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Reduction to Absurdity: Why Epigenetics Invalidates All Models Involving Genetic Reduction

Richard M. Lerner and Willis F. Overton

Reduction to absurdity (reductio ad absurdum) is a form of argumentation in which a proposition is disproven by following its implications logically to an absurd conclusion. It is a technique that exposes the fallacy in an argument (Howard-Snyder, Howard-Snyder, & Wasserman, 2012; Kneale & Kneale, 1962). In this article, we employ this form of argument to demonstrate the fallacious nature of genetic reductionist models. Genetic reductionism is fundamentally the same concept as genetic determinism, which is the idea that genes (in and of themselves) constitute the bedrock, essential causal agents that account for a wide range of characteristics of living organisms (Charney, 2016; Moore, 2015, 2016; Witherington & Lickliter, 2016). We use the term “reductionist” to emphasize the fact that these models are epistemologically reductionist rather than holistic, along with being determinist in nature.

It is important to note that genetic deterministic models do not necessarily ignore contextual factors—including the environment—beyond the organism. Indeed, such models make use of ideas about environmental or contextual influences in different ways (e.g., contrast the neonativist ideas of Spelke and Newport (1998) and the evolutionary developmental psychology (EDP) ideas of Bjorklund (2015, 2016) and ofBjorklund and Ellis (2005). Nevertheless, however they happen to use ideas about the context of genes, genetic reductionist models ultimately reduce explanations to the primacy of hereditary “mechanisms,” as the foundational basis of ontogenetic development, if not of the specific features of the organism that may be identified across ontogeny.

For more than 40 years, the term “weak interaction” has been used in the developmental science literature to depict the relations between nature and nurture found in these genetic reductionist models (e.g., Lerner, 1978, 2016; Overton, 1973, 2015). By weak interaction critics of genetic reductionism meant that environment (context) acts only to actualize the information that resides in the genome. Thus, the context serves only to actualize (or not) across ontogeny primarily intrinsic (genetic) potentials. Context is not understood to have any essential value as a constitutive agent in the existence of these potentials (Witherington & Lickliter, 2016).

In contrast to weak interaction theories, critics of genetic reductionism introduced other conceptions of interaction, including the idea of strong interaction (Lerner, 1978; Overton, 1973). For this concept of the relations between nature and nurture, use of the term “interaction” was employed to characterize ideas associated with concepts such as probabilistic epigenesis (Gottlieb, 1970, 1998, 2004) and dynamic developmental systems (Fischer & Bidell, 1998, 2006; Mascolo & Fischer, 2015). As discussed by Overton (2006, 2015; see also Lerner, in press), these latter concepts are linked to the relational developmental systems (RDS) metamodel, which is derived from the process-relational paradigm. As elaborated later, this paradigm and metamodel promote compatible models that focus on the holistic and autopoietic character of the multilevel, integrative, coacting RDS. It is this dynamic system of fused relations (Tobach & Greenberg, 1984), and not split-off preexisting genes “outside” of the system, that constitutes the foundation of developmental change (Witherington & Lickliter, 2016).

However, as discussions of this metamodel and paradigm evolved over the decades (e.g., Overton, 1998, 2003, 2006, 2010, 2015), ideas have changed about the usefulness of the term “interaction” to characterize models associated with the RDS metamodel. In fact, the term “interaction” is one of the three terms that we believe to be problematic in discussions aimed at: (a) describing or explaining the advantages of RDS-based models, in contrast to genetic reductionist models, and (b) explaining why epigenetics invalidates genetic reductionist models.

Why It Is Time to Retire a Trio of Terms

Understanding and articulating the metatheoretical issues involved in characterizing the holistic and autopoietic RDS have evolved (e.g., contrast the discussions of the relations among levels of organization involved in probabilistic epigenetic coactions that appeared in Lerner 11978J vs. Lerner [2015] and Lerner [2016], and in Overton [1973] vs. Overton [2015]). Overton (e.g., 2015) and Lerner (2015, in press) have come to recognize that some terms used in the initial discussions of differences between genetic reductionist models and models based on the RDS metamodel have obscured critical distinctions being made in RDS-based models. Specifically, differences between the Cartesian mechanistic paradigm’s split-reductionist models and RDS-based models had been discussed in the context of contrasting conceptions of “interaction,” and the meanings of the terms “mechanism,” and “trait.” On reflection, these concepts have caused a great deal of conceptual confusion,

Thus, at this point in the evolution of the process-relational paradigm and the RDS metamodel derived from it, the present authors believe that the context of the use of these three terms should be changed in the literature of developmental science. All three terms were originally formulated from within the context of the Cartesian mechanist split paradigm and its reductionist epistemology. As a consequence, the use of these terms to describe a holistic, epigenetic, systems approach to development can only confuse newcomers to the literature, and confuse ensuing discussions. Furthermore, continued use of these terms in describing RDS-based concepts allows supporters of Cartesian genetic reductionist models (e.g., Bjorklund, 2015; Bjorklund & Ellis, 2005; Plomin, Defries, Knopik, & Neiderhiser, 2016) to continue to falsely insist that proponents of RDS-based models present a distinction that does not involve a difference (e.g., Bjorklund, 2016; but see Lerner, 2016 and Witherington & Lickliter, 2016, 2017, in comparison).

