Heretics must be erased

Creationists have a big problem: reality contradicts their beliefs. They are all in a situation of having to deny reality to some degree, but the question is…how much? Do you just go full on crackpot and declare that all of science is wrong, and that you just have to realize that God created everything with the illusion of great age? That’s tempting, but might be too great a reach for some. Better still is to deny the interpretations that conflict with your fable, and recast all the evidence in light of the Bible. That allows you to claim science supports your views while rejecting the science, which is a neat trick.

But there are multiple alternative ways to do that! Creationists have focused on two major problems with Biblical geology. One is the age of the Earth; the Bible makes it sound like our origin is relatively recent and human, while all the scientific evidence says its ancient. Another related problem is change: geology documents all kinds of upheavals, from seashells on mountaintops to warped strata in the rocks to the slow accumulation of sediments. That sure sounds like we need a lot of time to accommodate all that change.

One popular strategy was to shove all those ancient changes into a long period of time outside the scope of the Bible: yes, the Earth is old and there was a lot of irrelevant chaos over vast periods of time, but the Bible isn’t talking about that — it’s about God’s relationship to humankind, so it fast forwards through all the stuff about God’s relationship to dust, gas, and rocks. This was probably the most popular explanation at the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century.

You may notice, though, that that rationale is no longer in vogue, even if it is just as compatible with the Bible as anything can be with that mess of contradictions. Instead, most creationists push a peculiar alternative.

The Earth is young. And all those geological changes occured during one cataclysm mentioned in the Bible, the Noachian Flood.

This is why modern creationists are obsessed with the flood. This is why Ken Ham spent all that money building a giant fake ark: The Flood (and the Fall) are their giant excuse. Geology and biology are all about change…well, hey, the Bible has you covered! It’s just that all that changed occurred in one year.

It’s a weird and very specific idea, and not a necessary one at all. Where did it come from?

We know exactly where it came from, and so does Ken Ham: he credits one book, The Genesis Flood, by Whitcomb and Morris. All you have to read to understand the ‘science’ of Answers in Genesis or the Institute of Creation Research is that one book. It was incredibly influential and set the dogma of creationism in stone. All the modern creationists acknowledge its importance.

But where did Whitcomb and Morris get this idea? We know the answer to that, too. We know exactly who the most influential creationist in the period from the Scopes trial in 1925 to The Genesis Flood in 1961 was: it was George McCready Price, who was both fanatical and prolific in promoting his crackpot ideas about Flood geology. Read The Creationists by the historian Ron Numbers; he’s thorough in describing the efforts of fundamentalist Christians to rebound from the debacle of Scopes, and George McCready Price is everywhere and central in their attempts to recover some credibility.

One catch: Price was a heretic. He was a gosh-darned Seventh Day Adventist, and he was always praising the visions of their prophetess Ellen White and working SDA doctrine into his accounts.

Ken Ham hates it when you link his theology to George McCready Price. He wrote an article denouncing the idea, stating that it was a false accusation that what we believe at AiG had its roots in the Seventh Day Adventist movement with Ellen White. No, no, those heretics had nothing to do with his obsession with the Flood!

At the same time, though, Ham acknowledges the indebtedness of the creationist movement to Whitcomb and Morris.

It is widely recognized today by both friend and foe that the modern creation movement—now growing steadily across America and other western nations—had its genesis in the early 1960s. But it happened in a somewhat surprising manner. First, it came through God using Henry Morris, a soft-spoken, bespectacled academician living in central Virginia. Second, the resurgence of the creation movement in modern times (a movement that had become relatively quiet since the Scopes trial of 1925) was launched not at a major rally led by Dr. Morris nor through any controversy in the courts or schools—nothing noisy whatsoever. In fact, the event was not even associated with the first chapter of Genesis and the account of creation.

The resurgent movement’s surprising trigger was the release of Dr. Morris’s groundbreaking book The Genesis Flood (coauthored with Dr. John Whitcomb). But what a stir that book created. The impact of this now-classic work was such that many church historians have concluded that Dr. Morris was a giant—perhaps unparalleled—in the battle for biblical inerrancy, as he defended the most-attacked book of the Bible. This unassuming scholar was to spearhead an international movement that was to shake the very foundations of the evolution establishment and, just as importantly, challenge the church to accept biblical authority from the very first verse.

