Not much time to post — we’re leaving to head out of town a little later. But it hit me that the subject I have been poking around recently might be new to some folks and thought it worth commenting on.
One of the newsletters I received this week from either the Discovery Institute or the Center for Science and Culture (or an article I eventually surfed to after reading the newsletter) discussed epigenetics — the capacity for information beyond and outside the genome and DNA to be passed from generation to generation. It’s a subject that one of my local members here in Ohio (thanks BF!) had turned me onto which I find fascinating.
Epigenetics has demonstrated the potential for choices a parent makes — say, to smoke — has the potential to the children we may have for generations even though it makes no change to our DNA. Studies have shown that, in a manner similar to Lamarck’s theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, things we experience — even when we are still children ourselves or even while we are still in our mothers womb — and choices we make before having children can create heritable consequences passed down multiple generations, including, for instance, dramatic reductions or increases in lifespans. Yet not a single change is made in our DNA or our genetics: the changes occur in our epigenetics.
If our DNA and genes are the hardware of our biological inheritance, like the Intel chip shared by PCs and Macs, epigenetics is the software of our inheritance, like the Mac or Windows operating systems. Same hardware, but totally different results based on totally different software. (I won’t get into comparing the “results” of Mac versus Windows operating systems here, lest we >ahem< get to far afield.)
It is an incredible realm of biology that is barely understood. And it is complex. As a TIME magazine article said back in 2009, comparing the possibility of a Human Epigenome Project to fully map the epigenome to the famous 2000 Human Genome Project, which did successfully map the human genome, “When completed, the Human Epigenome Project (already under way in Europe) will make the Human Genome Project look like homework that 15th century kids did with an abacus.”
For those who aren’t familiar with epigenetics–and I suspect that too few are–the TIME magazine article is a great introduction. Here’s a link: “Why Your DNA Isn’t Your Destiny”. Read it and let me know what you think.
For my part, a passage of Scripture comes to mind, in which God mentions “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). This passage has often been considered as representing an unforgiving and unjustly vengeful nature in God (and falsely so; Ezekiel 18:4, 20 should be considered as well). However, perhaps–just perhaps–it may have reflected a bit of epigenetic reality. Science is showing more and more that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren do inherit some of the effects produced by choices we make in our own lives.