From a Cartesian mechanistic perspective, “interaction” is conceptualized as two or more split-off pure entities that function independently in cooperative and/or competitive ways (Overton, 2006). But this term is totally inadequate to describe the relational interpenetrations of coacting part processes that operate as the RDS. To capture both the merging (or fusion; Tobach & Greenberg, 1984) of parts into a single identity, while maintaining their individual identity as differentiations, the terms interpenetration (merging) and coaction (<=>) (Gottlieb, Wahlsten, & Lickliter, 2006) are best substituted for interaction in any process-relational RDS approach. The exception would be in those cases that refer to a simple additive combination of elements, such as statistical interactions, as used in discussions of effects in analysis of variance or in multiple regression. Flere, the interacting terms are split, or distinct from each other, both before and after their linear combination in a statistically significant interactive effect.

To illustrate the current problematic use of “interaction” among scholars who are actually working within RDS-based models, we note that, in the article introducing the contributions to the special issue of Human Development, within which the present article appears, the authors of the introduction state that “for a growing consensus of developmental scientists, only a holistic view of developmental interaction—a relational, process-oriented approach to the study of development—effectively transcends the nature- nurture debate and its dualist framing” (Witherington & Lickliter, this issue, italics added). This passage, in effect, equates the term “interaction” with the character of the relations (<=>) in a process-relational RDS conceptualization. This use obscures the distinction between the relational “coaction” and the Cartesian mechanistic “interaction.” The effect of this conflation is that it allows supporters of genetic reductionist models to claim that because both groups use the term “interaction” to describe the relation between nature and nurture, the genetic reductionist models must be compatible with RDS models

We believe nothing would be lost conceptually, and much would be gained in clarifying the fundamental distinctions between genetic reductionist models and RDS models, if the sentence noted earlier by Witherington and Lickliter were to be rewritten as “for a growing consensus of developmental scientists, only a holistic view of developmental coactions.” In short, in place of the term “interaction” in discussions of RDS-based ideas, we suggest substituting terms such as coaction, fusion, integration, or even just relation.

A similar situation exists with respect to the term “mechanism,” again illustrating that the vocabulary developmental scientists employ is not “innocent,” that is, free of implicit theoretical assumptions (Horowitz, 2000; Searle, 1992). “Mechanism" has two dictionary meanings: (a) machine part: a part of a machine or parts that work together; (b) system: a way of doing something, especially one that is planned or part of a system (Cambridge Dictionary).

When employed in science, definition “a” becomes translated into Cartesian mechanistic language, and here mechanism is always defined in terms of some force that produces a change (i.e., an efficient or material cause) (Bunge, 1979). This usage seems to be favored by contemporary biologists and those engaged in the philosophy of biology. This understanding is perfectly compatible with Cartesian genetic reductionism and should be avoided by those who support a process-relational RDS approach to understanding human development.

Definition “b” can be scientifically translated as “process,” which is defined as a system s action or acts located holistically in a temporal order of duration (Overton, 2015). Obviously, definition “b” is consistent with the holistic process RDS perspective. The problem that exists, however, is that the definition of “mechanism” is so firmly implanted in the whole psychological culture—especially among those engaged in biological work—that it is best to be avoided by those supporting a process-relational RDS perspective. Employing “mechanism” while supporting a process-relational RDS perspective leads directly to ambiguity and conceptual confusion.

As an example of this potential confusion, Witherington and Lickliter (this issue), while generally supporting a process RDS perspective, state that

epigenetics focuses on the molecular study of mechanisms by which extragenetic factors regulate and modify gene expression during development, as well as on the transmission of such epigenetic modifications in gene expression across generations, all in the absence of changes to DNA sequence.

(p. 2, italics added)

What meaning would be changed if the term “process” were to be substituted for the term “mechanism” in this sentence? None, we believe, except it would reinforce the fact that these authors do, in fact, support the process- relational RDS perspective.