All this is true. It doesn’t answer the question, though: where did Whitcomb and Morris come up with flood geology as a unifying concept? Whitcomb was a theologian, Morris was an engineer; neither were geologists. They had to get this idea from somewhere, and if you read The Genesis Flood and any of George McCready Price’s numerous tracts and papers, it’s obvious. Morris and Whitcomb were idea launderers. They took the flood geology of a Seventh Day Adventist and washed off the taint of Ellen White. And now Ham is in denial.

Oh yes he is! The gang at BioLogos (ooh, ick) looked into it. Poor George McCready Price and Ellen White have been mostly expunged from AiG’s history of creationism.

While conducting research for this column, I searched for Price’s full name on the AiG website, as well as a separate search without using his middle name (which found just one more article along with nearly 100 false positives). The result was unexpected, but revealing. AiG is a massive site devoted to almost every imaginable aspect of creationism, including a very large number of articles partly or entirely devoted to the history of the ideas and the movement. Yet my search for Price produced only nine articles—a remarkably small number, given the enormous role that he actually played in the history of creationism. Henry Morris’ name appears in more than 500 articles, with Whitcomb’s close behind. And, searching for Ellen White yields only three articles. Many other historical figures who didn’t really contribute to creationism come up far more often. Dozens of articles mention Robert Boyle, nearly 200 mention Johannes Kepler, and even more mention Isaac Newton. Now, there’s nothing odd about AiG showing much interest in great scientists from the seventeenth century, even someone like Newton who denied the divinity of Jesus, but the near absence of Price (and White) is passing strange.

Even better, they go to the earlier books of the Sainted Henry Morris, and guess what? Morris himself declares the source of his ideas about geology!

There are a few geologists, even today, who hold to some form of the flood theory. Probably the outstanding example is George M. Price, who is probably as conversant with the whole subject of historical geology as any man living. Because of his views, he has been subjected to a great deal of criticism and ridicule by orthodox geologists, but his wealth of accumulated facts and his incontrovertible logic have never been answered. Much of the material in this chapter is taken from his works.

It wasn’t just Price, either. Morris credits a lot of Adventists for his ideas.

In the bibliography at the end of that chapter, Morris listed four books and four articles by Price—far more than anyone else cited there. He also listed three articles by Adventist author Benjamin Franklin Allen and a very rare item by another Adventist (though not apparently of the Seventh-day variety), namely, The Flood: The Fact of History (1890), by Charles Totten, a military officer and Anglo-Israelite who probably originated the modern urban legend that astronomers have confirmed Joshua’s missing day. More than half of the twenty-three works, including eight by the man he identified as most important, were written by Adventists.

Oops. Not only can’t Ken Ham get the science right, he even distorts the history of his own worldview.

Poor George. He truly was a crackpot, and totally wrong about everything, but now he’s being carefully scrubbed out of all of the official state portraits of the creationist movement.

Can Maher be the next guy knocked off his pedestal? Please?

Would you believe Bill Maher is claiming credit for putting the brakes on the Milo train? Of course you would. His ego is just that big.

Given all that has transpired since Friday’s show, how do you feel now about your decision to have Milo Yiannopoulos as a guest, and how those segments transpired?

Well, let’s recap. About a week ago, I went on Van Jones’s show, and somebody asked me about the booking. I hadn’t really gotten into the details of M1l0 yet. He was just getting on my radar. I said, specifically, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Then we had M1l0 on, despite the fact that many people said, “Oh, how dare you give a platform to this man.” What I think people saw was an emotionally needy Ann Coulter wannabe, trying to make a buck off of the left’s propensity for outrage. And by the end of the weekend, by dinnertime Monday, he’s dropped as a speaker at CPAC. Then he’s dropped by Breitbart, and his book deal falls through. As I say, sunlight is the best disinfectant. You’re welcome.

Jebus. Maher gave a softball interview in which he called Yiannopoulos not unreasonable for thinking transgender women were just crashing bathrooms to rape people — he’s one of the Yiannopoulos enablers. You don’t get credit for knocking someone off a pedestal when you’re one of the people who put him up there.

