The Mysterious Epigenome: What Lies Beyond DNA

February 10, 2012 — 4 Comments


Thomas E. Woodward & James P. Gills, The Mysterious Epigenome: What Lies Beyond DNAGrand Rapids, Kregel, December, 2011. 160 pp. Paperback, $13.99.

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Thanks to Kregel for the review copy!

Like I said on Monday, I’m shifting the focus here to epistemology and revelation, I do still have one last review related to science/metaphysics: The Mysterious Epigenome. Written by authors Thomas Woodward (a prof at Trinity College of Florida) and James Gills (an eye doctor) this book explores at a popular level current research related to the epigenome of the human body.

You’re probably asking the same question I initially did, “What the epigenome?” The hint the subtitle gives notwithstanding, the epigenome is basically what controls DNA expression and replication. So, if the genome is the map of the DNA, the epigenome is the cartographer for each individual person. In essence, it is vast informational system that is only beginning to be fully explored and examined.

This book then serves as a kind of introductory primer to the subject. Rather than go in depth on the overview section, I want to focus most of the discussion on the implications of the book. In short, the chapters of this book focus on the following:

  1. The quest for life’s master code (DNA)
  2. Current biological knowledge of DNA
  3. The role of proteins and RNA
  4. A new picture of the structure of the cell
  5. The epigenome’s methyl and histone codes
  6. The fifth letter of DNA
  7. How information is inscribed on the zygote
  8. How the zygote is formed and the role it plays in epigenetic development
  9. Epigenetic implications for human health
  10. Epigenetic implications for social and spiritual health
  11. Future avenues of research on the genome and epigenome
The chapters are each fairly short and include helpful discussion questions at the end. It seems like this book would make a good supplement for a high school biology class (something I might check out next year). The authors also point the reader to resources on their website: Overall, it is a well-researched book and because it is fairly short would be easy for most people to read.

Two further features stand out in the way the book is put together.

First, the authors have put a bit of imagination into their presentation and have attempted to weave a fictional narrative about a future cell lab into the way they guide you through the principle parts and system of the human genome as well as the epigenome. They communicate much through fictional dialogue between scientists who are giving a tour to a group of students. At times, this dialogue seems a bit forced and a few times I found it hard to follow their descriptions. But, it certainly beats a biology textbook if you’re trying to get the basics of cell structure and DNA.

Second, and what might be more off-putting than forced dialogue, is the book’s apologetic thrust. The authors intentionally frame the book with a plea for considering intelligent design. The opening chapter closes by raising the question “Darwin or design?” and the final chapter ends with a “final challenge” petitioning the reader to consider the merits of a universe designed by God.

Because of this, it seems that the intended audience is people who are on the fence regarding evolution or intelligent design (ID) rather than Christians who are already committed to ID. It may be a suitable book to pass on to non-Christians committed to a purely naturalistic version of the origin and development of life since the evidence from epigenetic studies suggests a problem for a purely naturalistic account. It should raise significant questions to anyone who is committed to naturalism as a metaphysical position rather than as simply a means for conducting scientific study.

Though it isn’t really presented that way, from my perspective it seems that the evidence about the informational system of the epigenome strongly undercuts naturalism, not necessarily Darwin’s contribution of natural selection. From what I’ve studied, though you can’t prove God’s providence working through natural selection on purely scientific grounds, there is no reason to suppose that he couldn’t/doesn’t work in the world that way. I’m willing to grant that Darwin’s idea of natural selection and its subsequent development by scientific study and thought does much to explain how some (but not all) of the diversity of life on earth. However, just as fully explaining the mechanistic process by which a car is manufactured doesn’t negate the presence of workers in the factory, I don’t think fully unpacking a process like natural selection rules out intelligent design.

In other words, if Darwin’s chief contribution to biology is postulating the process of natural selection, proposing that it is also the process by which God providentially governs the development of life on earth only really threatens naturalism, not natural selection. In this way, while The Mysterious Epigenome is a strong plea for ID, it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that natural selection is false. It does demonstrate that if true, natural selection cannot be purely natural as information has to be put into a system from without and can’t spontaneously generate on its own. In this way, the book presents a powerful scientific apologetic for God and design that I think at least needs to be reckoned with for someone who wants to insist on a purely naturalistic account of life.

I’m not entirely sure a hardcore atheist or naturalist would find the book very convincing though. I am interested though to further pursue some of the evidence the authors present in this book so I can grow my own understanding. So, in that way, I think the scientific value of the book is that it provokes interest in new frontier scientific research and raises significant questions for metaphysical naturalism. In many ways, it further develops scientifically the some of the points Alvin Plantinga makes philosophically in Where the Conflict Really Lies. Namely, science and theism are better friends than science and naturalism, and even evolution eventually undermines a naturalistic framework.

I would say Woodward and Gills do a fine job of presenting basic information on the epigenome and will make a good contribution to people interested in intelligent design as well as point skeptics toward evidence that will need to be accounted for on a purely naturalistic worldview.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

4 responses to The Mysterious Epigenome: What Lies Beyond DNA

  1. Yeah i think evolution vs. intelegent design is a faulty dilemna. I agree that if anything evolution wouldnt preclude ID because it doesn’t solve the initial origin question. I’m not sure if I’m sold on macro evolution yet though because of lack of transitional forms discovered.

    • I’m more or less in the same boat. I think there is evidence for macro evolution (as in dogs and wolves are different species but share an ancestor) but not to the extent it is usually claimed (birds and reptiles sharing an ancestor for instance). Design is really a philosophical question anyway, but it seems interesting that even ardent evolutionists admit that the design inference is both naturally very strong, and therefore hard to overcome. Pure natural selection then is rather counter-intuitive

  2. True dat about design being a more philosophical question. I suppose I never considered dogs from wolves as being in the macro category.. Come to think of it, our chocolate toy poodle, Brownie, looks a whole lot different than a wolf and is a real sissy comparatively! Haha but it’s okay for the jury to still be out on that question I guess. Although for many macro is already “proven as science” in part because of a philosophical agenda (that doesn’t work anyhow hah). But the knife cuts both ways at times though.

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  1. Weekly Recap: 2.11.12 | Marturo - February 13, 2012

    […] The Mysterious Epigenome The chapters are each fairly short and include helpful discussion questions at the end. It seems like this book would make a good supplement for a high school biology class (something I might check out next year). The authors also point the reader to resources on their website. Overall, it is a well-researched book and because it is fairly short would be easy for most people to read. […]

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