Another example of the problematic use of “mechanism” is found in David Moore’s (2015) superb book, The Developing Genome: An Introduction to Behavioral Epigenetics. Overall, Moore seems to be working within a process-relational RHD perspective, as illustrated in the following: “Because biological development is all about cellular differentiation, focusing on development is an excellent way to learn about processes that control gene expression. And because these processes are epigenetic, studying development is a great way to learn about epigenetics” (p. 38); and “a gene’s context always matters” (p. 44). Furthermore, Moore states that “DNA methylation is a process by which a molecule called a ‘methyl group’ gets attached to a DNA strand” (p. 40, italics added), and “the processes that contribute to chromatin remodeling regulate what our genes are doing at any given moment” (p. 43, italics added).

However, at times Moore seems to use a Cartesian mechanistic perspective by introducing a mechanistic interpretation of mechanism. For example, Moore notes that “there are several different epigenetic mechanisms. The best understood mechanism ... is known as ‘DNA methylation’” (p. 40, italics added). In addition, he states that “we have always known that our experiences affect our minds, and therefore, our brains, but work on epigenetics reveals a mechanistic way in which . . . information about our environment can be physically incorporated into our brain” (p. 63, emphasis in original). And: “The importance of pursuing the mechanistic causes of developmental outcomes is apparent” (p. 76, emphasis in original).

Moore’s seeming equation of the process-relational RDS “process” and the Cartesian mechanistic reductionistic “mechanism” is confusing, and this confusion permits proponents of a Cartesian genetic reductionist model to claim (see Bjorklund, 2016) that there is no distinction between the Cartesian reductionist model and holistic models that emerge from a process RHD perspective.

A similar problem appears in Tabery (2014), where he describes the differences between the mechanistic genetic reductionist, behavioral genetics approach to developmental science, and the approach taken by process- relational RDS-based models. He terms the process-relational approach a mechanism-elucidation one (Tabery, 2014). Again, then, here is the use of a term, “mechanism,” that accords with the understanding of change found in genetic reductionist models, applied to the understanding of change that is appropriate in process-relational RDS models. Thus, Taber)' (2014) uses terms to distinguish the two approaches that, in effect, actually muddle the distinction he is trying to make.

As stated earlier, the point of these examples of the use of the terms “mechanism” and “process” is to illustrate the point that the vocabulary developmental scientists employ is not “innocent,” that is, free of implicit theoretical assumptions (Horowitz, 2000; Searle, 1992). If “mechanism” were to become the word of choice for researchers studying behavioral epigenetics, then developmental scientists working within a process-relational RDS perspective will have put themselves in danger of creating yet another biological determinism, an epigenetic reductionism, that would be as dangerously misleading as genetic reductionism. Moore (2015) agrees. He notes that “development is not a deterministic process, so our mature characteristics are no more determined by our epigenetics than they are by our genetics. ... It is probably a bad idea to apply a deterministic worldview to a human being” (Moore, 2015, pp. 190—192).

In short, then, we believe that, in each place that a developmental scientist writes about developmental change from a process-relational RDS perspective, the word “process” should replace the term “mechanism.” Indeed, in our reading of the use of the term “mechanism” within the epigenetics literature, written by scholars writing from a process-relational RDS perspective (e.g., Jablonka & Lamb, 2005; Lester, Conradt, & Marsit, 2016; Meaney, 2010; Moore, 2015, 2016), the substitution of the term process whenever the term mechanism is used would not change the meaning of the passage. If these changes were made, then these passages would perfectly reflect key ideas associated with the process-relational paradigms and RDS metamodel.

A final term we suggest eliminating from depictions of RDS-based models is “trait.” This term has a long and controversial history in the study of human development (e.g., contrast Costa and McCrae [1980, 2006] and McCrae et al. [2000] with Block [2010] and Nesselroade [1988]). However, in many contemporary literatures in developmental science and in personality and social psychology (e.g., the character development literature, Lerner and Callina [2014]), “trait” is associated with the reductionist ideas found in what is termed Five-Factor Theory (FFT) (Costa & McCrae, 1980, 2006; McCrae et al., 2000)—associated, that is, with the purported “Big Five”personality traits of conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to experience, and extraversion. The Big Five traits have been offered as fixed, stable, and biologically set fundamental facets of individual functioning. For example, McCrae et al. (2000) have contended that personality traits reflect “nature over nurture” and that “personality traits are more or less immune to environmental influences . . . significant variations in life experiences have little or no effect on measured personality traits” (pp. 175-176). They argue that “barring interventions or catastrophic events, personality traits appear to be essentially fixed after age 30” (Costa, McCrae, & Siegler, 1999, p. 130). Costa and McCrae (2006) continue to maintain this view, despite the fact that a meta-analysis has provided strong evidence that personality traits change in adulthood past the age of 30 (Roberts, Walton, & Viecht- bauer, 2006).