Laurie Penny uses words real good

Not only that, she wades right into the muck to get a story. She’s been traveling with the Odious Yiannopoulos for the last few weeks, and has written up an account of what it’s like to hang out with the Lost Boys during his fall from grace.

It is horribly ironic that of all the disgusting nonsense Yiannopoulos has said — about women, about Muslims, about transgender people, about immigrants — it is only now that the moderate right appears to have reached the limits of what it will tolerate in the name of free speech. The hypocrisy is clarion-clear: This was never, in fact, about free speech at all. It was about making it OK to say racist, sexist, transphobic, and xenophobic things, about tolerating the public expression of those views right up to the point where it becomes financially unwise to do so. Those suddenly dropping Yiannopoulos are making a business decision, not a moral one — and yes, even in Donald Trump’s America, there’s still a difference. If that difference devours Yiannopoulos and his minions, they will find few mourners.

Those damned SJWs have been saying this for quite a long time. We’ve also noticed the extreme projection these guys exhibit.

It turns out that some words do hurt. You may have noticed that, in this piece, I have not explicitly described Yiannopoulos or the movement that has made him famous as white supremacist, Neo-Nazi, fascist, or racist. The main reason for that is that it has been made explicitly clear to me that, were I to write such a thing, a libel suit the size of Mar-A-Lago would drop on me, and Yiannopoulos would use every trick in his surprisingly defensive playbook to prize out an apology, because that’s what friends are for. He’s done it to other reporters. He’s not the only one. In fact, a defining feature of the new-right populists is their ability to build a reputation as rhino-hided truth-sayers while flailing their hands in panic if anyone uses whatever words happen to hit them where it hurts. So, for legal reasons, I must state that Milo Yiannopolous, possibly alone of all the smug white people in the world, is not a racist. For moral reasons, however, I must state that Yiannopoulos’ personal beliefs are irrelevant given that he’s built a career off peddling bigotry in public. What about sexism? “Sexism I don’t have the energy to wrestle with you over,” says Yiannopoulos, who, I can personally confirm, is the maple-cured bacon of misogynist piggery — oily and sweet and crass and, on a gut level, dreadful for your health.

Read the whole thing.

So much for the myth of the liberal professor


We’ve got a problem brewing here in idyllic Morris, Minnesota: one of our faculty, Dan Demetriou, has made racist comments that became widely known among everyone here, and are now getting aired on Inside Higher Ed.

In what seems like the latest installment of the academe edition of the post-Trump culture wars, students and faculty members at the University of Minnesota at Morris are planning a teach-in Monday, following a professor’s harsh criticism of immigrants and refugees on social media. The professor says he wrote about an issue of concern on a private Facebook page and is being punished for being out of step with the politics of his colleagues.

“Illegal immigrants lower the confidence in the rule of law and add people and workers and students we don’t need,” Dan Demetriou, associate professor of philosophy, recently wrote on Facebook, according to screenshots that have been made public. “They on average have IQs lower than natives and low skills. They are harmful to an economy about to automate, especially when it is a welfare state.”

Refugees, meanwhile, are “way worse,” Demetriou wrote, “as most adhere to a religious-political cult with repulsive values at war with the West from its inception. No country who has taken the current crop of refugees has made it work.”

He isn’t being “punished” in any way, as far as I can tell. He is being criticized in a far more civil way than he criticized a significant fraction of our student body. He’s currently on sabbatical in Sweden (!), which sounds like a pretty sweet ‘punishment’ to me, especially since next year was supposed to be my sabbatical year, and I’ve been asked to delay it.

He is no claiming that he is being persecuted by left-wing “feelings”.

Maybe you can imagine being me, hearing most of my colleagues advocate for policies that, as far as I can tell, are failing spectacularly overseas and in many communities at home. No one much cares for how their expressions may discourage, alienate, frustrate or sadden someone who, like me, sincerely believes that his children — our children — will be put in grave risk by leftist immigration policies. Nor should they care, because my feelings don’t determine facts. That someone is upset by a claim is wholly irrelevant to its truth.

