Postgenomic Determinisms: 
Environmental Narratives After the Century of the Gene

8th RUB-Workshop for History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
25th – 26th March 2021, Ruhr University Bochum

For more information, visit the workshop website.

From the perspective of the life sciences, the 20th century has often been described as the century of the gene. However, particularly since the completion of the Human Genome Project, scientists seem to have moved on. In the last 20 years, new ‘postgenomic’ views have emerged, which state that development and inheritance include multi-factorial dependencies between environmental factors, developmental mechanisms and the genome. Thus, the ‘how’ and ‘when’ of genetic information is determined not intrinsically but rather by the genes’ cellular, extra-cellular and extra-organismic environment. In fields like epigenetics, nutrigenomics and microbiome research, this approach argues that the material and social environment – like stress, toxins, lifestyles, nutritional habits, and income – shapes not only humans’ expression profile of genes but their ontogenetic and even transgenerational destinies. Here, diseases like cancer and type-2 diabetes, as well as obesity, autism, and trauma, are conceptualized as instances of social and environmental ‘programming.’ Although this new, more complex, picture appears to hold the capacity to disrupt previous genetic determinist thinking, these developments have simultaneously introduced deterministic narratives of their own.

This workshop will focus on the new postgenomic trend towards environmental determinism. It aims to address (i) the conceptual foundations and theoretical presumptions of different forms of strong causal influences on organisms and human bodies. In addition, (ii) it will historically contextualize this new environmentalist trend, and (iii) explore the anthropological, social and political contexts affecting and being affected by these developments.

(i) Conceptual and Theoretical Dimensions:

Understanding the role of non-genetic factors in determining developmental and evolutionary trajectories and health disparities makes necessary, first, specifying the nature of these diverse factors, which range from regulatory factors and microbes, to toxins, diet, and socioeconomic status. In addition, it is central to identify the assumed causal relation between organisms and environments (linear, unidirectional, asymmetrical). Does the organism or environment introduce variation into development and evolution? Which concepts of environment (material or social, external or internal, individual or collective) underlie deterministic research?

Other issues concern the role of reductionist and simplifying strategies in determinist viewpoints. What proxies for external determinants of health are introduced and why? Which experimental, explanatory and modeling strategies distort complex organism-environment causality and for what purpose? Which concepts of biological individual and organism support determinist views of the environment? Is the individual externally determined due to its sensitivity, responsiveness, or passivity? Finally, one needs to develop suitable criteria to avoid methodological and explanatory bias due to assumptions of environmental determinism.  

(ii) Historical Dimensions:

Environmental determinism is not novel in the life sciences. Rather, recent postgenomic trends must be contextualized and understood against the background of long standing discussions about the ecological and evolutionary role of the environment (e.g., as milieux environments (Lamarck), conditions of existence (Darwin), Umwelt (Uexküll), constructed environment (Lewontin)) and especially against past theories of environmental determinism (e.g., G.L.L. Buffon, C. Lloyd Morgan, A. Weismann, etc.). This also includes longer traditions of environmentalist reasoning in humoralism and medical geography as well as in debates on nutrition and acclimatization. How have influential theoretical frameworks like holism, vitalism and mechanism endorsed (or rejected) deterministic views of the environment? What transitions occurred around the undertaking and completion of the Human Genome Project to enable the 21st Century turn towards environmental narratives?

(iii) Anthropological, Social and Political Dimensions:

Environmental determinism affects our understanding of what humans are. It seems to threaten our biological individuality (as microbiota determine us within a supra-individual unit, a holobiont) and our biological identity. Which part of our ‘self’ becomes heteronomous (e.g., our metabolic or immunological self) and due to what reasons, like loss of autonomy, self-organization, or self-determination? When does the plasticity of the human body become externally determined?

Postgenomics carries the potential to blur the boundaries between the biological and the social, encouraging a rethink of how these boundaries are drawn and whether they exist at all. At the same time, strong environmentalist views can also biologize social phenomena (e.g., biography or ‘habitus’) in troubling ways, like in research on diet, metabolism, and health inequalities. What are different modes and relevant boundaries of epigenetic, nutritional, and microbial embodiment of inequalities? Which views of determining socio-cultural and economic contexts target individuals (e.g., in precision and personalized medicine) or collectives? Discourses around gender, race, and fatness also figure crucially into understanding emerging narratives about human groups and their impact. Women have been singled out as particularly responsive to social determinants of health, together with an increasing focus on certain social and ethnic groups. This opens up questions about responsibility and guilt, stigmatization, and policing of particular bodies. It also opens up environmentalist avenues to a biological concept of race, that urge critical discussion. What kinds of politics underlie or become endorsed in postgenomic determinism?

Finally, in order to understand the scientific community defending strong roles of the environment, we need to address how their accounts are influenced and motivated by research funding and science communication strategies. A further component is the application potential of this research, and the capacity for the development of marketable health interventions.

This workshop will bring together scholars from history and philosophy of science, social sciences, biologists, activists and policy makers who have expertise in postgenomic trends towards determinism from philosophical, biotheoretical, anthropological, socio-political, and historical perspectives.

Azita Chellappoo & Jan Baedke
Department of Philosophy I
Ruhr University Bochum

DFG-Emmy Noether Research Group
The Return of the Organism in the Biosciences:
Theoretical, Historical and Social Dimensions
Ruhr University Bochum