New book sheds light on long history behind the rise of the field of epigenetics
Associate Professor Maurizio Meloni’s new book ‘Impressionable Biologies’ investigates the long history of the beliefs of the plasticity of the human body and its recent resurgence in popularity through epigenetics.
A/Prof. Meloni is a social theorist and scholar in the social study of science, in particular biology, genetics and epigenetics. His research looks at how historical meanings are produced in some urgent areas of debate concerning the social significant of genetics, human genetics and epigenetics.
His new book, ‘Impressionable Biologies: From the Archaeology of Plasticity to the Sociology of Epigenetics’, was published by Routledge in early 2019.
“This book is a history of ancient and early-modern biology building on the notion of body plasticity,” A/Prof. Meloni said. “Organisms react quickly to a number of environmental cues. So plasticity can be defined as the capacity of organisms, or in the case of my research the capacity of the human body, to react and adjust quickly to environment cues. These reactions can be through changes in activity, form, shape, or other physiological and neurological adjustments including changes in genomic expression.”
Plasticity may seem complex, but the concept is far more common in everyday life than you might expect.
“An example of plasticity broadly is neuroplasticity, or the capacity for the brain to be ‘rewired’ as a consequence of different forms of learning. This was the case of the famous experiment on taxi drivers in London who exhibited a stronger development of certain areas of the brain that are devoted to map geographical thinking.” A/Prof. Meloni said. “The capacity of change by the neural connections from exposure to some form of learning, or stress, is a classic example of plasticity.”
“For genomic plasticity, which is what epigenetics is concerned with, this plasticity is more about the capacity of the genome to be activated or de-activated and shaped directly by environmental factors such as nutrition, stress or toxins.”
“The idea of body or corporeal plasticity was very prominent in the past yet we’ve forgotten the importance of those ideas in ancient and early modern medicine, both Western and non-Western. More recently, we’re seeing a resurfacing of these ideas of environmental influence on our bodily plasticity, human health and human heredity via the molecular language of epigenetics.”
“What is happening right now in epigenetics is that we are understanding that there is a wider impact of individual and social behaviours, be that smoking, pollution, food, stress, social inequalities or even trauma, on genomic functioning.”
“In this book, looking at the past notions of corporeal plasticity, I investigate this not only from the history of the scientific point of view, but also from the point of view of political history – so looking at how some human groups were deemed more ‘plastic’ than others, in the sense of being more vulnerable to direct environmental effects (often pathogenic effects)”.
“Importantly today, because biology is no longer deemed fixed but plastic we’re seeing a rising number of claims about regulation and medical surveillance for vulnerable minority groups or pregnant women. Once again, as in the past, not all bodies are considered equal, and plasticity appears highly gendered and racialised”.
A/Prof Meloni is an active member of the Science and Society Network at Deakin University which helps to bridge the disciplinary divides between scientists and humanities and social science researchers to meet the contemporary challenges we face as a society.
“The relatively modern science of human genetics was very much built around the idea of fixedness of genetic material, so notions of plasticity of the brain or even the genome have been greeted with great excitation. However not only do the historical roots of this idea go deeper than one might expect, but its social implications are complex and often double-edged. Sitting at the crossroads of social and biological sciences, epigenetics needs to be carefully considered by both biologists and social scientists alike – and if possible together.”
“With this impressive genealogy of the thinking that underwrites current interest in epigenetics, Meloni provides us with a much-needed frame for one of the most compelling ideas in contemporary bioscience. This book should be required reading for anyone curious about the ways that we, as living beings, carry the past both with and within us.”
Ed Cohen, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Rutgers University, author of A Body Worth Defending
“Impressionable Biologies, a tour de force, engages with a concept of inherent bodily plasticity recognized as one form of another from classical humoralism to present day epigenetic effects due to the increasingly toxic environments in which we now live.”
Margaret Lock, PhD, author of The Alzheimer Conundrum: Entanglements of Aging and Dementia
Associate Professor Maurizio Meloni was awarded a Future Fellowship from the Australian Research Council worth over $900,000 for his project ‘Impressionable Bodies: Epigenetic Models of Plasticity in the Global South’ which includes in research in South Africa, India and Australia. He is also a lead investigator on a Discovery Project led by ADI’s Professor Emma Kowal ‘Epigenetics and Indigenous Australia’ with Deakin University’s Professor Megan Warin.