Can information be inherited?

Posted August 29, 2012 9:04 am  

An interesting essay in the NY Times Science Section (8/21.12), by reporter Doreen Carvajal, posited the notion that “generations pass on particular survival skills and an unconscious sense of identity that stands the test of centuries.” Carvajal reports that the field of epigenetics is researching whether our ancestors’ history may be passed to us through a chemical mechanism the switches genes off and on. The subjects of epigenetic studies are people who, after brain injuries, possess skills they had never learned, skills that could only have passed to them genetically. The premise is that we may inherit some deep knowledge–in the same way that Monarch butterflies are hatched with their migratory routes already imprinted–that contributes to our survival.

A letter, written by Benjamin Lewin, editor of the journal Cell, in the NY Times the following week, clarifies that the idea that “the idea that memories might be inherited is…a perversion of scientific understanding.” He emphasizes that what we do now know is that information can be passed from one generation to another “by means other than coding in the sequence of DNA.”

This distinction may help explain how many cultures seem naturally optimistic while all the Ancient Mexicans’ seem to have shared a pessimistic fatalism. Is it possible that their singular belief system, inculcated generation after generation for 3000 years, was simultaneously reinforcing its genetic or congenital transmission? Perhaps optimism is not hard-wired in human beings but just passed as survival information. Fatalism may have developed among Ancient Mexicans as a coping strategy for dealing with their all-pervasive notion of circular–and hence limited–time, a way of accepting what they believed they could not change. Or, if there is a gene for optimism, perhaps the Ancient Indians passed along a chemical mechanism for turning it off.

The subject of epigenetics is mentioned in another exploration related to parental anxiety:

And the mystery of Monarch migration is the subject of the essay, The Bugs and Us:


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