Facts matter. What he doesn’t seem to appreciate is how badly out of alignment with the truth his original comments are. He’s being criticized, not because of his political alignment, but because he is wrong.

We teach young people who are immigrants, or children of immigrants, and several of our faculty are immigrants. They are just as intelligent as our white students whose families have been here for several generations. It’s also jarring to see a faculty member from a campus with a significant enrollment of Indian students to use the term “natives” — I don’t think he’s comparing our Somali students to our Lakota students. He’s got a peculiarly privileged understanding of “native”.

IQ is particularly problematic in this context. IQ scores were invented as a rationale for immigration quotas — they are inherently biased. To accuse someone who speaks a couple of languages, who had the ambition and strength to escaped an oppressive situation, and who is now working hard to establish themselves as citizens of a new country, of being unintelligent is simply absurd. People who can rise up out of such difficult circumstances should be welcomed and recognized for the contributions they can make. It’s easy to have the leisure to study and be comfortable in the conventions of the culture you’ve been brought up in, to do well on an IQ test; it’s remarkable when you’ve been on the run from tyrants who want to kill you, or from a rain of American-made bombs, that you can then adapt and thrive to new opportunities.

Of course, that’s what humans do.

I’d like to know where Dan thinks the cutoff for percentage of refugees enrolled makes for a bad school. Is UMM such a school? We tend to praise our university for its diversity relative to other Minnesota colleges (while also regretting that it isn’t higher). Does he think our “foreign” students degrade the quality of the education offered here?

As for failing to make absorption of refugees work in all countries…he’s in Sweden. Sweden is in the news because of similarly ignorant comments made by our president. There’s a lot of information available on immigrants to Sweden. It wrecks his claims.

In the past decade, there’s been a spike in immigration to Sweden. In 1990, 9.2 percent of Sweden’s population was foreign-born. That figure was 11.3 percent in 2000, and 15.4 percent in 2012.

Immigrant rates have grown even further in recent years, owing in large part to the global refugee crisis. In 2014, Sweden admitted more asylum seekers, per capita, than any other country on Earth. Many Swedish immigrants today hail from war-torn Muslim-majority countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.


Some people assumed this would produce a major uptick in the rates of violent crime in Sweden. Historically, immigrants to Sweden do commit crimes at higher rates than the native-born, though children of immigrants commit crimes at basically the same rate as children of native-born Swedes (controlling for income).

However, there’s no evidence of a massive crime wave. Here is an official Swedish government tally of the rates of six different types of crime directed at persons — fraud, assault, threats, harassment, sexual violence, and mugging. (Homicide is excluded because the rate is tiny; in 2014, there were 87 murders in the entire country of roughly 10 million.)


As you can see, there is no significant uptick in any of the crime categories alongside the rise in immigration. The most recent official report available in English, covering 2015, is not incorporated into that chart — but it concludes that the rates of these crimes are at “approximately the same level as in 2005.” That’s a slight increase over the 2014 rate, but hardly evidence of a crime wave — let alone one committed by migrants or refugees.

Demetriou is a professor of philosophy. He doesn’t seem to know much at all about sociology or history or biology, but he’s quick to declare himself the victim of a political witch-hunt by people who don’t care for his ‘truth’. He’s the son of Greek immigrants, so maybe it’s a problem with his IQ?

I’m in agreement with our chancellor’s statement on this incident.


It has recently come to my attention that messages have been circulating that include comments perceived of as disrespectful, disparaging, and directed at other community members. While democracy should and does rightfully tolerate expression of differences of opinion, some members of our community have found these communications both personally and professionally distressing.

I want to strongly reaffirm our mission and values as a University community and in particular, Morris’ campus vision that we celebrate and support the multicultural and international inclusiveness of our community. Differences are our strength, and our community values and respects diversity of all kinds.

We no doubt will continue to have differences of opinion and perspective. At the same time it is imperative that we all make every effort to express these differences in a respectful way.

