Adam Rutherford’s article on epigenetics invokes profusion of angry tw**ts from Deepak Chopra and his minions

August 6, 2015 • 10:30 am

Since I started this website, I’ve written many posts on epigenetics, a term that now refers to modification of the nucleotide base composition of DNA by the environment or by other genes. Such modification—usually involving attachment of methyl groups to two of the four bases that make up DNA—may have significant effects on the organism, ranging from changed behavior to changed appearance. But “epigenetics” has been taken up by the “Darwin-was-wrong” crowd as a way to claim that environmentally induced epigenetic modifications of the DNA can be inherited in a stable fashion over generations and even produce adaptations—a decidedly non-Darwinian mode of evolution called “Lamarckian inheritance.”

You can read my previous posts, grouped under the link above, for my skeptical views on this alternative route to the evolution of adaptations. There’s no doubt that epigenetic modification of DNA can be produced by “instructions” from other parts of the DNA, and that those genetically-based modifications can be adaptive. They can, for instance, explain why the genes from mothers versus fathers act antagonistically in the fetus, as paternal DNA is “imprinted” (methylated) differently from maternal DNA, and fathers have different reproductive interests from mothers. But this sort of epigenetic modification ultimately rests on genetic adaptation: the “instructions” coded in parental genomes. It is not something induced purely by the environment.

As for purely environmental modification of DNA, that can on occasion affect the organism, but almost never persists beyond one or two generations (the methyl groups disappear during sperm and egg formation), and to my knowledge is not responsible for a single permanent adaptation seen in nature. When the genetic basis of adaptations like spiny fins, cryptic coloration in mice, or beak width in finches is studied, it invariably rests not on environmentally-aquired epigenetic modifications, but on base-pair changes in DNA—that is, on the conventional neo-Darwinian paradigm of “random” mutations in the DNA that change its sequence, with those changes enhancing reproduction being the ones that persist. In other words, virtually every adaptation ever studied is based on conventional mutations and natural selection, not environmentally induced changes of the DNA that persist for generation after generation. What persists are the claims of would-be Kuhnians who see epigenetics as a highly significant route to adaptive evolution—one that violates conventional wisdom.

I was pleased to see that science journalist, former research geneticist, and woo-critic Adam Rutherford made these points, and others, in an article in the July 19 Guardian science section called “Beware the pseudo gene genies.” You can read it for yourself, but I’ll present a brief excerpt so you can see why it aroused the ire of Deepak Chopra. Chopra, along with his coauthor Rudy Tanzi, have recently incorporated epigenetics into their litany of woo-terms, arguing that many human behaviors can epigenetically change our DNA, and so we can do things that will help us by changing our genome. (See my critique of their specious claims here.)


Lots of real scientific terms – such as “neuro” or “nano” – get borrowed for a spot of buzzword scienceyness. Epigenetics is a real and important part of biology, but due to predictable quackery, it is threatening to become the new quantum.

. . . Some limited, rare epigenetic tags can be passed down from parent to child. We’ve seen a handful of these in mice, even fewer in humans. [JAC: as far as  I know, none of these “tags” have persisted longer than three generations.]

. . . These results are complex, perplexing, but possibly slight, and demand greater examination. Science is unfortunately prone to fashion, and many scientists are intrigued but anxious that the scrutiny being applied to these studies is not robust enough to justify the fanfare.

If the changes are permanent, then we’ve got big news. But given that in mice they have at best only lasted a few generations, the effects are intriguing but not revolutionary. Creationists cite epigenetics to assert that Darwin was wrong, and that epigenetics may show Lamarckian evolution – that is, acquired during life. It doesn’t, as the changes do not alter the DNA sequence on which natural selection acts. Even if one day we did show that epigenetic tags were permanently heritable, it would still only be a drop in the evolutionary ocean. Show me one robust example, and I’ll show you a billion that are straight-up Darwinian.

