Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Nature vs. Nurture (or Moses and Your DNA)


And he hewed two tables of stone like unto the first; and Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up unto mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tables of stone. And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. (Exodus 34: 4-7)

If it wasn't bad enough to have bestowed on you the 10 commandments chiseled in stone (the origin of the phrase "you do the math") it must have been daunting to find out that failure to perfectly comply would impact not only your own sorry ass, but also your children's and your children's children and your children's children's children (the origin of multiplication tables.) Having been expelled from the garden before we passed GO and in the knowledge of subsequent generations' ingenious variations on a theme (death,) this information could conceivably have struck one, in the moment, as redundant.

A few millenium later we were rescued by the notion of tabula rasa, that we arrive as blank slates and have perfect freedom to chisel whatever we want to upon them. We author our own souls. This idea endured until the rise of the nature (innate qualities/DNA) vs. nurture (environment) debate where it was finally determined that these two influences work together to form us and that both contribute to the state of our health, abilities, dispositions and talents. While our genes ("genes as fate") determine such things as eye color, personality and whether or not we'll ever excel at the tango, we know our DNA can be altered by such things as exposure to radiation and alterations in the environment of the womb.

What we are now finding, as Ethan Watters writes in "DNA Is Not Destiny":

"a growing body of evidence suggesting that the epigenic [chemical switches and markers that help switch on or off the expression of particular genes] changes wrought by one's diet, behavior, or surroundings can work their way into the germ line and echo far into the future. Put simply, and as bizarre as it may sound, what you eat or smoke today could affect the health an behavior of your great-grandchildren."

He then quotes Randy Jirtle of Duke University (whose experiments in 2000 with agouti mice lead to this discovery,) "Epigenics is proving we have some responsibility for the integrity of our genome. Before, genes predetermined outcomes. Now everything we do...can effect our gene expression and that of future generations. Epigenics introduces the concept of free will into our idea of genetics."

It appears now that although our slates do not come blank, we do, indeed, write on them. And what we write will not only make a difference in our own lives, but for generations to come. We will bless our offspring or curse them. Perhaps if we could find the exact spot on Mt. Sinai where Moses stood we might find someone had traced a double helix in the sand.

2 comments:

harold of cardboard . . . said...

cool chain

jenni said...

I loved this...