Fraser Watts: How behaviour and environment could affect your lifespan?

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I was recently cited in an article on which discussed epigenetics and cited some of my comments from the Religion, Society, and the Science of Life Conference at Oxford University back in July.

In her recent article, Sharon Schmickle notes how a Minneapolis life insurance company GWG Life, is collecting and analysing saliva samples for epigenetic markers in order to identify how an individual might beat his or her chronological age and either live longer or indeed die younger than predicted.

What is epigenetics? Traditional studies teach the basics of DNA, where every cell in our bodies contains our master code; the genes we have inherited to develop, grow and function for life unless a mutation occurs. However, it now appears that lifestyle and environment can influence our genes more than was previously thought, with groups of chemicals found in our environment, able to attach themselves to our DNA and effectively switch the genes on or off.

Many theologians and philosophers believe that biology has become too mechanistic, leaving little room for alternative interpretations of nature and its intricate systems – even, little room for mystery.

Dr Fraser Watts EpigeneticsDr Fraser Watts EpigeneticsFor me none of this is new; I think there has been a shift and biology is now more open to a holistic perspective than it was a few decades ago. I’m wary, of the deterministic view that human character and behaviour are shaped by genes alone; this is a view that distorts the reality of the living world. A more holistic view considers the complex relationship between parts and wholes.

“The idea that we have almost got nature sorted out excites some people more than the idea that nature is a mystery that we will never quite understand,” Watts said. “If you get excited by the idea that we’ve almost got nature sorted out, then you’re going to want to exaggerate the extent to which we have got it sorted out.”

Epigenetics is a prime example of a more complex perspective on the science of life. At its heart is the recognition that in real life DNA interacts with other factors that can effectively switch genes on and off. At least at this point of the research, epigenetics kindles a new awareness of the many secrets of life that are yet to be discovered.

In research terms University of Minnesota scientists are studying such epigenetic markers as they play into obesity, smoking, cancer, heart disease and other conditions. These studies may help our understanding into how behaviour s— such as smoking — and environmental factors — such as air pollution or even stress — can change the ability of our DNA to function effectively. In turn, the research could also lead to new treatments and medicines designed specifically to target epigenetic markers.

I deal with these matters more fully in my journal Holistic biology: what it is and why it matters.

– Fraser Watts


Read the full article by Sharon Schmickle here:


Other articles citing the Religion, Society, and the Science of Life Conference at Oxford University conference can be found online at:

Mark Vernon

Tom Heneghan

Samuel Lieven

Jules Evans