We believe that this split approach explicitly specifies a set of ideas antithetical to the ideas of plasticity (i.e., the potential for systematic intraindividual change) and embodiment (the systemic interrelations between an individual’s acts and the multilevel contexts that provide the basis of intraindividual change [Overton, 2015]). Given that the term “trait” as used in FFT is a nature-based conception about the developmental fixity of human individuality, the term should not be used in depicting attributes of human development associated with RDS-based models. Using the term in such discussions will result in the same sorts of problems we have pointed to in our discussions of the terms “interaction” and “mechanism.”

In sum, both to describe and explain the comparative advantages of process-relational RDS-based models in contrast to Cartesian mechanistic genetic reductionist views, and to then go on to explain why epigenetics invalidates genetic reductionist views, developmental scientists must choose their words judiciously. The precise articulation of terms is needed, both to be transparent about theoretical positions, and to speak clearly to consumers of the work of developmental science, including other scholars, policy makers, practitioners, and the media. We totally agree then with the cautions concerning vocabulary forwarded by both Evelyn Fox Keller (2010) and by Frances Degen Horowitz (2000). Thus, Keller (2010) explains:

Not only is it a mistake to think of development in terms of separable causes, but it is also a mistake to think of development of traits as a product of causal elements interacting with one another. Indeed, the notion of interaction presupposes the existence of entities that are at least ideally separable—i.e., it presupposes an a priori space between component entities—and this is precisely what the character of developmental dynamics precludes. Everything we know about the processes of inheritance and development teaches us that the entanglement of developmental processes is not only immensely intricate, but it is there from the start. From its very beginning, development depends on the complex orchestration of multiple courses of action that involve cauctions among many different kinds of. . . [components],

(pp. 6—7, italics added)

In turn, Horowitz (2000) noted:

If we accept as a challenge the need to act with social responsibility then we must make sure that we do not use single-variable words like genes or the notion of innate in such a determinative manner as to give the impression that they constitute the simple answers to the simple questions asked by the Person in the Street lest we contribute to belief systems that will inform social policies that seek to limit experience and opportunity and, ultimately, development, especially when compounded by racism and poorly advantaged circumstances. Or, as Elman and Bates and their colleagues have said in the concluding section of their book Rethinking Innateness (Elman et al., 1998), “if our careless, under-specified choice of words inadvertently does damage to future generations of children, we cannot turn with innocent outrage to the judge and say ‘But your Honor, I didn’t realize the word was loaded.’ ”

(p. 8)

With these cautions about the use of terms among process-relational RDS-oriented developmental scientists, we can now turn to the important discussion of why an understanding of epigenetics within conceptions associated with process-relational RDS-based models invalidates all models of genetic reductionism.

Epigenetics and Human Development Within the Context of the RDS Metamodel

Many scientists from diverse disciplinary backgrounds have criticized genetic reductionist models as being invalid (at this writing, examples include Bateson, 2015; Bateson & Gluckman, 2011; Feldman, 2014; Joseph, 2014; Keller, 2010; Moore, 2015; Panofsky, 2014; Richardson, 2017; see also Woese, 2004). This work has demonstrated that genetic reductionist arguments, when considered in the contexts of serious conceptual analyses, methodological rigor, and empirical evidence, become clearly exposed as a set of false propositions.

Nevertheless, genetic reductionists continue to assert their absurd claims. For example, one group clings to the genecentric claim that intelligence is fundamentally determined by the genome, while environmental factors play, at best, a very minor role (see, e.g., Plomin et al., 2016; Rimfeld, Ayor- ech, Dale, Kovas, & Plomin, 2016; but for examples of critiques, see Char- ney, 2016; Joseph, 2014; Moore & Shenk, 2016; Richardson, 2017). As we have already noted, another group contends that there are five, genetically shaped personality traits that arise independently of any experiential contribution (see, e.g., Costa & McCrae, 1980, 2006; McCrae et al., 2000), and that these five traits explain all facets of human psychological individuality. Other groups (e.g., proponents of evolutionary developmental psycholog)' [EDP| and of sociobiolog)') explicitly endorse genetic reductionism through the claim that the genotype actually contains preexisting information for the phenotype (e.g., Bjorklund, 2015, 2016; Bjorklund & Ellis, 2005). Other proponents within this group also maintain that girls of color have evolved to prefer a “reproductive strategy” that involves early and promiscuous sexuality and high fertility (see, e.g., Belsky, 2012; Belsky, Steinberg, & Draper, 1991; Draper & Harpending, 1982, 1988; Ellis, Schlomer, Tilley, & Butler, 2012). These groups propose neoeugenicist ideas, contending that some children have genes that preclude their being able to develop positively through the application of interventions based on progressive policies (Belsky, 2014).

