“Bringing the world into focus
through the lens of Scripture”

Epigenetics: Part 2

Science & The Bible

Epigenetics is one of the fastest-growing areas of biological research worldwide. It is upending long-held views about people, society and life.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…

John 1:1–3, 14

In last month’s article on epigenetics, we discussed how scientists are grappling with two inherent limitations in using science to discern truth: the flawed natures of the scientific method and of people. In addition, science assumes that facts are neutral. However, the Bible tells us there is no neutral fact. There is singular truth and malicious deception. These cautions must be kept in mind as we continue exploring the new science of epigenetics.

Changing Views of Bio-Information

Bio-information is the biochemical instructions through which living things grow, maintain, and reproduce themselves. DNA has long been considered the library of bio-information and the controller of systems in cells and creatures. Beginning largely in the 1990s, scientists have been finding this view unsatisfactory. What we see in the DNA of a cell or creature is not fully what we get in its body or behavior. Something else is going on between the instructions contained in DNA (the genotype) and the resultant product (the phenotype). This “something else” has been dubbed “epigenetics,” meaning “above genetics” or “outside of genetics.”

And again, contrary to a core belief of the DNA era (the second half of the 20th century), epigenetic research reveals that significant bio-information can be acquired in creatures’ lifetimes through experiences and choices. This information can then affect their bodies and behavior, and can also be inherited by their descendants for at least several generations. All this without changing the creatures’ underlying DNA. The existence of these effects is being explored in humans with positive early results.

Thus far, epigenetics has been considered a biochemical switching system that turns existing bio-information in DNA on and off, or dialing it up and down, depending on internal needs and/or cues received from the environment. However, the view of epigenetics as a bio-information language system in its own right is emerging,1 and is casting doubt on the view of DNA as the sole blueprint for life.2

It appears DNA will be seen as the creature’s consistent, slowly changing bio-information baseline that is largely insulated from the creature’s environment. In contrast, epigenetics will be viewed as the fast-changing, environmentally responsive bio-information system that provides rapid adaptability for the creature and passes these adaptions to its descendants in a resettable way.

Ripple Effects

Epigenetics is one of the fastest-growing areas of biological research worldwide. It is upending long-held views about people, society and life.

Early results indicate people may experience certain health consequences from their choices that affect not only themselves but their descendants (see last month’s article).

For example, diet, nurturing, smoking or abuse by parents might affect the health of their children, grandchildren and perhaps great grandchildren. Health effects of sustained joy or exposure to a toxin might last for generations. The way we treat other people might cause epigenetic changes that impact them and their descendants. Our descendants may interact with their descendants, perhaps experiencing the consequences of the actions we, their progenitors, took.

This is a sobering responsibility. Encouragingly, some of these effects appear resettable by making better choices.

As epigenetic discoveries penetrate the public mind, we should expect efforts to expand the reach of law, government regulations, and the education lobby.3 Where a chemical manufacturer is today liable for the effects of its product on one generation of exposed persons, with epigenetics the injured parties span multiple generations. If the state has an interest in removing children from parents based on current allegations, its leverage will be multiplied when the effect is seen to impact generations of the unborn, regardless of how hypocritical this may be in relation to abortion policy. If education can change behavior, affecting life choices here and now, the funding justification is magnified when future generations are at stake.

On the other hand, epigenetics undercuts a core justification for carbon emissions control plans and other environmental regulations. It suggests that some creatures can adapt very quickly, within several generations as opposed to supposed eons, to certain effects of rapidly changing environmental conditions.4 This adaptability may happen as fast or faster than problems posed by climate change or gradual habitat loss.

Epigenetics raises questions about what a species really is. And, at what level of bio-information is conservation appropriate? The flexibility of epigenetics tends to support the species conservation strategy of Noah’s Ark: it’s not necessary to save every species of creature, just every category of creature.5 It also supports the creationist view of today’s creatures having diversified rapidly from God’s initially created creature kinds.

Prior to epigenetics, new bio-information was thought to arise only at a glacial pace through the accumulated mistakes of DNA copying errors. This is one reason many believe the earth is billions of years old: it would take a very long time for this slow, haphazard process confounded by occasional global catastrophes to create the vast complexity of bio-information around us. But epigenetics says certain bio-information can be created very rapidly,6 raising questions for scientists about when life began.

