Remember that guy we all laughed at in school - you know, he thought giraffes had long necks cuz their ancestors stretched to reach the high-up leaves? How could he fail to realise that it's random mutations that cause evolution, which are then reinforced through 'survival of the fittest' style environmental pressures? I mean, duh!
Well... he wasn't all wrong, it turns out. Check this out (emphasis added):
"Three [now four] years ago, researchers led by a professor at the university of Linköping in Sweden created a henhouse that was specially designed to make its chicken occupants feel stressed. The lighting was manipulated to make the rhythms of night and day unpredictable, so the chickens lost track of when to eat or roost. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, they showed a significant decrease in their ability to learn how to find food hidden in a maze.
The surprising part is what happened next: the chickens were moved back to a non-stressful environment, where they conceived and hatched chicks who were raised without stress – and yet these chicks, too, demonstrated unexpectedly poor skills at finding food in a maze. They appeared to have inherited a problem that had been induced in their mothers through the environment. Further research established that the inherited change had altered the chicks' "gene expression" – the way certain genes are turned "on" or "off", bestowing any given animal with specific traits. The stress had affected the mother hens on a genetic level, and they had passed it on to their offspring."
"One study, again from Sweden, looked at lifespans in Norrbotten, the country's northernmost province, where harvests are usually sparse but occasionally overflowing, meaning that, historically, children sometimes grew up with wildly varying food intake from one year to the next. A single period of extreme overeating in the midst of the usual short supply, researchers found, could cause a man's grandsons to die an average of 32 years earlier than if his childhood food intake had been steadier. Your own eating patterns, this implies, may affect your grandchildren's lifespans, years before your grandchildren – or even your children – are a twinkle in anybody's eye."
I found out about all this when I read this review of Nessa Carey's The Epigenetics Revolution on Saturday. I can't even begin to get my head around what this means, but here's a few (wildly speculative) thoughts:
- in discussions around welfare payments being cut-off to 'incentivize' working, it's often pointed out that such a strategy punishes the 'innocent' children of the recipient. Well, even if they can be insulated from the material effects, epigenetics could mean that any deprivation/emotional trauma induced in citizens may affect future 'innocents', too
- inequalities/inadequacies of education/health care (so called 'postcode lotteries') could affect the next generation, meaning they're genetically in even greater need because of their parents' insufficient services
- being happier when you have a child could affect their own happiness. Likewise other traits/virtues/vices you exhibit at the time you have them - sloth, courage, kindness...
(I think I should read that book before I have a heart attack here)
Minds sufficiently blown?