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Developmental Plasticity, Epigenetics, and Race: Historical Lessons and Contemporary Considerations (WP-21-17)

Maurizio Meloni, Tessa Moll, and Christopher Kuzawa

Recent studies demonstrating epigenetic and developmental sensitivity to early environments, as exemplified by fields like the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) and environmental epigenetics, are bringing new data and models to debates on race, genetics and society. In this article, the authors first survey the historical prominence of models of environmental determinism in early formulations of racial thinking to illustrate how notions akin to biological plasticity have been used to naturalize racial hierarchy and inequality in the past. They next discuss how empirical work in DOHaD and environmental epigenetics, with its primary focus on documenting the durable impacts of early stress runs the risk of reifying perceived biological differences at the population level, not via hard-wired genes but the lingering impact of environmental exposures at critical windows of development. Specifically, they feel that common conventions in these fields tend to reinforce binary interpretations of the causes and impacts of environmental exposures that map onto ethnicity or socially defined race. This may lead to simplified causal models in which exposures are viewed as having effects that are either present or absent, and with effects impacting entire demographic groups in a typological and essentialized way. Finally, after reviewing recent trends in DOHaD research, the authors conclude with a series of suggestions that they feel will help researchers harness these new fields and methods to benefit disadvantaged groups while avoiding the dissemination of new forms of stigma or prejudice.

Maurizio Meloni, Professor and ARC Future Fellow, Deakin University

Tessa Moll, Visitor, Arts and Education, Deakin University

Christopher Kuzawa, Professor of Anthropology and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

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