The absurdity of these and other examples of genetic reductionist thinking are underscored by advances in the understanding of epigenetic processes in human development (Witherington & Lickliter, this issue; see also Jablonka & Lamb, 2005; Lester et al., 2016; Moore, 2015, 2016), and by an appreciation of an alternative holistic approach to understanding developmental processes. This alternative is the RDS metamodel, which involves processes that create idiographic, emergent features of human development (Molenaar & Nesselroade, 2015). These developmental changes occur through mutually influential relations between individuals and their contexts

(represented as individualOcontext relations), and by the relative plasticity of human trajectories (Lerner, 1984, 2015). That is, from a nongenecentric, holistic RDS-based view, development occurs through the persons (systems) embodied activities and actions operating coactively in a lived world of physical and sociocultural objects, according to the principle of probabilistic epigenesis. Conceptualized relationally, probabilistic epigenesis (Gottlieb, 1997, 1998), designates a holistic approach to understanding developmental complexity.

Probabilistic epigenesis (not epigenetics) is the principle that the role played by any part process of an RDS—gene, cell, organ, organism, physical environment, culture, or history—is a function of all of the interpenetrating and coacting part processes of the system. It is through complex relational, bidirectional, and multidirectional reciprocal and interpenetrating relations among the coacting part processes that the system moves to levels of increasingly organized complexity. Thus, epigenesis identifies the system as being completely contextualized and situated; time and place matter (Elder, Shanahan, & Jennings, 2015). This relational development leads, through positive and negative feedback loops created by the systems organized action, to increasing system differentiation, integration, and complexity, directed towards adaptive ends (Raeff, 2016). Conceptualizing epigenetics within the lens of the relational development system demonstrates the total inadequacy of models of genetic reductionist models.

Defining Epigenetics

Epigenetics may be defined as “mitotically and meiotically heritable changes in gene expression that cannot be explained by changes in DNA sequence” (Lester et al., 2016, p. 29). Or less formally, “epigenetics refers to how genetic material is. . . expressed in different contexts or situations” (Moore, 2015, p. 14). Thus, epigenetics constitutes “changes in phenotype or gene expression brought about by processes other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence” (Lester et al., 2016, p. 29). These modifications in gene expression occur through two main processes: histone modification and DNA methylation (Lester et al., 2016). DNA methylation is the most studied process in regard to human behavior and development. DNA methylation is more stable—extending even across generations—than histone modifications (Lester et al., 2016; Meaney, 2010).

Data presented in a 2016 special section of the journal Child Development indicate that “some behaviors may be affected by only slight changes in DNA methylation, while others may require a larger percent change in methylation; of course, the effects are also likely bidirectional, with behavior impacting changes in methylation” (Lester et al., 2016, p. 31). This point is key. It underscores the absurdity of genetic reductionist models: Genes do not determine behavior. “Epigenetics controls the . . . [expression] of the gene or how genes function” (Lester et al., 2016, p. 30). Further, just as methylation impacts on behavior, the bidirectionality to which Lester et al. (2016) point means that behavior impacts methylation (see also Slavich & Cole, 2013). In short, behaviorO methylation relations, and not a gene acting as if it were the command center for human behavior and development, constitute the basic role of biology' across the course of development. As Lester et al. (2016) emphasize, “epigenetic . . . [processes] control how the gene is expressed. This is the fundamental importance of epigenetics” (p. 31).

In short, then, epigenetics is a relational “nature and nurture” conception (Lester et al., 2016, p. 36). That is, with the recent advances in understanding the role of epigenetics and recent research findings supporting this role, it should no longer be possible for any scientist to undertake the procedure of splitting of nature and nurture and, through reductionist procedures, come to conclusions that the one or the other plays a more important role in behavior and development.

It is in the context of the recognition that nature—nurture constitutes a nondissolvable relational status that the RDS metamodel provides the conceptual grounding for understanding the role of epigenetics in human development. As such, it is this metamodel, and the process-relational paradigm from which it is derived (Overton, 2015), that forms an alternative holistic framework within which the absurd claims of genetic reductionism become highlighted.

