Oliver Kuchenbuch – Epigenetics – Hybridizing Medicine and Optimization

Epigenetics - Hybridizing Medicine and Optimization

The Implications of Epigegenetics and Systems-Biological Research on Medical Narratives and Medical Practice


There is a systems perspective emerging in life sciences, that is associated with epigenetics in various ways. This perspective leads to an increasing explanatory emphasis on interaction at multiple levels. At the same time there can an - at least - partly suspended genetically determinism be asserted. This explanatory shift is likely to result in a reasonable debate on the influence of deliberately factors for the individual state of health and particularly the epigenetic state of crucial genetic sections. That means that the increasing knowledge of the molecular mechanisms behind such interactions and of the potential heredity of their epigenetic effects will add an additional dimension to the individual narratives of subjectivisation and self-forming. Knowing this, primarily cultural practices of self-forming will be complemented by a biological layer. This new system of knowledge inside the life sciences may lead to a biologisation of former strictly cultural areas of life. The summarized hypothesis of my dissertation project is, that medical explanatory models and narratives derived from epigenetic and systems biology tend to hybridize medical treatment and optimization of patients and their offspring.

epigenetics, systems biology, responsibility, subjetivisation, optimization, medical narrative

Current State of Research

One considerably of the many definitions of the concept of epigenetics:

„Our increasing knowledge of genome functions has refined the definition of epigenetics, and today the term is generally accepted as meaning the study of changes in gene function that are mitotically and/or meiotically heritable and that do not entail a change in the sequence of DNA.“ (Armstrong 2014: 2)

  • Lifesciences have a huge and still increasing interest in epigenetics (Haig 2010).
  • A considerable part of the current knowledge of epigenetic processes, particularly the heredity of epigenetic modifications, is based on correlations. A coherent mechanistic understanding of these processes is not foreseeable in short therms. The anthropological implications of epigenetics and systems biology have not been discussed in the humanities so far. In the social science the discussion already has begun (Schmidt 2014). Many impulses to a further interdisciplinary investigation arise from the field of developmental biology - DST as well as Eco-Evo-Devo - (Epel und Gilbert 2009; Oyama 2000; etc.).
  • The discussion of the ethical and social consequences of classic genetic research has an significant impact on this project. The investigation into the increased personal responsibility due to diagnostic DNA sequencings is of huge interest and anticipates some of the consequences caused by the findings in the field of epigenetics (Lemke 2004).

Examination Subject

The new - based on epigenetics and systems biology - explanation models and narratives of biologists und physicians will be examined in demarcation to their equivalents from the pre- epigenetic era of classic genetics. There will be a focus on changes concerning the concepts of authorship and responsibility and as well on the implizit normative structure underlying these changes.


  1. Medical narratives founded on the knowledge of epigenetic mechanisms tend to weight more responsibility on individuals than explanation models based on classic genetics. Responsibility for the individuals state of health and the one of the individuals offspring.
  2. This increase of the pictured responsibility opens up a new field of normative judgement of practices and tends to hybridize the concepts of medical treatment and optimization.


  • Analysis of biomedical publications in regard of the normative dimensions of the explanatory use of the concept of epigenetics and the application of the systems biology approach.
  • Qualitative Interviews with researchers and physicians to gain explizit insights in the transformation processes of fundamental medical models, medical narratives and to address arising epistemic questions.

Author: Oliver Kuchenbuch


Armstrong, L., Epigenetics, New York 2014.
Haig, D., „Commentary: The Epidemiology of Epigenetics“, in: The International Journal of Epidemiology, Ausg. 41(2012).
Epel, D., Gilbert, S., F., Ecological, Developmental Biology, Sunderland 2009.
Lemke, T., Veranlagung und Verantwortung, Bielefeld 2004.
Oyama, S., Evolution’s Eye, Durham 2000.
Schmidt, K., Was sind Gene nicht? Über Grenzen des biologischen Essentialismus, Bielefeld 2014.