As a model for civil discourse, I offer the University of Minnesota Board of Regents Guiding Principles which provide timely and sage advice whether members of our University community are acting as individuals or representatives of UMM:

“In all of its activities, the University strives to sustain an open exchange of ideas in an environment that:

• embodies the values of academic freedom, responsibility, integrity, and cooperation;
• provides an atmosphere of mutual respect, free from racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and intolerance;
• assists individuals, institutions, and communities in responding to a continuously changing world;
• is conscious of and responsive to the needs of the many communities it is committed to serving;
• creates and supports partnerships within the University, with other educational systems and institutions, and with communities to achieve common goals; and
• inspires, sets high expectations for, and empowers the individuals within its community.”

I look forward to working with you all as we productively and constructively address the issues of the day on our campus.

Michelle Behr, Ph.D.

Now, though, is the time for Demetriou to strike back. I’m sure he’s going to be popular with reporters from Breitbart, InfoWars, and the Daily Mail. I wish him luck with his new celebrity.

2005 just called. I think it was a wrong number.

On today of all days, an obliviously clueless liberal has decided to advise us all on how to deal with Milo Yiannopoulos. You may be amused, or not. It’s the old “don’t feed the trolls” speech from the last decade.

My advice: Ignore him.

When he’s giving a speech, don’t protest it. When he says something offensive, ignore it. When he acts like a bottom-feeding lowlife, understand he’s doing it so you’ll get offended and give him attention, so don’t.

Don’t prove him right.

If you really want to “get at” Milo Yiannopoulos, do what trolls hate most — ignore them. They thrive on attention, anger, and getting a reaction out of people. The more hostile, offended, and outraged folks get by things Yiannopoulos says and does, the more vindication he gets and the more he’s going to do it.

Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god. That is so painfully stupid.

It’s wrong. People like Yiannopoulos are playing to a crowd, and it’s not us. He throws bloody red meat to assholes, and thrives on their approval. What gave 4chan a bit of corrupt power was not liberals either avoiding or criticizing them, it was a gigantic mutual circle-jerk of horrible people reinforcing each other’s regressive views. Ignore them and you’re just giving them room to grow.

It’s also the kind of thing only an oblivious man who has not been the target of the concentrated hatred of the mob could say. Yiannopoulos and his ilk have been ranting, pointing their fingers and screaming shrilly, at people for years. The women who have been doxxed by his kind will tell you that ignoring them doesn’t help when you’re stalked, when you get bomb threats, when your inbox is clogged with detailed plans to rape you. The transgender individual who was gaily outed by Yiannopoulos in public doesn’t have the option to just ignore him.

This guy claims he can effectively deal with trolls by ignor[ing] them or respond[ing] with kindness. Bullshit. That works with small numbers of casual haters that you can deal with one on one. But clearly he has never had to cope with a swarm of fanatical, obsessed people who find his identity itself to be offensive.

Don’t feed the trolls does not work. Seriously. I’ve got experience in this area, and even at that, I have not been the focus of the same flamethrower of hatred that others have experienced.

Weirdly, this guy is delivering his archaic and useless advice at a time when we’re finally getting through to demolish Yiannopoulos’s authority. He lost his book deal, he has just resigned from Breitbart, and none of this was accomplished by ignoring him. It was by keeping up the pressure, exposing him for what he is, and letting his own words turn him into a pariah.

Do you know who we should ignore? Ignorant liberals who keep on indignantly informing us of the same wrong solutions, over and over.

There’s one thing that will get me to turn on Fox News

Sunsara Taylor will appear on the Tucker Carlson show in about an hour, at 9ish ET.

I wonder if Carlson will do that insipid, uncomprehending face he always puts on when someone says something that doesn’t fit his world view?

Your purge is clumsy and obvious


The party affiliation on your voter registration card could block you from employment at Iowa’s state universities were a newly proposed bill by Senator Mark Chelgren to become law. Senate File 288, proposed by the Ottumwa legislator, could bring about a Soviet-style purge of liberal-leaning college staff in Iowa. Chelgren wants to impose an ideological litmus test in order to create a “partisan balance,” based on how Iowa has voted in past elections.

The legislation proposes that a “person shall not be hired as a professor or instructor member of the faculty at such an institution if the person’s political party affiliation on the date of hire would cause the percentage of faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by ten percent the percentage of faculty belonging to the other political party.”