Recent cutting-edge theory and research in developmental science has been framed by this process-relational alternative to the classic Cartesian- mechanistic-split research paradigm and worldview. Models derived from the RDS metamodel depict universal functions of a living, open, inherently active, self-constructing (autopoietic), self-organizing, self-regulating (agen- tic), nonlinear/complex, adapted, integrated/holistic system (Molenaar, 2014; Overton, 2015; Witherington, 2014). Within the process-relational RDS approach to theory, split conceptions (e.g., nature—nurture) are discarded in favor of concepts that emphasize the study and integration of different levels of organization, ranging from biology/physiology to culture and history, as a means of understanding life-span human development (Over- ton, 2015). Accordingly, the conceptual emphasis in RDS-based theories is placed on mutually influential, recursive individual^context relations.

Theory-predicated research from multiple disciplines (e.g., evolutionary biology, human genetics, developmental science, sociology, and anthropology) provides empirical documentation of the logical shortcomings of biological reductionist (genetic or neuronal) models (e.g., sociobiology, EDP, FFT, or behavior genetics) and methods (e.g., adoption designs, mono- and dizygotic twin research, or heritability analyses [e.g., see Joseph, 2014; Lerner, 2015; Moore & Shenk, 2016; Overton, 2015; Richardson, 2017]). RDS-based theoretical models (e.g., Lerner & Callina, 2014; Lerner, Lerner, Bowers, & Geldhof, 2015) point out that any component of the individuals (i.e., the RDS) structure/function relation (e.g., genes, the brain, personality, cognition, or intelligence) is embodied, and fused, with other features of the individual, and with the characteristics of his or her proximal and distal ecology, including culture and history. Embodiment means that biological, psychological, and behavioral attributes of the person, in fusion with history, have a temporal parameter. This temporality provides the potential for at least relative plasticity in individuals’ trajectories across the life span.

Embodiment provides a basis for the bidirectional relations between behavior and methylation—that is, behaviorOmethylation relations—that characterize epigenetics. For example, Bateson and Gluckman (2011) observe that

gene expression is profoundly influenced by factors external to the cell nucleus in which reside the molecules making up the genes: the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). A willingness to move between different levels of analysis has become essential for an understanding of development and evolution.

(p. 5)

Moreover, Pigliucci and Mueller (2010), in presenting what they term an “extended synthesis” of evolution, note:

Far from denying the importance of genes in organismal evolution, the extended theory gives less overall weight to genetic variation as a generative force. Rather, [there is aj view of “genes as followers” in the evolutionary process, ensuring the routinization of developmental . . . coactions, the faithfulness of their inheritance, and the progressive fixation of phenotypic traits that were initially mobilized through plastic responses of adaptive developmental systems to changing environmental conditions. In this way, evolution progresses through the capture of emergent . . . [coactions] into genetic-epigenetic circuits, which are passed to and elaborated on in subsequent generations.

(p. 14)

In turn, West-Eberhard (2003) argues that “the universal environmental responsiveness of organisms, alongside genes, influences individual development and organic evolution, and this realization compels us to reexamine the major themes of evolutionary biology in a new light” (p. vii). Linking the presence of plasticity across development with evolution, she makes three major points:

First, environmental induction is a major initiator of adaptive evolutionary change. The origin and evolution of adaptive novelty do not await mutation; on the contrary, genes are followers not leaders, in evolution. Second, evolutionary novelties result from the reorganization of preexisting phenotypes and the incorporation of environmental elements. Novel traits are not de novo constructions that depend on a series of genetic mutations. Third, phenotypic plasticity' can facilitate evolution by' the immediate accommodation and exaggeration of change. It should no longer be regarded as a source of noise in a system governed by genes, or as a “merely environmental” phenomenon without evolutionary importance.

(p. 20)

Crystallizing the embodiment of variables from all levels of organization within RDS that create epigenetic change across generations, Jablonka and Lamb (2005) summarize evidence demonstrating that evolution iiwolves four interrelated dimensions:

Molecular biology' has shown that many of the old assumptions about the genetic system, which is the basis of present-day neo-Darwinian theory, are incorrect. It has also shown that cells can transmit information to daughter cells through non-DNA (epigenetic) inheritance. This means that all organisms have at least two systems of heredity'. In addition, many animals transmit information to others by behavioral means, which gives them a third hereditary system. And we humans have a fourth, because sy'mbol-based inheritance, particularly language, plays a substantial role in our evolution. It is therefore quite wrong to think about heredity and evolution solely in terms of the genetic system. Epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic inheritance also provide variation on which natural selection can act.