Then Deepak takes a licking, but, as you’ll see, he keeps on ticking:

New age gurus such as Deepak Chopra cite epigenetics as a way of changing your life, under the false supposition that genes are destiny, and epigenetic changes brought on by lifestyle choices such as meditation “allows us almost unlimited influence on our fate”. Well, no: that sandwich you just ate has changed the expression of your genes too. Even the few inherited epigenetic changes we observe are not very predictable, let alone predictably positive. The Överkalix grandsons lived longer if their grandfathers lived through famine. But the granddaughters of women who had survived fallow seasons had lower life expectancy. Conclusion? Much more work needed.

Rutherford reached his conclusions about epigenetics independently of mine, but they’re identical, and I’m pleased that such a sound and skeptical thinker is on the sam page as I. He continues:

Epigenetics is fascinating but still in its infancy. It’s not heretical, it won’t upend Darwin, or give you supernatural powers, but it is a necessary pursuit in our never-ending quest to unpick the inscrutableness of being. More, unhyped, work is needed, and mystical thinking is never welcome round these here parts.

And then the Twi**terstorm began, with Rudy Tanzi, Chopra’s co-author, initiating the fracas. I’m grateful to Matthew Cobb for tracking down the tweets, and he now informs me that they’ve all been collated by Jo Brodie at a Storify site called “Adam v. Deepak: 4-5 August 2015.” Have a look—it’s a hoot! Here’s just a few:


The credential-mongering begins, with Chopra implying that Rutherford (who has a Ph.D. in genetics, for crying out loud) is not as qualified as a “real scientist” like “Harvard Prof” Tanzi:


It went on and on, with Chopra getting increasingly peeved and, as usual, dropping his mask of calmness to show the petulant prima donna beneath. Chopra really is a nasty piece of work.


Brian Cox pitched in, with some advice from Yoda:


See the rest at the Storify link.

50 thoughts on “Adam Rutherford’s article on epigenetics invokes profusion of angry tw**ts from Deepak Chopra and his minions

  1. You gotta love Brian Cox.

    And thanks, Jerry, for turning me on to the Infinite Monkey Cage. I’ve downloaded every episode and listen to them on the way to and from my office each day. This may be the first time in my life that I’ve actually been enjoying my commute!

    1. I know, it’s always a treat when Brian Cox calmly puts Chopra in his place or when he just calls people “twats” who believe in stupid things like the lunar missions being faked.

    2. You should also try “Inside Science”.

      It’s on BBC Radio 4, but on Thursdays at 16.30 (UK time), but can be downloaded as podcasts. In fact I think Robin Ince and Brian Cox plug them at the end of each Monkey Cage podcast)

      Not as much joking, but very informative, quite a few in jokes and hosted by the afore mentioned Adam Rutherford

  2. One thing that bothers me in these arguments is the Darwin vs Lamarck “conflict” context, when it really should be Mendel vs Lamarck. Even if inheritance were 100% Lamarckian, natural selection would still be the dominant evolutionary force. Epigentics does not undermine Darwin’s insights.

    1. Damn. Pretty much what I was going to comment on.

      Even if an epigenetic change were to be permanent it would then be subject to natural selection, just like changes to DNA by any of the various other methods that have been identified. Like other types of mutation events included in the modern TOE, epigenetic events take place on an individual organism level, not a species gene pool level.

    2. The old idea was that vital wisdom produced organic progress unavailable to mere genetic variation. In this view, random variation is not creative and cannot move along spiritually enlightened pathways. As innovations are generated by epigenetic induction, these may (why not?) invade the psyche of others and give rise to progressive enlightenment through mass-action. For real voodooists, at least for those who have given it a thought, epigenetic change is not undirected secular variation in individuals; it is creative, universal and other-worldly.

      In the old days — for example in 1903 by Brown University biologist and National Academy of Sciences member Alpheus S. Packard — creative Lamarckian changes were argued to be induced in entire populations by a poorly understood mass-action of environmental (heat, moisture, etc.) change.

      It is truly amazing the ways people dream up to avoid looking evolution by natural selection in the face.

        1. That would mirror the argument that links the late start of the modern science of psychology to just such a fear…

    3. I understand your point that the Lamarck vs Darwin dynamic is fallacious, given that natural selection is still the primary evolutionary force at work.
      What I don’t understand is how Lamarckian inheritance contradicts Medelian inheritance, or have I misunderstood your comment?
      I’m no student of biology, not in any official capacity anyway, and I’m not arguing against your point, I’m sure you’re right, I just don’t understand where the conflict between Mendel and Lamarck arises.

