, 10am to 6pm @ Seminar rooms, BDI, Old Road Campus, OX3 7LF

CKB Workshop - Infections, immunity and cancer: aetiology and beyond

Friday, 20 September 2019, 1pm to 5pm @ Seminar rooms, BDI, Old Road Campus, OX3 7LF

NDPH Seminar - Changing the way medical research is funded: Some lessons from Australia

Thursday, 26 September 2019, 4pm to 5pm @ Seminar rooms, BDI, Old Road Campus, OX3 7LF

Ethox/WEH Seminar - Reclaiming a Sense of Common Humanity: A Confucian Ethical Vision

Wednesday, 02 October 2019, 11am to 12.30pm @ Level 1 Ax Meeting Room, BDI, Old Road Campus, OX3 7LF

UVBO Seminar - Can wearable sensors and machine learning enhance our understanding of lifestyle health behaviours?

Thursday, 17 October 2019, 1pm to 2pm @ L1 Meeting room, Richard Doll Building, Old Road Campus, OX3 7LF

UVBO Seminar - Nutrient timing and human health

Thursday, 24 October 2019, 1pm to 2pm @ School of Anthropology, 61 Banbury Road, OX2 6PE