Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Master of Arts




Darnell, Regna


Epigenetics is the study of gene expression that does not entail alterations to the actual DNA. Decolonization is a theoretical and political movement that seeks to deconstruct colonial institutions and ideologies and reconstruct new and balanced approaches that accept and respect Indigenous worldviews. This project studies the decolonizing potential of epigenetics. Using genealogy as the method, the study establishes a long history of reductionist and deterministic thought that shaped the study of genetic science. Particular instances like thrift gene theory are explored to highlight how genetic explanations have been detrimental to the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people and illustrate the need for decolonization. The conclusion encourages the use of epigenetics as a decolonizing science that can be applied to Indigenous community-based research projects.

Summary for Lay Audience

Epigenetics is an emergent and promising science that studies changes in gene expression. Epigenetics manages genes like turning on and off a light switch without altering the actual DNA makeup of the gene. Epigenetics is a mechanism like a volume dial that regulates our body in growth, amplifying or decreasing gene production. When that regulation is compromised, there can be very negative health effects.

Decolonization is a political and theoretical movement that tries to undo negative aspects of settler society that continue to affect Indigenous peoples. Decolonization is about centering Indigenous ideologies and worldviews and bringing them into a place of balance with Western knowledge systems. This project explores how epigenetics can be used as a tool for decolonization. I explore the history of genetic science, particularly its reductionistic and deterministic tendencies.

Through two case studies, I explore the potential of epigenetics as an applied decolonizing science. The first is the case of the Dutch famine, where I look at epigenetics and its promises to the application of health. The second case study examines thrift gene theory as a harmful and reductionist explanation for Indigenous diabetes. It looks at residential schools and positions social, environmental and multiple other factors, whereas the thrift gene offers a singular gene as a complete explanation. The conclusion compares these two case studies, emphasizing how epigenetics allows for a decolonized approach. It encourages the application of epigenetics to community-based research projects.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.