Beyond the Gene: Epigenetic Science in 21st Century Culture

Exploratory Award

Project Team:

Principal Investigator:

Professor Clare Hanson, University of Southampton


Professor Peter Middleton, Department of English, University of Southampton,

Professor Mark Hanson, Director of Human Health and Development Unit, Department of Medicine, University of Southampton

Professor Karen Temple, Professor of Medical Genetics, University of Southampton

Award Information:

This cross- disciplinary project brought together researchers in the biomedical sciences with researchers and writers in the humanities to explore the implications of moving beyond the genetic model of inheritance that dominated biomedical research in the twentieth century.

The research focused on the shift that this taking place as we are discovering that fixed genetic inheritance plays a relatively small part in making us ‘who we are’. The genetic determinism which marked the twentieth century has been largely superseded as it has been shown that human development is shaped by epigenetic changes to the genome, which work in concert with regulatory networks derived from non-coding DNA. Human- beings, then are not the result of a template fixed before birth, but are shaped by modifications to the genome in response to subtle environmental cues.

This understanding has major implications which cut across disciplines and provides opportunities for future collaborative, cross-disciplinary research. Epigenetics requires us to question our most fundamental assumptions, notably the dichotomies between fixed inheritance and the environment and between nature and nurture. It also has significant implications for our understanding of family relationships. If DNA is not a programme, and if our development is shaped by continuous interactions between the genome and its environment, then the fact that we share out DNA with family members is a less salient factor that previously thought. The project team’s future research will build on these insights to explore the social and cultural entailments of what has been called ‘the epigenetic revolution’.

Further information:

A Case Study (PDF) of this AHRC Science in Culture Theme Exploratory Award is available to download here.

Award Dates: February- August 2012