By Gee Wyles & Adrian Wyles
‘In biology, the term epigenetics refers to changes in gene expression that are stable between cell divisions, and sometimes between generations, but do not involve changes in the underlying DNA sequence of the organism. The idea is that environmental factors can cause an organism’s genes to behave (or “express themselves”) differently, even though the genes themselves don’t change.Epigenetic changes in eukaryotic biology are most elegantly illustrated by the process of cellular differentiation where pluripotent stem cells become the various cell lines of the embryo. This process becomes stable by mechanisms which may include silencing of some genes, removal of silencing marks on some other genes and permanently inactivating still other genes.’
This is not an attack on religion or a denial that belief systems are useful for human existence. On the contrary, what follows is a short and concise explanation of a very complex biological process which strives to identify the subject of epigenetics as a material or ‘hard’ science, and epigenetics as a belief system. When epigenetics is interpreted as a belief system (and consequently serves the function of a religion) it still presents its ideas in the language of science, when the underlying ideology is one of theology. The battle occurs because religious epigenetics insists upon being interpreted as a ‘science’. This insistence by a religious movement to be seen as a science attracts the descriptive label ‘pseudo-science’, which we use here, but with no intended disrespect. Although we advocate a continuous search for good knowledge and self-understanding, everyone has the right to decide for themselves and make their own minds up. As practitioners of Chinese Buddhism, we confirm that meditation practise has a positive affect upon the health of the mind and body, but we do not assert that the mind ‘interferes’ with natural biological processes. Instead, it seems clear to us that a proper scientific understanding of biological processes enables the mind to ‘assist’ by making good and informed choices in life that aid the natural biological processes unfold in a positive manner. This is more a matter of not ‘getting in the way’ of naturally unfolding processes, rather than entertaining the mistaken notion that the mind can interfere in these natural processes. This is just our ideas – think for yourselves.
The term ‘epigenetics’ means:
1) epi = from the Greek meaning ‘outer’
2) genetics = from the Greek ‘genes’ (i.e. ‘birth’), or ‘genos’ (i.e. ‘born of’).
Therefore, the modern term ‘genetics’ refers to that which ‘causes or produces’, and is used as a collective descriptive term for deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), or the genetic material stored in the nucleus of every cell in the human body. The term ‘epigenetics’ refers to external stimuli which possess the potential to turn on or turn off specific sequences of genes. This refers to stimuli external to the body cell, and includes diet, exercise, living conditions, working conditions, pharmaceutical drugs, environmental pollution, ageing and addiction. Epigenetics suggests that the sequences of genes turned on or off in the body cells can generate negative or positive physical (and psychological) effects within the human body. The mechanism for this process involves an external stimulus upon the cell membrane (such as changes in hormonal levels in the blood), which trigger the semi-permeable cell membrane to allow access to the interior of the cell. The external stimulus then opens the DNA, which in turn forms messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), that eventually generates the specific types of protein required (i.e. the building blocks of physical existence) as a reaction to the hormone present, triggered by environmental factors. The cell’s reaction to the presence of different types of hormone stimulus triggers various DNA sequences of protein production (i.e. a ‘protein synthesis cascade’), the presence of which triggers positive or negative chemical reactions throughout the body.
At no point in this process is there any indication that the mind as ‘will power’ produces any discernible influence. Epigenetics slides into the realms of pseudo-science when the agencies of ‘faith’ or ‘will power’ are assumed to somehow ‘effect’ or ‘guide’ biological processes that evolved millions of years ago independent of conscious control. In fact, these physical processes evolved so long ago that if a ‘mind’ was present at all, it had very limited functionality. The point is that the mechanisms of physical replication and modification are purely material in nature, and have never been dependent upon conscious awareness or conscious guidance. This situation suggests that physical existence preceded psychological existence. However, the idea that ‘belief’ can somehow influence these deep-rooted material processes exist in the Western world and are very popular due to their apparent empowering affect upon the individual. Having made the distinction clear between epigenetics as ‘science’ and epigenetics as ‘pseudo-science’, this does not mean that the mind has no place in the maintenance of a happy or healthy lifestyle. Obviously, the way individuals think is directly related to the choices they make. Good choices lead to good consequences, whilst bad choices lead to poor outcomes, but it is also true that no amount of positive thinking will help people trapped in debilitating cycles of poverty or terminal illness, etc. This is not to deny the power of free thinking and being well-informed. A conscious being, for example, can use this knowledge of epigenetics to optimise his or her chances of survival and long life all things being equal.