(P- 1)

Accordingly, propositions asserting that human development is reducible to genes that act independently of context, or that genes contribute variance to human behavior (intelligence, personality, sexual relationships, etc.) that is not moderated by' coactions with the context, are unwarranted and absurd. Indeed, in a book discussing the transformations of Lamarckian theory that have arisen in relation to the increasingly more active focus on epigenetic processes in the study of both evolution and development (e.g., Meaney, 2010; Moore, 2015, 2016; Noble, 2015), Gissis and Jablonka (2011) note that “plasticity'—the capacity of organisms to change in response to varying conditions—is ... a large topic, but, just as Lamarck anticipated, an understanding of plasticity is now recognized as being fundamental to an understanding of evolution” (p. xiii). In turn, and underscoring the links between plasticity of embodied relations among an organism and the multiple biological through ecological levels of its ecology' and epigenetic change, these authors go on to note:

Experimental work now shows that, contrary to the dogmatic assertions of many mid-twentieth-century biologists that it could not occur, even a form of “inheritance of acquired characteristics” does occur and might even be said to be ubiquitous. In particular, new variations induced by stress are sometimes inherited. The molecular [processes] that underlie such inheritance—the epigenetic inheritance systems—are now partially understood, and . . . the existence of various types of [such] soft inheritance affects how we see adaptive evolution and speciation. It also has implications for human health.

(p. xiii)

In sum, the evidence about embodiment, plasticity, and epigenetics that accounts for the character of evolutionary and developmental change understandably elicits skepticism about, indeed the repudiation of, the “extreme nature” (Rose & Rose, 2000) of the claims of some biological reductionists. Clearly, then, split, genetic reductionist assertions within EDP, behavior genetics, sociobiology, or FFT are inconsistent with the evidence in support of the epigenetic character of evolution and ontogeny, of the multiple, integrated dimensions of evolution, and of the role of the organism’s own agency and of culture in creating change within and across generations (Overton, 2015; Overton & Molenaar, 2015). The embodiment of the individual and of his or her plastic developmental, biological, psychological, and behavioral processes within the RDS provides a basis for epigenetics across generations, that is, for changes in gene<=> context relations within one generation being transmitted to succeeding generations.

In short, the burgeoning and convincing literature of epigenetics means that genetic function is a relatively plastic outcome of mutually influential relations among genes and the multiple levels of the context within which they are embedded (cellular and extracellular physiological processes, psychological functioning, and the physical, social, and cultural features of the changing ecology' [e.g., Cole, 2014; Slavich & Cole, 2013J). These relations create epigenetic change, that is, behaviorOmethylation relations. As a consequence, the “Just So” stories (Gould, 1981) of EDP, as well as the assertions of behavior geneticists (Plomin et al., 2016), trait theorists (e.g., Costa & McCrae, 1980, 2006), and sociobiologists (Draper & Harpending, 1988; Freedman, 1979) are conceptually flawed and ignore contemporary scholarship about evolutionary processes and their impact on ontogeny (e.g., Gissis & Jablonka, 2011; Ho, 2010; Lickliter, 2016; Lickliter &' Honeycutt, 2015; Meaney, 2010; Noble, 2015).

How Does Genetic Reductionism Survive in Scientific Discourse?

In the light of all the devastating conceptual criticism and all the new empirical work on epigenetics, one must wonder how genetic reductionist conceptions survive, and even seem to thrive, in the scientific literature, in media accounts of human development, and in the parlance of the person- on-the-street (Horowitz, 2000). We offer three likely reasons for their survival; that is, there may be at least three “survival strategies” that exist for genetic reductionists.

The first survival strategy relates to our earlier discussion concerning the use of split and/or genetic reductionist language (e.g., the terms interaction, mechanism, and trait) by supporters of process-relational RDS-based developmental science. We believe that this use has been one basis for the perpetuation of genetic reductionist ideas in both scientific and public discourse (e.g., Horowitz, 2000). That is, this use supports a survival strategy that might be called “If we can get them to use our words then we can get them to adopt our paradigm.” John Searle (1992), in a critique of the Cartesian paradigm, points out:

Along with the Cartesian tradition we have inherited a vocabulary, and with the vocabulary a certain set of categories, within which we are historically conditioned to think about these problems. The vocabulary is not innocent, because implicit in the vocabulary are a surprising number of theoretical claims.

(p. 31)

As we have noted, the term frequently used by biologists studying epi- genetics is “mechanism.” However, this term, along with “interaction” and “trait,” have also been central to all instances of Cartesian mechanistic reduc- tionism. Conceptual confusion arises when these terms are used by those supporting a process-relational RDS metamodel, and the outcome is that the confusion leads to the belief that there is no real difference between the Cartesian mechanistic and the process-relational RDS perspectives. To block this survival strategy, we have argued for the use of “process” in place of “mechanism” and “coaction” or “fusion” in place of “interaction.”

