The old line about a lie being halfway around the world before the truth is out of bed is a keen observation, but it also suggests something about the nature of lies. That is, a lie that gets around has some appealing quality to it. The reason it spreads so quickly is people want to believe it. There’s something about it that ticks all the right boxes. As a result, even smart and skeptical people, not only want to believe it, but they want to help everyone else believe it. Some lies turn everyone they touch into willing accomplices.
Bad ideas are like that too. For some reason, people want to believe them, even when it really makes no sense to believe them. For example, most people still think your diet can have a significant impact on your health. That if you eat fatty foods, you will have a heart attack. At the extremes this is true, but most disease is genetic. When it comes to heart disease, diet has nothing to do with it. The same is true of things like cholesterol levels, where there is little data to support a link between “bad” cholesterol and heart disease.
Part of what drives the persistence of bad ideas is they seem to address a need among modern people to believe in free will. As the human sciences build the case that we are the product of our genetic coding, the need to believe we can overcome that by force of will becomes stronger. Therefore, if you have a family history of heart disease, you want to believe eating unpleasant food, like some form of preemptive penance, will ward off the reality of your genetic makeup. Your diet becomes a moral issue for you.
The concept of epigenetics seems to be following a similar path. It is becoming this catchall idea that lets people ignore what we know, in favor of speculative nonsense that has no supporting data. This set of long posts on the Arktos site the other day are a good example of the phenomenon. The argument from the author is that epigenetics is proving that experiences can be passed onto subsequent generation through a biological process, just as genetic traits like eye color are passed on from parent to child.
The author is picking up on something Oswald Spengler argued. That is, the land of a people shapes their sense of identity, how they see themselves and their purpose. This in turn shapes their culture. The author of the Arktos piece thinks science is proving that these collective cultural experiences as a people are shared, but also passed on to subsequent generations via the miracle of epigenetics. He points to some papers on the subject and this study on the children of holocaust survivors.
The original definition of epigenetics¹ is the study of how genes are expressed, from a biological perspective. Your DNA contains instructions for determining your eye and hair color, for example, but it also contains instructions for more subtle things like personality traits. You inherit your DNA from your parents. Epigenetics refers to ways in which those genes are turned on and off. Genes are the blueprint for creating proteins, while epigenetics is the study of how genes are read.
The way in which epigenetics is used here and in popular writing is the claim that your experiences can somehow be passed onto your children. This is complete nonsense and there is no evidence to support it. You cannot pass on your experiences to your off-spring through any known biological processes. This nutty idea was cooked up by left-wing agitators so they could claim victim-hood by proxy. Their ancestors were treated poorly, so they are now suffering from the same effects, as part of their biological inheritance.
To now put this bad idea to use in the name of race realism or the moral philosophy of Oswald Spengler is amusing, but every bit as a nutty. As Greg Cochran once put it, this line of reasoning is like saying if you chop off a cat’s tale, it’s kittens will be born without tales. There’s simply no known biological process for passing on experiences or learned behavior. In fact, the changes to how your genes are read as a result of environmental factors are reset in the zygote. In other words, you can’t pass on your experiences.
Now, the author of the Arktos piece is probably a nice guy with good intentions. His background is history and theology, so he can be forgiven for not understanding the human sciences part of this. That raises the question of why epigenetics is so attractive an explanation for someone without math or science. Why embrace something about which you know nothing? The obvious answer is it supports his main point, but another aspect of it is that old need to believe in free will. We are not just moist robots.
In this way, bad ideas are like great salesmen. The bad idea always flatters the person willing to believe it. Pitchmen and motivational speakers have relied on flattery since forever, because people like being flattered. The flattery of free will is that you, unlike the rest of those slobs out there, control your destiny. The promise of epigenetics is that your decisions today will alter the lives of generations to come, because your decisions will be passed onto them, whether they like it or not. You are a god.
Of course, it also suggests something about the future. Many think that the unriddling of the human genome will usher in an age of reason. The fact that our theological overlords have suddenly become evangelical opponents of the human sciences, while embracing things like epigenetics, suggests otherwise. Belief is powerful magic, that has always found a way to override factual reality. That’s probably the main reason bad ideas are like drug resistant viruses. They make it easy to avoid facing reality.
¹I’m not writing a biology textbook here, so if you’re tempted to sperg out on the science, restrain yourself. This is not a post about science.