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  • Author or Editor: Susan White x
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The social implications of epigenetics and neuroscience
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In recent years, new areas of biology, especially epigenetics and neuroscience, have enthralled the public imagination. They have been used as powerful arguments for developing social policy in a particular direction, from early intervention in the lives of disadvantaged children to seeking ‘biomarkers’ as identifiers of criminality.

This timely book, written by leading commentators, critically examines the capabilities and limitations of these biotechnologies, exploring their implications for policy and practice.

The book will enable social scientists, policy makers, practitioners and interested general readers to understand how the new biologies of epigenetics and neuroscience have increasingly influenced the fields of family policy, mental health, child development and criminal justice.

The book will facilitate much needed debate about what makes a good society and how best to build one. It also draws attention to the ways that the uncertainties of the original science are lost in their translation into the everyday world of practice and policy.

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This chapter reviews the historical origins of the project of human improvement, from the Enlightenment onward, coming to the fore especially during the Victorian era. It traces the ascendancy of developmental psychology and ‘infant determinism’ which has always been a key part of the project of human improvement. Attachment theory has played an important part in this this; we draw attention to the contradictions and inconsistencies in this influential body of thought.

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This Chapter provides an introduction to some key concepts from the philosophy and sociology of science and technology to examine how the sciences ‘think’. We make particular use of the concept of the “thought style”, drawn from the work of Ludwig Fleck. Two such styles are identified underpinning the biotechnological project: the neuroscientific and genetic thought-styles. Key features of these worldviews are identified and critiqued, highlighting their internal contradictions and constraints (e.g. the mythology that epigenetic inscriptions represent permanent changes in the phenotype). We designate the fusion of these two cognate belief systems as the neuromolecular thought-style.

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This chapter examines how biology has been brought to bear in understanding forms of behaviour variously known as madness, mental illness or developmental disorder, culminating in the current preoccupations with finding the genetic markers and neurological traces for a variety of manifestations of the human condition. Two developmental disorders are highlighted: autism and ADHD. In both cases the quest for biomarkers has been unavailing, but this seems only to have inspired greater exertion, showing the potency of the neuromolecular thought-style and the bias to seek confirmatory evidence for its truth. What the science actually shows is uncertainty and a pattern of inconsistent and unreliable findings.

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This chapter examines how biological thinking is merging with the project of human improvement. It reviews social policies, tracing the ways in which neuroscience has been invoked to relocate a moral project within a scientific rationality. We deconstruct one such report in particular, the Allen report, which has been influential in the UK. The Chapter explores the emergence of a preventive mind-set in social policy which promotes intervention early in infancy to address inter-generational social disadvantage. The idea that the brain is critically susceptible to early experience, predetermining the rest of the life-trajectory, has led to the “the myth of the first three years”. We systematically debunk this myth: what the science actually shows is plasticity and resilience.

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This chapter examines how ideas about early intervention and damage to the infant brain are making their way into child protection practice. It uses evidence from policy reports and government initiatives to illustrate how the notions of harm and ‘good enough’ parenting are changing.

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This chapter reviews the rise of prevention science in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries. Located within the developmental origins of health and disease paradigm, prevention science promotes intervention to stop damage and ensure optimal human flourishing. Prevention science combines infant determinism, economic modeling and versions of evidence-based practice, with consequences for concepts of normality. Although persuasive, we illustrate the fundamental limitations and flaws of the macro-economical approach, with reference to the influential work of James Heckman. The use of biomarkers to enable more effective targeting of policy interventions is highlighted, although we note that the benefits of such approaches are marginal.

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This chapter explores the epigenetic thought-style in depth, by analysing some of the seminal work on animals. We highlight in particular the work of Michael Meaney and colleagues which has been particularly persuasive in the domain of welfare policy and practice. This work appears to show that rodent mothers who nurture intensively (copious “licking and grooming”) beget more resilient offspring, and that these effects of parenting are mediated by epigenetic mechanisms. Although the meme is potent, we draw attention to some of the flaws in the primary research, and more generally question the degree to which laboratory studies on animals can (ever) be generalized to human parenting. The idea that epigenetic mechanisms transmit permanent changes is inherently contradictory.

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This chapter shifts the focus from animals to humans, and examines the extant literature on the human epigenome. It reviews seminal work on the impact of natural disasters (such as the Dutch Hunger Winter) on the epigenetic profile of those subject to these calamities. It describes how gestation and early infancy are reconfigured as a site of risk. It interrogates the nature of the claims made within the literature and also examines the thought style and presuppositions, particularly in those studies which seek to translate findings from laboratory to the clinic and public health policy. The small size of the effects on human populations is also highlighted, compared to other influences such as social deprivation.

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This chapter questions whether the neurological and molecular levels are the most appropriate domains to guide the actions of the State. The reductionism of such thinking creates a form of scientific “tunnel vision” dangerously constraining the direction of future inquiry. The Chapter explores the consequences of the prevailing moral and scientific settlements, demonstrating how these have shifted preferred policy responses towards those that are individualised and increasingly medicalized. A preoccupation with prevention, early intervention and the privileging of certain forms of evidence (that furnished by clinical trials, biological evidence) are squeezing out conversations about different, and potentially more desirable and sustainable, actions to make people’s lives better.

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