These possibilities have not been lost on regulators, industries, scientists and others who have a stake in such matters. “There are two forces working against me,” Skinner says. “On one side, you have moneyed interests refusing to accept data that might force stronger regulations of their most profitable chemicals. On the other side, you have genetic determinists clinging to an old paradigm.”
Michael Skinner wears a gray Stetson with a tan strap, and leans back easily in his chair in his office on the Pullman campus. His fly-fishing rod stands in the corner, and a colossal northern pike is mounted on the wall. An avid fly fisherman, Skinner, age 57, was born and raised on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon. The Skinners are not of Indian descent, but his parents owned a family farm there—“a good cultural experience,” he says. His father worked in insurance, and he and his four brothers grew up just as five generations of Skinners had before them—hunting and fishing and cowboying, learning a way of life that would sustain them into adulthood.
He loved the outdoors, and his fascination with how nature worked prompted a school guidance counselor’s suggestion that a career in science might be just the thing. He was about 12, and true to form he stuck with it. In high school and then at Reed College he wrestled competitively, and today his supporters and critics alike may detect a bit of his old grappling self in how he approaches a problem—head-on. “It probably taught me how to confront, rather than avoid challenges,” he says now. The sport also led him to his future wife, Roberta McMaster, or Bobbie, who served as his high-school wrestling team’s scorekeeper. “I was fascinated that someone so young knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life,” Bobbie recalls. He proposed marriage before heading for college, and the two have been together ever since and have two grown children.
He attended Washington State University for his PhD in biochemistry, and during that time he and Bobbie often lived on game that he’d hunted. It was not unheard of to find a freshly killed deer hanging in the carport of their student housing. “They were lean years,” Bobbie says. “But they were good ones.”
After positions at Vanderbilt and the University of California, San Francisco, Skinner returned to Washington State University. “I wanted a big research college in a rural town,” he says. He spent the next decade studying how genes turn on and off in ovaries and testes, and how those organs’ cells interact. He wasn’t aiming to take on the central idea in biology for much of the 20th century: genetic determinism, the belief that DNA is the sole blueprint for traits from hair and eye color to athletic ability, personality type and disease risk.
In some sense this interpretation of genetic determinism was always oversimplified. Scientists have long understood that environments shape us in mysterious ways, that nature and nurture are not opposing forces so much as collaborators in the great art of human-making. The environment, for example, can ramp up and pull back on gene activity through methyl groups, as well as a host of other molecules that modify and mark up a person’s full complement of DNA, called the genome. But only changes in the DNA sequence itself were normally passed to offspring.
So certain was everyone of this basic principle that President Bill Clinton praised the effort to complete the first full reading of the human genome, saying in June 2000 that this achievement would “revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all human diseases.” When stacked against such enthusiasm, Skinner’s findings have felt like heresy. And for a while, at least, he was criticized accordingly.
Critics of the Skinner-led research pointed out that the doses of vinclozolin in his rat studies were way too high to be relevant to human exposure, and injecting the rats as opposed to administering the toxins through their food exaggerated the effects. “What he’s doing doesn’t have any real obvious implications for the risk assessments on the chemical,” EPA toxicologist L. Earl Gray was quoted telling Pacific Standard magazine back in 2009. Until the results are replicated, “I’m not sure they even demonstrate basic science principles.”