      1. If I were to repeat Mendel’s pea plant project, I could pretty accurately predict what my plant population would look like 10 generations down the road. As long as I kept track of who bred with who and inheritance is genic. However, if my plants acquired suites of new characters every generation that they then passed along to their offspring, my ability to predict the future would be rather poor. Lamarkian inheritance also would allow natural selection to act much more rapidly as good characters could enter and spread through populations much more rapidly (rather than be stuck waiting on a useful mutation to happen). This is why culture (Lamarkian in inheritance) can evolve much more rapidly than genetically-determined traits.

  3. Reblogged this on dyke writer and commented:
    Deepak Chopra is Food Babe 1.0

    Darwin made an observation based on what was possible at the time. Lamarck’s idea has some value in epigentics but it doesn’t discount Darwin, it just fills in some of the mechanisms.

    these either or zero sum people need to learn that quantum is not the new god of the gaps, eh?

  4. I’m curious about Rutherford’s statement that “due to predictable quackery, it is threatening to become the new quantum.”

    I’ve always wondered about that word. It means the smallest change possible, yet it seems the term quantum leap is popularly misused to mean a big change. Is that what Rutherford meant?

    1. No, he’s referring to people who use the term quantum (as in Quantum Mechanics) as a god-of-the-gaps placeholder, although they have a poor to non-existent grasp of the subject. Mr Chopra is a longtime serial “quantum” abuser.

    2. What Grania said – and you see in the Twitter war that Deepak couldn’t help but refer to it with his “spooky action at a distance” remark which came out of nowhere. I loved that Adam Rutherford replied by calling out what Deepak was implying “quantum entanglement” and therefore showing what a fool he is for bringing it up at all.

  5. It is always amusing to see Deepak’s projection – accusing others of getting angry (the repeated remarks about “blood pressure”) while getting angry himself and resorting to name calling. It’s a shame more people don’t see him for the shyster he is.

    1. Yeah, when the name-calling starts, you know they have nothing to say.

      All he has is slick sciencey-sounding statements that mean nothing, flogging degrees*, and name-calling.

      * Which reminds me of a wonderful exchange in the film, The King’s Speech:

      George VI (played by Colin Firth), “All of my doctors say cigarette smoking is good for you!”

      Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush): “They’re idiots”

      G VI: “They’ve all been knighted!”

      LL: “That makes it official!”

      Total aside:

      No offense, because I know many readers here have PhDs: In the engineering world (where I’ve worked for 35 years), I only ever met one PhD engineer who was worth diddly at actually, you know, engineering. Getting the thing designed, tested, recorded (database, quality system records), and out the door.

      This may well be a selective screen at the nexus between advanced degrees (I’ve known plenty of effective MS engineers) and engineering. Those who will be effective PhDs may also tend to choose science rather than engineering.

  6. Well, Deepak is right about one thing. Epigenetic changes could change your, individual, life. Perhaps to some extent your children and grandchildren. But it wouldn’t be evolution. Evolution takes place on a population scale, not an individual scale. Evolution is about how those changes become fixed in a population.

    Deepak is of course completely full of shit on the whole “you can change your DNA(!)by learning my special meditation techniques for accessing your own Epigenetic powers and following my Lifestyle Guide. Only 4 payments of $199.99! And win free tickets to see me live, in person!”

    1. What do you expect from someone who proposes that the moon doesn’t exist unless you are watching it?

  7. I largely agree with Rutherford’s piece but is this analogy really accurate? I think this bears mention as we see the comparison again and again. If referring to the different gene expression programs activated in different cell types, then completely different scores are being played; it’s not just a slight modification.

    “Think of DNA as an orchestral score, the notes on the page unchanging. But the annotations on the manuscript will dictate how the music sounds, with crescendo and lento and adagio. The conductor and orchestra play their annotated manuscript, and each performance is unique, even when the original scores are identical.”

    1. The Human Protein Atlas [headed by swede Uhlén] famously found that human cell tissues share a perhaps unsuspected commonality in gene expression, yet finely tuned in each tissue as, well, individual orchestra if not performances.