With respect to the fact that many biologists in general, and molecular biologists in particular, as well as neuroscientists, use the term “mechanism” with great frequency (Bechtel & Abrahamsen, 2005; Machamer, Darden & Craver, 2000), it should be noted that these are the same scientists who are most skeptical about the value of epigenetics. When addressing the possible impact of the environmental context on genetic expression, these skeptics maintain that epigenetic talk is just description and will not be accepted until specific detailed “mechanisms” are found (Buchen, 2010). These skeptics, in fact, constitute the group of biologists who actively support a Cartesian mechanistic perspective. But this group is forthright about their Cartesian support and does not try to hide it within the process-relational RDS perspective, as do other proponents of genetic reductionism.

A second survival strategy for the genetic reductionists was suggested in the 1970s by philosophers of science, including Thomas Kuhn (1970, 1977), Imre Lakatos (1978), and Larry Laudan (1977). As Kuhn, in particular, pointed out, giving up a paradigm, in this case the Cartesian-mechanist-split paradigm, is very hard to do. Basic epistemological and ontological tenets of this paradigm, including reductionism, were introduced to genetic reductionists during their early professional training, and their life’s work has been invested in these tenets. Furthermore, there have been enormous rewards, including the funding of large grants, promotions, and honors that have been earned by sticking with the paradigm. As Kuhn (1970) also pointed out, when empirical investigations fail (e.g., as in the failure to find a “gene for” any psychological phenomena [e.g., Charney, 2016; Wahlsten, 2012]), the failure is treated as a mere anomaly to be set aside. Even when these anomalies build to the point that the paradigm is cracking apart, it is generally a younger generation that rejects the paradigm, while well-established scientists continue on until retirement. A related alternative when things do not work out is to create auxiliary hypotheses, which, although not entirely consistent with the paradigm, do hold things together for a time. However, as auxiliary hypotheses accumulate, the result is that work has strayed so far from first principles as to be incoherent.

In a recent book entitled Misbehaving Science, the sociologist Aaron Panof- sky (2014) provides yet another possible explanation of how genetic reductionism survives. Panofsky explored a set of survival techniques that the field of behavior genetics has developed to deal with the question of how this field, and particularly its reductionist stance, has survived decades of devastating conceptual critiques. Panofsky s answer generalizes beyond behavior genetics to other genecentric reductionist approaches, including EDP, sociobiology, and FFT.

Panofsky s answer is complex; however, its core is that behavior geneticists have been able to refocus attention on tractable empirical and technical issues and have avoided responding to deeper epistemological issues. In other words, they avoid any conceptual analysis and pay no penalty' for omission. As Panofsky (2014) say's, “behavior geneticists did not convince their opponents, settle controversies, and resolve the critiques of their paradigm, instead, they buried their opponents under a pile of repetitive results” (p. 145). Further, Panofsky argues that even the peer review process conspires to facilitate the avoidance of conceptual analysis: “Peer review is particularly constrained in its reach or effectiveness. In behavior genetics, it tends to become focused on a narrow range of technical matters while deeper critical questions are not raised” (p. 147).


The presence of plasticity' in human development, arising through embodied processes of individual<=>context relations, including behavior<=>methylation relations, means that combinations of individual^context relations can be identified or designed to enhance the probability of positive development among all individuals, and to decrease disparities in opportunities for positive development. Indeed, Lester et al. (2016) “highlight the optimism in the epigenetics research community” (p. 34) and point out that the role of “evidence-based use of epigenetics for diagnostic purposes and intervention would be warranted, even perhaps ethically mandated, if they' relieved human suffering” (p. 35). As such, the use of holistic, process-relational RDS-based models to frame epigenetics research can be envisioned to eventuate in the enhancement of social justice (Fisher, Busch-Rossnagel, lopp, & Brown, 2013).

In sum, the study of epigenetics illustrates that the genes received at conception (i.e., the genotype) are not a fixed blueprint for development. Genes are constantly getting turned on and off across the life span, and most of this activity is stochastic and short term (and of largely unknown origin [Misteli, 2013]). However, epigenetic changes are enduring, systematic, and even cross-generational (Meaney, 2010; Misteli, 2013; Moore, 2015, 2016; Slavich & Cole, 2013). When conceptualized within a holistic, process-relational RDS-based perspective, such changes are products of behaviorOmethylation relations, and not of genes per se. Claiming, then, that genes are the to-be- reduced-to source of intelligence, of five “big,” nature-based factors (traits) of personality, of the sexual behavior of girls of color, or that genes preclude the efficacy of progressive social interventions, is not defensible, on either conceptual or empirical grounds. Such assertions are absurd.


The preparation of this article was supported in part by grants from the John Templeton Foundation, the Templeton Religion Trust, and the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. We thank Kristina Callina for her comments on a prior draft of the paper.


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