I’ve been through a few job searches. We are not allowed to ask about personal matters: no conversations about family, sexual preference, religion, or political affiliation. We are supposed to judge the ability of the person to do the job entirely on their ability to do the job. It will sometimes come up if the job candidate brings it up, but we do not get to use that information at all in our evaluation. If I even tried to make a comment in our recommendation like “We should hire because they are a nice liberal atheist lesbian who hates Trump almost as much as I do!”, or “We should not hire because they voted against my interests”, I would probably get hauled up in front of a review committee and chastised, not to mention that if that comment were revealed to any of the other candidates who did not get the job, I’d get my butt sued.

Chelgren doesn’t have a clue about how university hiring works. He’s a Republican, of course.

What the heckity-gosh-darn is epigenetics?


Today in my class we talked for a while about epigenetics. I used it as an example of a term we’d encountered more than once in our ecological developmental biology course, but that has some complicated ambiguity and fuzziness that has led to all kinds of weird popular confusions about the subject. I was also using it as an example of critical analysis of a paper, as I discussed yesterday, and it was a lead-up to having the students discuss papers on relevant topics they were interested in — so we spent most of our time talking about other things.

But I’m going to talk now about just this one paper I read. You see, Larry Moran and I have been having this long-running disagreement about epigenetics — nothing hostile, just an occasional cocked eyebrow in each other’s direction — which you can see on display in this article by Larry on epigenetics, in which he disagrees with my definition of epigenetics, back in 2008. Here’s my definition:

Epigenetics is the study of heritable traits that are not dependent on the primary sequence of DNA.

And here’s the definition used in Gilbert’s text:

…molecular processes around DNA that regulate genome activity that are independent DNA sequence and are mitotically stable.

And here’s Larry’s objection:

Here’s the problem. If this is epigenetics then what’s the point? When I was growing up we had a perfectly good term for these phenomena—it was regulation of gene expression. Why is there a movement among animal developmental biologists to use “epigenetics” to refer to a well-understood phenomenon?

While I agree that “epigenetics” is a huge, broad, diverse category of phenomena, I think he’s overlooking a key point to claim it is synonymous with gene regulation. It is gene regulation that is heritable and mitotically stable. It’s still far too open-ended, but it’s not just any old example of gene regulation.

It’s also clear and consistent. Larry challenges us with eight instances of regulatory phenomena and asks which ones qualify as epigenetic. Easy. 1, 2, 6, 7, 8. Those are the ones where he specifically mentions multi-generational inheritance of a regulatory state. 3, 4, and 5 describe responses within a single cell in a single generation (5 is sneaky, though: Drosophila oocytes are having gene expression modified in ways that might be transmitted through multiple generations — it’s just that those cells are being loaded with bicoid RNA, not having their bicoid genes being set to a sex-specific state).

I am also comfortable with the idea that inheritance of the regulatory state of the lac operon is an example of epigenetics. It’s arguable whether that’s a useful category, but it does fit the definition.

So one approach that could be taken is to come up with a more specific or more practical definition.

Larry has a more recent article in which he agrees with a new paper by Deans and Maggert that tries to do exactly that. It also takes a much appreciated historical approach, giving the various definitions that have been wafting about since the 1930s. For instance, here’s Waddington’s ancient physiological definition:

the branch of biology that studies the causal interactions between genes and their products which bring the phenotype into being

Yes, I agree — that would simply be gene regulation nowadays. You can’t blame us wicked developmental biologists for promoting that one, though, because we don’t use it anymore.

Now we favor the Holliday definition:

the study of changes in gene function that are mitotically and/or meiotically heritable and that do not entail change in DNA sequence.

To me, “heritable” is the magic word that makes all the difference. This, however, is not enough for Deans and Maggert. They want to add more focus, often a good thing, and narrow the definition. I was not happy with their argument, and thought it poorly made, though. See if you can find what was objectionable in this section of their paper (I highlighted it to make it easy, an epigenetic modification that does not change the sequence of the letters in the text.)

