Tuesday, 8 January 2008


Bet that got your attention - but it's epigenetics I want to lecture you on at length today. "Epigenetics" I hear you ask "what the devil is that?"

Well, you know you thought your genes were kinda fixed? (Nothing to do with Levi Strauss or any other semiotician - although his Structural Analysis in Linguistics and in Anthropology was very interesting, now pay attention and sit up at the back there that boy).

The impression a lot of people have of genetics is a wee mish combined with a wee mash encompassing something about a mink called Mendel, fruit flies and peas, nature or nurture, there's a double helix in there somewhere, and somebody has mapped the human genome. They might have a touch of Dolly the sheep (mind your manners), a panic about GM food and other Frankenstein stories, and a vague idea that you'll go bald because your great auntie Matilda did.
What most people 'know' to be the case, though, is that your genetic make-up is fixed and what you have in your store is what will be passed on to future generations (assuming you procreate - if you have no progeny you're unlikely to pass on your genes and sterility is seldom inherited).

Scientific fact - genes are unalterable. Of course, like most scientific facts, it's not a fact and no scientist claimed it to be so. It only represented what was commonly believed to be the case amongst the scientific community based on the level of ignorance at the time. It was a best-fit theory (or hypothesis - I'm not entirely sure whether genetic stability is a big enough idea to be a theory, maybe we should just define it as an explanation or something of that nature). It was generally understood that your genotype determined your phenotype and that's the way it was.

Anyway - it's maybe wrong.

Epigenetics is the idea (perhaps a hypothesis, maybe even verging on being a theory) that what you do in your life can affect your genes and thereby affect future generations. You can change your grandchildren's predisposition to disease and perhaps even what they look like by changing the way you live today - or something like that. There are better explanations on the BBC science website and on the website of the Epigenome Network of Excellence. It's absolutely fascinating and could have huge implications for public health policies.
We already know that improvements in public health take years to bear fruit (makes it a real bind for politicians in the health portfolio - decisions you take now won't express their full beneficial effect until after the next election), but this takes it a stage further.

Let's, for the sake of argument, say that we are all agreed that the Scottish Government and previous Scottish Executive health policies all have beneficial effects (I'm not persuaded by the excellence of the health policies of the previous administration, of course, but let's give it a whirl anyway). If they are all beneficial policies and epigenetics is correct, give them a couple of years to kick in and two generations to be born, and you should be seeing the full effects of the health policies in people who are coming into the world in about 2040.

Flippin Norah - as my grandfather used to say (wasn't his fault, he was a Yorkshireman)!

So why have I wandered away into a reverie down one of the wee lanes I like wandering down while picking interesting flowers? Well, it occurs to me that there is a remarkable cross-over between what is discovered about the hard-wiring of human behaviour and how groups tend to act in society, and it occurred to me that there might be a parallel in the actions of political parties as they go through the generations. This could explain some things.
For example, the SNP has gone through quite a few phases of development - the romantics of the 1920s, the conshies of the war years, the protesters of the post-war years, the party-builders of the late 50s and the 1960s, the pragmatists v idealists debates of the 1970s - which is also when the strategists and educators came into their own and the idea of building a more solid economic case took a high priority, the organisers of the 1980s, the polishers of the 1990s, a period of modernisation and reform under John Swinney, and the resultant rounded party of government you see today with all of those elements embedded in its collective psyche.

So what of the Labour party? Well, I've been reading a terribly interesting book (as is my wont) by Hilary Wainwright titled Labour: a tale of two parties. It deals with the battles and struggles within the Labour party in the 1980s (and to some extent the 1970s).

There were some enormous battles fought constituency by constituency between those who held to some ideal that was close to the principles upon which the Labour party was founded and those who just wanted to be in power and weren't spliced to the principles of yore. There were also some side battles fought with obvious chancers who were just riding the wagon for their own enrichment.
That time of great discord in the Labour party brought all of the bitterness and rancour which internal battles always bring, and it encouraged Labour members to do exactly what always happens in war - whatever is needed to achieve your ends. It created a culture within Labour that meant that Labour members never questioned those who were in the same band as they were, never doubted the intent of their colleagues in that trench and never trusted anyone from another wing of their own party.

That tribalism and factionalism ran rampant and out of control right into the 1990s, spurting to the surface every so often and marked with marvellous scenes like Kinnock's battles with Militant. All sides lost in that internal warfare, but Kinnock and his modernisers appeared to have lost less badly than the rest. It didn't do Kinnock's career any good, but it did pave the way for a new generation of Labour with Blair, Brown and the 'free will lockdown' where 'discipline' became the mantra and power the goal, where principles could be abandoned wantonly and cherished clauses of the constitution of the Labour party could be evicted from their warm and caring homes by cruel and thoughtless power-seekers.

The generation that forgot about society and collective action and turned in on itself in fratricide and sororicide, the cohort whose belief in improving the lot of the people was foregone in favour of serving themselves, is the grandparent of the current Labour party (still in its birthing pains, of course).

That would explain, to some extent at least, the current bizarre attitudes of Labour politicians and their failure to address the issues at hand. Epigenetics applied to an organisation would help explain why the Labour party has now become a faction writ large; how it cannot accept that someone from another party might have an opinion that is worth listening to; how it believes that no-one within the clique can do any wrong; how it believes that politicians with, at best, average ability are in some way political geniuses; how it believes it should be allowed to do whatever it wants to increase its standing; and how it will continue to snarl at anyone who approaches.
It's quite sad really. Just as well Scotland has the SNP isn't it?

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