The history of epigenetics from a sociological perspective
This paper explores the history of a scientific discipline, namely epigenetics, from a sociological perspective. It draws upon some theoretical insights provided by Mölders (2011): (1) a sociological learning-theoretical framework about systemic learning in the function system of science, conceived as an equilibration process at the level of a disciplinary communication community; (2) an evolution-theoretical framework about how learned structures reach the entire level of the function system of science. Thus, the leading questions asked were: (1) Do the emergence and development of epigenetics correspond to a learning process at the level of a disciplinary communication community, in the sense of a Piagetian equilibration process? and (2) Does the spreading of epigenetic knowledge constitute a case of (re)stabilization of learned structures reaching the level of the function system of science? The second approach seems more pertinent for the case of epigenetics for the following reasons: (1) in the realm of biosciences it is difficult to delimit disciplinary communication communities; (2) the kind of knowledge associated with epigenetics seems to have emerged outside of any preexisting disciplinary communication community; (3) ever since the coining of its name, epigenetics has transcended the dominant internal differentiation of the function system of science. It was found that several structures coming from epigenetics have been successfully selected beyond the boundaries of disciplines through scientific citation, so that an epigenetic shift has reached the function system of science. Following this historical thread, it was also found that some novel structures drawing upon Waddingtonian epigenetics were selected by a chain of authors reaching sociologists such as Klaus Eder, nourishing in turn a learning-related evolution-theoretical framework which can be applied to analyze the case of epigenetics itself.