I have found myself drawn to channels that are best described as “alternate” – outside the traditional scope of the Institution. I publish, but on my own blog. I provide support and services, but for software and tools that are not blessed by the University. I share everything I do under a simple Creative Commons license, without worrying about control or ownership. I exist, from some perspectives, outside of the Institution.
This has bothered me for some time. That my activities were in some way irrelevant to the University. That there was no real way for me to affect change, when my actions aren’t recognized, or even noticed, by traditional aspects of the enterprise.
This weekend, I got a chance to crack open the latest issue of Seed Magazine (Dec. 2008). I started with an article on epigenetic inheritance. I had heard the term, but hadn’t given it much thought before. I last studied genetics almost 20 years ago, and remember Mendelian inheritance due to dominant and recessive genes and their interactions. I constructed endless Punnett squares to calculate probabilities of traits based on parental genes. DNA was king. If it wasn’t coded as a gene, it didn’t matter, evolutionarily speaking.
Epigenetic inheritance is the ability to pass traits from one generation to the next, without representation in the genetic code. Phenotype as a result of environmental and behavioural influences, without direct genotypic expression, and in addition to (or in concert with) that which is genetically defined. This can range from simple response to chemicals or pollutants, to passing antibodies through maternal breast milk, to more complex social and cultural activities. Language is epigenetically inherited, passed from one generation to the next through education (formal and informal).
Reading (and rereading) the article, it hit me. The traditional University, the Enterprise, the Institution. These are analogous to the genotype. They are raw data, which becomes translated and expressed in the context of the current generation. Although the genotype of various Institutions are essentially the same, the phenotypic expression differs, as well as the epigenetic aspects that exist as a result of context.
What I’ve been doing has not been irrelevant to, or even outside of the University. What I’ve been doing is working on epigenetic factors, which are passed on without need for direct representation in the formal Institution.
The other interesting concept of epigenetic inheritance is that it can precede genetic representation. A property or behaviour that begins as an epigenetically transmitted trait can find its way into the genome proper. And so, I choose to stop worrying about recognition and relevance, and to focus on the fringe activities, the interstitial, the disruptive. The epigenetic. And will trust that anything truly worthwhile will eventually find its way into the Institution.