People may object to my calling for Ph.D. programs in Theoretical Phys Ed and Quantum Paleontology, but humor is not far off the mark.  Evolutionary psychology, for example, is practically self-ridiculing.   

But I was somewhat intrigued by recent research I saw about stress being a genetic issue and the person behind it called it theoretical evolutionary biology.    This concerns me on a few levels; first, evolutionary biology has detractors by a fringe religious minority obsessed with what Darwin did not know 150 years ago so slapping the word 'theoretical' in front of evolutionary biology will make people think 'made up', like people do about a lot of the more obscure physics ideas, which is more hypothetical than theoretical.

Worse, this supposed theoretical conclusion, which will make people believe there is more than one theory of evolution, is not a conclusion based on any research except a meta-analysis of other studies.    And it's under the guise of epigenetics, which will cause even more confusion.  Let's see if we can clear it up.

Wil Farrell introduces us to quantum paleontology.

What is epigenetics?

If you are interested in creating a Master Race, you will love the idea of epigenetics.   Epigenetics says you can alter your DNA environmentally to such an extent it is heritable - for example, while a pregnant woman with a bad diet may cause issues for a baby, epigenetics believes even behavior in early life will have an impact on offspring.   How positively Lamarckian!  Basically, researchers in epigenetics contend your environment can leave genetic imprints on the genetic material in eggs and sperm - but they aren't really changes in the genetic code.  Instead, patterns of gene expression are in cellular material on top of the genome.   Evolution becomes a matter of chemistry and no longer takes years.

Want to do some epigenetics?  Thanks to the fine folks at the University of Utah, you can!   Turn the control knob and epigenetic tags change the shape of the gene.  Gene, mRNA and protein production change together.

Back to business.   The theoretical evolutionary biologist who did the meta analysis is Prof. Eva Jablonka of Tel Aviv University's Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas.    At an epigenetics conference in North Carolina, she said her meta-analysis found more than 100 examples of living organisms, from bacteria to human beings, demonstrating how our genes' expression can be altered and inherited.

"I am a story teller. I read a lot of information and develop theories about evolution. For the last 25 years, before it became a fad, I was interested in the transmission of information not dependent on DNA variations," Jablonka says. "Epigenetic inheritance is information about us that is not explicitly encoded in our genes. Two individuals may have identical genes, but the genes present very different characteristics. They can be genetically identical but different epigenetically."

Well, I appreciate a great narrative but saying stress and environmental factors will cause inheritance problems will take a little more to be convincing - it's hypothetical rather than theoretical at this point - but when that understanding comes, obviously genome-wide reprogramming of DNA can have enormous value in medicine.    The big promise of epigenetics is not so much the heritability as the reversibility.     DNA methylation alters gene function so if processes hidden inside cells can be influenced by lifestyle and disease, they can also be changed back.   That's not to say we should just go ahead and pollute.     Likewise, we know stress is bad even if passing on stress DNA to your kids remains hypothetical, so less of it is going to pay dividends.

Some things can't be avoided in the modern world.   Androgen suppressors, like some pesticides and fungicides, can have effects on gene expression so it would be nice to undo them once we know how.    Or we could just go back to using DDT.