      “Almost half of the genes appear as housekeeping genes with detectable levels of transcripts in all analyzed tissues, while approximately 34% show some level of elevated expression in one of the analyzed tissues.” [ ]

  8. Paul Kammerer, the turn-of-the-century Viennese biologist of “Mid-wife Toad” fame, in his 1923 book “The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics” explained why it was so important for epigenetic inheritance to be true: “If acquired characteristics cannot be passed on, as most of our contemporaneous naturalists contend,” said Kammerer, “then no true organic progress is possible. Man lives and suffers in vain. Whatever he might have acquired in the course of his lifetime dies with him. His children and his children’s children must ever and again start from the bottom” (p. 30). Similar motives seem to explain today’s higgledy-piggledy epigenetics popularized by modern witch doctors.
    This quote comes from a secondary source. Does anyone know where Kammerer’s book can be found?

  9. Although Jerry says “natural selection” (NS)is shorthand for the production of heritable variation that affects fitness and Darwin calls NS a metaphor–that is we know NS does not exist as such–the term seems to be used often as if it has a separate existence apart from variation. That is why I find Peter Nonacs’ comment (no. 2) that “even if inheritance were 100% Lamarckian, NS would still be the dominant evolutionary force” problematic.

    1. I am not sure I understand.

      Natural selection is a mechanism that acts on expressed variation, but it isn’t the mechanism that generates that variation. [ ] Else you would expect “lucky monsters”, which would be an outcome of a stochastic process, not the mostly deterministic one that the selection filter process is against a specific environment.

      That NS is the dominant mechanism responsible for evolution of traits is an observation as far as I know, it didn’t have to be so. But a solid one, as per Jerry (and now Peter).

      Maybe you meant something else than conflating selection with variation, but I tried to grok your formulation best I could.

      1. Variation is “real.” It is not a metaphor. There isn’t anything beyond 100% of the heritable variation. The question is the origin of variation. To what degree is it constrained to promote the well-being of the organism’s progeny? And what is the nature of that constraint? Jerry does not recognize constraint on variation, but other worthies emphatically do.

  10. I can’t (can) believe Chopra actually said “action at a distance!” Shades of Dr. Robert Fludd and the weapon salve. What a give-away. Clearly he’s on the wrong side of the occult divide.

    1. “Action at a distance” is a reference to the quantum effect called “entanglement”. It can be demonstrated by experiment that two particles originating in the same system can remain linked in such a way that a measurement on one affects the state of the other, even when they are far apart, and apparently in violation of the finite speed of light. Deep-packed Copro has latched onto his misunderstanding of this phenomenon to claim that every bit of the universe is instantaneously linked to every other bit. Actually, as soon as one of the particles in an entangled state is measured, or interacts with the environment in any other way, a phenomenon called “decoherence” sets in, which eliminates the entanglement, so that the particles become mutually independent. If you want to know more is a good starting place.

  11. Imagine if all the money sent the way of shysters like Chopra went into genuine academic research.

  12. This is a good place to mention the weekly BBC science podcast Adam Rutherford hosts

    During the next few weeks all the finalists for the Royal Society Winton book prize will be interviewed

    Also this week’s edition of Jim Al Kalili’s The Life Scientific is an interview with Dr Geoff Palmer, the UK’s only Professor of Brewing, who was once told by Sir Keith Joseph, no less, to go back where he came from and grow bananas

  13. I’ll present a brief excerpt so you can see why it aroused the ire of Deepak Chopra. Chopra, along with his coauthor Rudy Tanzi, have recently incorporated epigenetics into their litany of woo-terms, arguing that many human behaviors can epigenetically change our DNA, and so we can do things that will help us by changing our genome.

    I have yet to master thinking methyl groups into my body, but I figure I’m halfway there: I’m already pretty good at physically moving ethyl groups into my body. 🙂

  14. Fear is the path to the dark side … leads to suffering.

    Yeah, why do the world have to suffer fools like Chopra?

    “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”

    ― Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man
    [ ]

    “Those who mastered dark power became dark power. They unleashed destruction, for no other reason than for selfish gain.”

