Article ID: CBB128944502

Epigenetics: A way to bridge the gap between biological fields (2017)


The concept of epigenetics has evolved since Waddington defined it from the late 1930s as the study of the causal mechanisms at work in development. It has become a multi-faceted notion with different meanings, depending on the disciplinary context it is used. In this article, we first analyse the transformations of the concept of epigenetics, from Waddington to contemporary accounts, in order to identify its different meanings and traditions, and to come up with a typology of epigenetics throughout its history. Second, we show on this basis that epigenetics has progressively turned its main focus from biological problems regarding development, toward issues concerning evolution. Yet, both these different epistemological aspects of epigenetics still coexist. Third, we claim that the classical opposition between epigenesis and preformationism as ways of thinking about the developmental process is part of the history of epigenetics and has contributed to its current various meanings. With these objectives in mind, we first show how Waddington introduced the term “epigenetics” in a biological context in order to solve a developmental problem, and we then build on this by presenting Nanney's, Riggs' and Holliday's definitions, which form the basis for the current conception of “molecular epigenetics”. Then, we show that the evo-devo research field is where some particular uses of epigenetics have started shifting from developmental issues to evolutionary problems. We also show that epigenetics has progressively focused on the issue of epigenetic inheritance within the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis' framework. Finally, we conclude by presenting a typology of the different conceptions of epigenetics throughout time, and analyse the connections between them. We argue that, since Waddington, epigenetics, as an integrative research area, has been used to bridge the gap between different biological fields.

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Authors & Contributors
Minelli, Alessandro
Paternain Suberviola, José Luis
Montero i Simó, Miguel Ángel
Romeu Figuerola, Antoni
Cabré Bargalló, Maria
Hull, David L.
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Actes d’Història de la Ciència i de la Tècnica
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Biological Theory
Journal of the History of Biology
Mefisto: Rivista di medicina, filosofia, storia
Duke University Press
Oxford University Press
University of Pittsburgh
Harvard University Press
Palgrave Macmillan
Developmental biology
Waddington, Conrad Hal
Darwin, Charles Robert
Needham, Joseph
Whitehead, Alfred North
Baltzer, Fritz
Spemann, Hans
Time Periods
20th century
21st century
19th century
20th century, early
20th century, late
Great Britain
Human Genome Project

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