Does a societal mandate cause DNA methylation?

This 2017 worldwide meta-analysis of humans of recent European ancestry found:

“Here we provide evidence on the associations between epigenetic modifications-in our case, CpG methylation and educational attainment (EA), a biologically distal environmental factor that is arguably among the most important life-shaping experiences for individuals. Specifically, we report the results of an epigenome-wide association study [EWAS] meta-analysis of EA based on data from 27 cohort studies with a total of 10,767 individuals.”

These researchers found no association between the societal mandate of educational attainment and the most widely studied category of epigenetic marks.

Society mandates year after year of school attendance. This mandate continues on to require a four-year degree just to get an entry-level job in many lines of work.

The researchers stated:

“Our EWAS associations are small in magnitude relative to EWAS associations reported for more biologically proximal environmental factors.”

educational attainment

Panels a and b display the same results but with a different scaling of the y axis in order for smaller effect sizes to be visible.

Smoking, alcohol consumption, and maternal smoking were measured to have detrimental effects. BMI was fun with numbers.

Would a study categorize it as detrimental when an individual breaks from expectations about what they should do, and terminates their educational attainment? One individual I know didn’t go to graduate school after Princeton University although they were capable of quality graduate and doctorate work. It would be detrimental to their life if they stopped a software development career that pays a million dollars a year to go back to school.

Would a study evaluate it as beneficial when an individual lengthens their educational attainment past society’s thirteen-year educational requirement? Would these extra four years still be considered beneficial when – after foregoing four more years of full-time income, and accumulating tens of thousands of dollars of nondischargeable debt – they achieve an expected outcome of an entry-level job, and then can’t unassistedly provide for their basic needs?

Are further epigenetic studies of educational attainment as an environmental factor really worthwhile?

Why not use research funds and efforts on more promising topics like human transgenerational epigenetic inheritance? Suitable subjects may already be selected for this research, as several of the “27 cohort studies” that provided data for this meta-analysis included at least three human generations. “An epigenome-wide association study meta-analysis of educational attainment”

These authors preregistered their analysis plan. This practice discourages fishing expeditions that researchers are so often tempted to go on when study data provides evidence for the null hypothesis, as this meta-analysis did.

I was puzzled that they described part of the preregistered analysis plan to be:

“Hypothesis-free as it is performed genome-wide without an expected direction of effect for individual CpG loci.”

Their abstract, though, declared:

“If our findings regarding EA can be generalized to other biologically distal environmental factors, then they cast doubt on the hypothesis that such factors have large effects on the epigenome.”

Was this meta-analysis “hypothesis-free” or did it have “the hypothesis that such factors have large effects on the epigenome”?

Here’s 48 minutes of Brian Nosek, a co-founder of the Open Science Framework (where this meta-analysis was preregistered):

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