The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology Is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease, and Inheritance by Nessa Carey

A while ago I read a study about how a stressed mother rat can pass on stressed behavior in her offspring even when the offspring are removed from her and given to a non-stressed mother rat.  This is epigenetics.  As the book explains, there is more to genetics than DNA being passed on to your offspring and your offspring reading that DNA identically as you did.  DNA is not clean.  There are chemicals and proteins that attach themselves to DNA that act on the DNA either dampening or amplifying the instructions.  This book is too technical for the layperson, and for me, it was challengingly boring, but it did provide me with a lot of details about how epigenetics works.  A few years ago, perusing the Internet, you would think that epigenetics was some new-fangled New Age, untested hypothesis, but the book clearly shows how it has been embraced by the scientific community.  The most promising aspect of epigenetics is that you are not necessarily doomed by your DNA.  I’m not saying that anytime soon, you can change your height, eye color, or brain capacity through changing the chemicals or proteins that are attached to your DNA, but certain things can be altered, most notably inherited diseases or diseases that arise from how chemicals and proteins have attached themselves to your DNA.  In other words, they can be unattached or new chemicals and proteins can be attached, dampening disease instructions or amplifying disease-fighting instructions or cell rejuvenation and repair. 

 The study of epigenetics should be headline making news, and I doubt it is even taught in high school biology today.  It brings up the whole problem of education and how poorly new information is passed on to the general public or even the well-read public.  I had never really known about this until now.  This is huge.  It is as big a revelation as Darwin’s natural selection, because it means that nurture has not only a cognitive impact on behavior but also a genetic impact, but more astounding, the nurture impact can be passed on to offspring!  Not only are you getting your eye color from your mother, but you’re also getting her reaction to stress.  The debate is no longer nature versus nurture but rather both nature and nurture work symbiotically to determine your behavior.  This is the gigantic missing link in evolution.  Evolution is not just about trial and error, a mutation that does or does not work.  Evolution is a process by which genetic expression is modified by external inputs (nurture) and this gets passed on to offspring.  Of course this brings up a whole new fold in the argument of freewill versus determinism.  If as a child, you experienced a trauma that forever altered the expression of one of your genes, then by the same concept, if one of your great-great-great-grandparents experienced a trauma that forever altered the expression of their gene that you have now inherited, how much freewill do you have?  In other words, something that happened to your ancestor over a hundred years ago like war or famine, may affect you today.  And looking back at human history, we can see that it was full of wars and famines and traumas.  So despite being raised in a relatively peaceful, bountiful society, much of our behavior is still geared toward surviving war and famine.

 “The hypothesis that epigeneticists are testing is that early childhood trauma causes an alteration in gene expression in the brain, which is generated or maintained (or both) by epigenetic mechanisms.  These epigenetically mediated abnormalities in gene expression predispose adults to increased risk of mental illnesses.”  I can see people reacting to this by arguing, “Ah hah, my alcoholism and destructive behavior is a disease.  I can’t change how my genes are expressed because of a childhood trauma.”  However, I would argue also argue that certain childhood difficulties like having to do a lot of menial labor, could also be the foundation of your strengths.  During one Olympic series, it was almost comical how the profiles of every athlete involved some really tough childhood obstacles.  After a while you make the connection.  Olympic athletes are at the top of their sport, because at some point in their lives they suffered greatly, and this acclimatized them to the great suffering necessary to excel at their sport.  Lance Armstrong is one of my notoriously bad examples.  He was a mediocre bicycle racer until he suffered cancer.  Enduring chemotherapy gave him the ability to take his training to the next level to become one of the best bicycle racers.  Of course, he did performance-enhancing drugs, but out of the hundred or so racers who also did performance-enhancing drugs, he was none-the-less, the best athlete of them.  Which also brings up an important side note.  Great suffering also tends to make you narrow-minded which brings up a lot of cognitive blind spots like morals.  In order to get through a tough moment in life, you develop the ability to obsessively focus on something in order to stop your mind from obsessing about pain, misery, and suffering.  When you obsessively focus on one thing, you simply become good at it, an expert.  However, you also tend to neglect a lot of other important things in life including friends, morals, the bigger picture, etc.  In fact, you become highly reactive to everything, a firefighter.  You only react to things when they break out in a fire.  So people who suffer traumas obsess about things and are bad at prevention and maintenance outside of what they obsess about, and this may not only be a learned thing but it may also have sticking power to your genes making it an even harder habit to break.

 On the other hand, I would always argue that we are not slaves to our genes and now to the modifications and additions to our genes which alter their expression that we may have inherited from our parents or developed at some point in our childhood or lives.  Humans are unique in the duration and power of our learned behavior.  Although, as we age, we become less agile learners, none-the-less, we remain capable of learning, changing, and growing to the day we die.  I will never forget my old coach in high school who was always innovating and teaching us new tricks.  In fact, the aptitude and ability to learn new things may also be a trait we either inherit, create at a young age, or groom throughout our lives.  This of course, just contradicts my argument about being able to change.  What if I enjoy learning and changing because it’s in my genes and not so much something I learned to do from exposure?  However, I strongly feel that all humans are born with a genetic predisposition to enjoy learning.  This is how we got here and triumphed over the duller primates who did not enjoy learning and adapting.  People who resist change, learning, and growing, do so out of a learned fear that is often picked up in school where you are graded and judged for everything you do and learn.  Obviously, if you associate learning with the pain and suffering of judgment, you spend the rest of your life avoiding learning.  Unfortunately, I feel this reflects the majority of the population.

 The book is overly technical and will either bore or befuddle you to death.  I skimmed most of it.  Sometimes, I just give up on books, and it’s just a waste of time.  If you spend too much time trying to grind through boring or befuddling books, you may endanger your passion for reading, so I try to avoid too many grinding sessions.  That’s why I always like to set my mind on cruise control and read a mass market novel after a particularly long or grinding nonfiction.  However, I’ve also learned that if you skim your way through the book, you will also encounter gems, what I call the money chapter, a chapter that is worth the entire cost of the book, and that is what Chapter 12 is.  Chapter 12 covers how childhood trauma can have an impact on genetic expression well throughout your adult life.  In a particularly nice way the author states, “It’s as if the thermostat on a central heating system has malfunctioned, and the boiler and radiators continue to pump out heat in August, based on the weather from the previous February.”  Unfortunately, I’ve encountered countless traumatized people in my life, and you probably have too.  You can tell by the simple in-congruency test.  They overreact to otherwise benign or minor issues or conflicts and they underreact to very important, critical things.  In other words, they freak out over minor raindrops while doing absolutely nothing to prepare for an approaching hurricane, they freak out over a significant other saying a slightly off-color remark at a party while completely ignoring the significant other abusing their child or hitting them.  I find them all over at work too.  They spend days micromanaging a project with minor consequences while ignoring you as you try to convince them of a huge, critical, looming problem or opportunity.  They feel that they can control the little things in life and specialize in that while being completely helpless to the larger things in life.  It is quite possible that people who have been traumatized or been around traumatized people then switch to the opposite and become obsessed with the bigger picture things in life like meaning and the nature of reality like I am, and ignore the relatively smaller things in life.  Two sides of the same coin.

 

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