    – Ood Bnar, Star Wars
    [ ]

  15. Chopra is a common woo-shyster, ‘nough said.

    Rudi Tanzi I would place alongside the likes of James Shapiro who hypes horizontal gene transfer in bacteria as being antithetical to Darwinian evolutionary theory along with his pet trademark “natural genetic engineering” thesis. A hand-waving thesis devoid of any meaningful scientific content, intended, it would appear, to imply the possibility of the teleological mutation of genes. Shapiro is an expert in the field of microbiology with ill-concealed contempt for Richard Dawkins.

    Tanzi talks dismissively, too, of “Darwinians” who criticise his and Chopra’s hype. Which is to say evolutionary scientists who draw attention to the enormity of the claims being made on the basis of wafer-thin evidence.

    Rutherford – an expert in the same field as Tanzi – points up Chopra and Tanzi’s hype, and comes in for the usual Chopra shystery. No threat yet of legal action from Tanzi aimed at Rutherford? I’m not holding my breath. A nail is hit firmly on the head, when Rutherrford says that all this is simply mystical thinking.

    Than which nothing is more antithetical to science.

  16. This post makes my head spin. In what way is epigenetics incompatible with Darwinism? Have you or Rutherford actually read Charles Darwin? His starting point was that evolution was real; from there he considered the various mechanisms that caused the evolution. He wrote extensively on the use and disuse of parts and believed that those effects were partially heritable. If epigenetic change occurs in biology, then it IS Darwinian. All mechanisms leading to biological evolution are Darwinian. Natural selection merely happens to be the most important mechanism for Darwinian evolution, not the only mechanism. Lamarckian inheritance is definitely NOT “a decidedly non-Darwinian mode of evolution” as you wrote.

    Professor Coyne, I am sorry for being so confrontational on your website. I have many times appreciated your knowledge and insight on whyevolutionistrue. But the way you and other liberal atheists are misrepresenting Darwin is a major problem for me. This misrepresentation is of particular concern considering how religious people are criticized for cherry picking the Bible and other texts. I want to point out two other places where Darwin has been seriously misrepresented:

    Adam Rutherford recently published an article in the Guardian, asserting that races do not exist (“Why racism is not backed by science”, March 1, 2015). To support his claim, he wrote that Darwin did not think human races were different subspecies. This statement is so staggeringly false: Darwin clearly wrote that humans had diverged into “distinct sub-species”. Anyone can find Descent of Man online and search for the word “sub-species”. It is that simple. You might think that pointing out this major inaccuracy would induce the Guardian to correct the article promptly, in line with their editorial code. You would be wrong; I had to send multiple strongly worded emails, impugning their integrity, before they finally amended the article.

    Professor Coyne, the following is you discussing On the Origin of Species:
    “I don’t see how the equality of votes for Darwin and the Bible shows anything like a “balanced approach to ideas”. Those ideas are inimical and incompatible, one book adumbrating natural causes for life and its diversity, the other offering untenable supernatural explanations for not only those phenomena, but everything else. What it shows is that half of Brits are science-friendly, and the other half can’t extricate themselves from the quicksand of superstition. And if someone voted for both, well, God help them.”

    So, you wrote that On the Origin of Species reports “natural causes for life” and the Bible offers “untenable supernatural explanations”. While the latter is correct, the former is clearly wrong. In Origin of Species, Darwin debunked the notion that each species was the product of “independent” or “special” creation. But he relied on a supernatural explanation for the beginning of life, writing, “probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed by the Creator.” (Edition 2, page 484). Note the similar wording to Genesis 2:7, which says that God formed man and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”. Darwin also wrote that the physical laws were “impressed on matter by the Creator”.

    I know I am being very direct here. Some might call me provocative. But I am deeply troubled by the carelessness some people show in how they represent Darwin, and am angered by others who engage in deliberate misrepresentation. I have recently made several posts on this very topic on another whyevolutionistrue page which provides more examples of the misrepresentation of Darwin by the left:

    Professor Coyne, I would appreciate your feedback if you think that I am not reading Darwin correctly. But if I am right, then I would very much hope that you would acknowledge your error in: (1) claiming Lamarckian inheritance in not endorsed by the works of Darwin, and (2) claiming that On the Origin of Species presents a natural cause for the origins of life.

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