Newsweek: Transgenerational epigenetics is “the new Lamarckism”


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A recent article in Newsweek from science writer Sharon Begley reports on “the new Lamarckism,” citing studies from epigenetics researchers, including Emma Whitelaw. The article seems to be all about transgenerational epigenetics, but rather than ever use the word “epigenetics,” the favored term is “the new Lamarckism.” Link

But evidence for the new Lamarckism is strong enough to say the last word on inheritance and evolution has not been written.

My guess is that Begley was intent on building up controversy in her opening that seemed to be criticizing evolution during Darwin’s big 200/150 year. And in that regard, she piqued the interest of one of the most popular science bloggers, PZ Myers, who criticized the article in a post on his blog–sending tons of traffic to Newsweek.

It’s very cool stuff, but evolutionary biologists are about as shocked by this as they are by the idea that malnourished mothers have underweight babies. That environmental influences can have multi-generational effects, and that developmental programs can cue off of the history of the germ line, is not a new idea, especially among developmental biologists.

One of the problems with calling epigenetics “the new Lamarckism” is that it can have the connotation that the field is going the way of Lamarckism, or that geneticists are unable to account for (or are afraid of acknowledging) these strange phenomena. In truth, geneticists are aware of these phenomena, and are eager to see what mechanism is at play in the inheritance of these traits across generations–whether it be methylation, small RNAs, or a host of other possibilities.

But no one in science is crying over the fact that epigenetics is uncovering more details about how disease is acquired or traits inherited.

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