One of my many delusions is that if I’d had high school science teachers as engaging as my English teachers, I might have gone into a STEM field. The delusion isn’t that my high school science teachers couldn’t teach; with one exception, they were terrible. The delusion is that if they could have taught, I’d have been capable of a career in science. I might have made it as a test tube-washing lab tech, but not much more. Which is my loss, because science can be fascinating and I wish I had a better understanding of it.

The latest scientific idea to grab my attention is epigenetics, which studies how environmental factors experienced by parents affect the genetics of their children. We’re familiar with the concept of genetic predisposition, where a trait that may be latent in us is triggered by an environmental factor. What molecular biologists are learning is that severe environmental factors may change how our genes operate (through a process called methylation) and have an impact on our progeny as well.

Studies on animals suggest this is so. Studies of human populations after war, famine, and other calamities also indicate that children conceived amid disaster are more susceptible than usual to physical and psychological illness. As Israel Rosenfield and Edward Ziff note in the June 7, 2018 New York Review of Books:

These studies have shown that when women are exposed to stress in the early stages of pregnancy, they give birth to children whose stress-response systems malfunction. Among the most widely studied of such traumatic events is the Dutch Hunger Winter. In 1944 the Germans prevented any food from entering the parts of Holland that were still occupied. The Dutch resorted to eating tulip bulbs to overcome their stomach pains. Women who were pregnant during this period . . . gave birth to a higher proportion of obese and schizophrenic children than one would normally expect. These children also exhibited epigenetic changes not observed in similar children, such as siblings, who had not experienced famine at the prenatal stage.

Rosenfield and Ziff warn that a lot more research needs to be done before we conclude that epigenetic changes are passed from parents to children and perhaps further. But the implications are staggering: violence, fear, abuse, and neglect change us not just psychologically, but physically, and we may pass our pain along for generations.

If that’s the case, who’s to say we’re not damaged in some unsuspected way because a grandparent or great-grandparent endured a trauma we know nothing about?

And what of all the people around us with a heritage of family trauma? Shouldn’t we have more compassion for individuals whose parents were abused, or desperately poor, or addicted to drugs, or exposed to toxins? The reason homeless and destitute people fail to function effectively may have nothing to do with their attitude; it may just be a consequence of damage done to their forebearers.

In an earlier post (Male Call) I argued against seeing core human behaviors as purely social constructs. From my perspective, the findings of the epigeneticists buttress that argument, suggesting that nurture can affect nature on a molecular level, with profound consequences for people yet unborn, who may then be all but helpless to fix themselves. That said, what causes the epigenetic problems in the first place? Environment! So nurture really matters too. And someday we may have scientific proof that the single most important thing we can do is be kind and gentle to each other.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829), who argued that environment was a driving force of evolution. Portrait by Charles Thévenin, circa 1802/03.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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