We don’t feel that it is possible to reconcile Waddington’s focus on gene regulation with Holliday’s more specific criteria within one field and still maintain the level of clarity needed to produce a useful definition. The efforts to preserve a relationship between these two conceptualizations have been impaired by the fact that there are just too many phenomena, with too few mechanistic connections, to categorize into one field. Also, among the definitions that do maintain the requirement of heritability, we feel that many lack the detail to be functionally useful in directing the testing of specific hypotheses, particularly as it relates to the location or site (cytoplasm or nucleus) of epigenetic phenomena. To mitigate these shortcomings, we advocate defining epigenetics as “the study of phenomena and mechanisms that cause chromosome-bound, heritable changes to gene expression that are not dependent on changes to DNA sequence.”

We feel that this definition makes a strong distinction between gene regulation (Waddington’s definition) and epigenetic inheritance (Holliday’s definition), and also emphasizes that epigenetic phenomena must deal exclusively with chromosome-bound changes. By making these distinctions, we have efficiently separated expressional changes caused by cytoplasmic compounds, which are more closely tied to gene regulation, from those which occur on, or in close association to, the chromosome. Doing so makes the focus of the field much clearer and identifies epigenetic mechanisms more explicitly.

We feel that this definition touches on several important elements not encompassed by other definitions, yet commonly implied in most uses. To further explain the reasoning behind our definition, as well as its utility for improving epigenetic research, we would like to offer a clarification and a test.

Yeesh. I don’t feel that your personall feelings are a strong argument, and I cringed when I hit that page. At least edit it to remove the emphasis on your personal discomfort; just say that the old definitions lack detail, rather than that you feel they lack detail.

So let’s pull out their shiny new definition.

the study of phenomena and mechanisms that cause chromosome-bound, heritable changes to gene expression that are not dependent on changes to DNA sequence

Well. All this fuss for a single change, the addition of the phrase chromosome-bound. That’s it. I agree, it does narrow the topic, but it’s still covering an awful lot of territory. I’m not feelin’ it. I have the impression that the primary virtue of the new definition is that it reduces a class of phenomena to a subset that many people are comfortable studying already, and in part reinforces a gene-centered perspective on cellular behavior.

It also leaves me wondering…what about the inheritance of cytoplasmic or membrane-bound factors that induce consistent changes in gene expression in daughter cells? The gene regulation aspect may be mundane, but it’s the inheritance that is interesting. Under the Deans and Maggert definition, this is no longer under the umbrella of epigenetics — it’s something different for which we have no general name now.

It makes Larry happier, though.

I think this is a useful definition. Nobody cares if dividing E. coli cells inherit molecules of lac repressor and continue to repress the lac operon. That’s a trivial form of epigenetics that never posed a threat to our understanding of evolution.

That’s odd. I do care that the lac repressor is cytoplasmically inherited, but then my primary interests, in the most general form, would be in the patterns of stability and change in cellular properties, rather than the metabolism of sugar. Telling me that I should only pay attention to inherited proteins or methylation states that are directly bound to DNA seems arbitrary.

I also don’t consider “poses a threat to our understanding of evolution” to be a relevant criterion. I agree that lac repressors don’t challenge evolutionary theory, but neither do heritable histone modifications or methylation. I’m one of those people who think epigenetics (even under the old definition!) is important and interesting, but doesn’t affect evolutionary theory much at all.

Larry and I agree.

Methylation is trivial.

Well then, if inheritance of the lac operon is such a trivial form of epigenetics that it should be excluded from the definition, then we apparently need yet another definition that excludes the triviality of methylation.

Or, really, we should recognize that “trivial” is not a good reason to exclude something.

I will still second Larry’s argument that none of this stuff overthrows modern evolutionary theory in any way. It would require extremely persistent inheritance of an epigenetic state over many generations to have those kinds of repercussions.

(The Gilbert text does mention one significant effect: the toadflax plant, Linaria vulgaris, has a radically different flower morph, Peloria, that Linnaeus himself classified as a different species. As it turns out, they only differ in the methylation state of the cycloidea gene, but the DNA sequence is identical. This is a case of an epigenetic change persisting for hundreds of generations. It’s a rare case, though, and also…would still definitely fall under the Deans and Maggert definition.)