Epigenetics Parallels the Bible

Scientific disciplines are converging on a central idea: a fundamental currency of the physical universe appears to be information. Information assembles and directs the universe and its inhabitants. This isn’t news to believers in Christ. The Bible anticipates and confirms this discovery, and identifies both the information and its source: the Word.7

The Word both is and is from God. Man is made in His image and God made the creatures.8 Given these linkages, we can expect that bio-information systems will exhibit characteristics that parallel human language and God’s Word as we experience it both in and through the Bible.

This is precisely the case with epigenetics, which models the inheritable yet resettable effects of sin presented in the Ten Commandments.9 Epigenetics, taken together with DNA, also parallels other Biblical types.

In the Bible the jot and tittle are crucial.10 These are small squiggles added to Hebrew words which dramatically change the word’s meaning. For example, a jot added to the Hebrew word “Lord” in Psalm 110 made the word into “My Lord.” This was the same jot Jesus used to simultaneously silence the learned arguments of the Pharisees, bridge the Old Testament with the New, and point to the divinity of the Christ.11

Similarly, in one of the first major epigenetic biochemical mechanisms discovered, tiny methyl tags comprised of a carbon atom with attendant hydrogen atoms have been found to attach during a creature’s lifetime to certain parts of the DNA molecule as a result of the creature’s activities and experiences. These tiny tags turn genes, which are like words in the DNA, on and off or up and down. They cause significant changes in the meaning of the DNA and significant changes in the creature. Like the jot Jesus used, discovering the existence and power of these bitty chemical tags appended to the words of DNA has changed our view not only of DNA, but of ourselves and our very origins. It will change us as well.

In another parallel, critics of the Bible point out that it’s full of contradictions: Old Testament teachings vs. New; Jesus, fully man and fully God; grace vs. works, etc. Critics say it means the Bible is unreliable. But the late Jewish political scientist and expert on Biblical covenant in American governance, Daniel J. Elazar, concluded these apparent contradictions are designed features, not flaws:

…the Biblical political teaching must be discovered in the same manner that all Biblical knowledge must emerge, by careful examination and analysis of the text with careful attention to recurring words and patterns and the reconciliation of apparent contradictions.12 (emphasis added)

To that method we would of course add prayer, the Holy Spirit and the examination of fruits. But we get the point.

Predestination vs. free will is one of these well-known apparent contradictions in the Bible. The classic Nature vs. Nurture debate in biology flows from this Biblical contradiction. In the Nature view, “You are your DNA” and DNA, like predestination, controls you. In the Nurture view, choices and free will matter.

With knowledge only of DNA, science built a skewed worldview where DNA controls everything in life. Epigenetics is DNA’s apparent contradiction and reintroduces free will. The reconciliation between DNA and epigenetics, like the reconciliation of predestination and free will, is correcting this skewed worldview and yielding new insight into life and therefore God.

Finally, the inter-responsibility between people that epigenetics emphasizes parallels yet another major Biblical command:

…Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Matthew 22:39

Using the Bible to Direct Science

Patterns and types in nature often have a fractal-like quality. The pattern, type, or its echo is seen again and again at differing scales of space, time and conceptual complexity. This same quality is seen in the Bible. As we have described with epigenetics, the natural world echoes the patterns and types found in the Bible.

This similarity might be taken as a sign that the Bible and nature are both of natural origin. But the Bible predates modern scientific discoveries about nature, and anticipates and then confirms these discoveries in detail. This tells us that both the Bible and nature are of supernatural origin.

The Bible does not just call attention to the existence of epigenetics, foreshadow the basic principle of how it operates, and model its effects and management. It flags epigenetics as an example of one way to use the Bible to drive scientific discovery: search out and reconcile apparent contradictions in the Bible and seek out their parallels in the physical world.

Scientists may, as Johannes Kepler once said, think God’s thoughts after Him. But will science on its own lead to God? Apparently not:

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

John 14:6

This Truth leads to the most amazing discovery of all:

And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

John 17:3