It’s the early 19th century, before Darwin’s Origin of Species. Before Mendel’s peas and Watson and Crick’s double helix. Scientists are struggling with the big questions of inheritance and reproduction without the aid of modern scientific methods. In this vacuum of concrete information, odd theories gained traction – some based on racial or social agendas, others on intuition or supposition.
Lamarckism, or soft inheritance, was one of the more pervasive of these ideas. According to the theory, organisms can inherit acquired traits. In the days before Darwin’s evolutionary theory, Lamarckism helped explain why organisms were so well adapted to their environments. Take the example of the giraffe’s long neck. A giraffe of yore (when giraffes had shorter necks) had to stretch its neck to reach the luscious leaves further up on tree branches. All that stretching lengthened its neck a little, and this longer neck was passed on to its offspring, who in turn stretched their necks and sired offspring who could reach even higher and munch the choicest leaves. It went on like this until giraffes were tall enough that they didn’t have to strain to reach leaves anymore.
It was a neat explanation that appealed to many 19th century scientists; even Darwin occasionally made use of it. But the theory had a nasty side as well. People applied it to humans and used it to explain differences between races or socioeconomic classes, calling the phenomenon degeneration. The mental and physical effects of years spent boozing and behaving badly would be passed down from father to son to grandson, each successively worse than his predecessor as the collective sum of each reckless lifetime added up. There was a technical term for the poor souls who wound up literally inheriting the sins of their fathers: degenerates. Certain scientists (or pseudoscientists) of the era, such as Benedict Morel and Cesare Lombroso, used the ideas of soft inheritance and degeneration to explain how violence, poverty, and criminality were heritable and could be categorized and studied.
Lamarckism, in the hands of Morel and others, offered a credible explanation of why the son of an alcoholic was more likely to be an alcoholic himself. But it did so by implying that the poor, the miserable, the suffering were inherently inferior to those with better, healthier (and probably wealthier) lifestyles. The poor were genetically degenerate, and they had no one to blame but themselves.
Thank god, thank god, Lamarckism and its corollary, degeneration, were debunked. By the 20th century, scientists knew that inheritance didn’t work that way. Our genetic information isn’t changed by what we do during our lifetimes. Besides, our sex cells are segregated from the other cells in our bodies. We don’t descend from our mothers, subject to all the stresses, strains, and yes, even boozing that their brains and bodies may have experienced. Instead, we descend from their ovaries. And thankfully, those things are well protected.
Only there’s a catch. In the last few decades, we’ve learned that while Lamarckism isn’t correct, it isn’t entirely wrong either. We’ve learned this through the field of epigenetics (literally, above genetics). This burgeoning field has helped us understand why the causes of so many heritable diseases still elude us, nearly a decade after we sequenced the human genome. Epigenetics adds untold complexity to an already complex genome. Some of its mechanisms are transient, others last a lifetime, but they all regulate gene expression and are necessary for normal growth and development. Thanks to them, females inactivate one of their X chromosomes (so women don’t get a double dose of proteins from that set of genes). Epigenetic mechanisms also oversee cellular differentiation, the process by which embryonic cells containing identical genetic material become skin cells, hepatocytes, neurons, and every other diverse cell type in the human body.
It now appears that epigenetic factors play an enormous role in human health. And what we do in our lives, the choices we make, affect our epigenome. Exposure to chemicals, stressors, or dietary changes can cause long-lasting tags to sit on our DNA or chromatin, controlling which genes are read and transcribed into proteins. For example, chronic cocaine use causes lasting epigenetic changes in the nucleus accumbens, a brain area linked to addiction. These changes boost plasticity and drug-related gene expression, which in turn probably contribute to the reinforcing effects of the drug.
But that’s not all. Epigenetic effects can span generations. No, the hardships of your parents’ lifetimes aren’t literally passed on to you in a cumulative fashion, giving you that longer neck or boozier disposition that Lamarckism might predict. Nonetheless, what your parents (and even your grandmother) did before you were born can be affecting your epigenome today.
It’s pretty wild stuff. Even if you’ve never met your maternal grandmother, even if she died long before your birth, her experiences and behavior could be affecting your health. First of all, the prenatal environment your mother experienced can have epigenetic effects on her that then propagate on to the next generation (you). Moreover, all the eggs a female will ever make have already formed in her ovaries by the time she’s born. They may not be mature, but they are there, DNA and all. I think that’s a pretty amazing transgenerational link. It means that half the strands of DNA that wound up becoming you were initially made inside your grandmother’s body. As science reveals the power of the prenatal environment, evidence is mounting that even what your grandmother ate during your mother’s gestational period and whether she suffered hardships like famine can alter your own risk for heart disease or diabetes.
Luckily, epigenetic gene regulation is softer and less absolute than its cousin Lamarckism. It is reversible and it can’t accumulate, generation upon generation, to create a degenerate class. The science of today is more humane than the old guys predicted, but it doesn’t let us off the hook. Epigenetics should remind us that we must be thoughtful in how we live. Our choices matter, for ourselves and for our offspring. We don’t yet understand how epigenetic mechanisms control our health and longevity, but that isn’t stopping our bodies from making us pay for what we do now.