Why Your DNA Isn't Your Destiny

The new field of epigenetics is showing how your environment and your choices can influence your genetic code — and that of your kids

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Lars Tunbjork / VU

Three generations: Dr. Lars Olov Bygren, with son Magnus and grandson Ludvig in Stockholm

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Geneticists are quietly acknowledging that we may have too easily dismissed an early naturalist who anticipated modern epigenetics--and whom Darwinists have long disparaged. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) argued that evolution could occur within a generation or two. He posited that animals acquired certain traits during their lifetimes because of their environment and choices. The most famous Lamarckian example: giraffes acquired their long necks because their recent ancestors had stretched to reach high, nutrient-rich leaves.

In contrast, Darwin argued that evolution works not through the fire of effort but through cold, impartial selection. By Darwinist thinking, giraffes got their long necks over millennia because genes for long necks had, very slowly, gained advantage. Darwin, who was 84 years younger than Lamarck, was the better scientist, and he won the day. Lamarckian evolution came to be seen as a scientific blunder. Yet epigenetics is now forcing scientists to re-evaluate Lamarck's ideas.

Solving the Overkalix Mystery

By early 2000, it seemed clear to Bygren that the feast and famine years in 19th century Norrbotten had caused some form of epigenetic change in the population. But he wasn't sure how this worked. Then he ran across an obscure 1996 paper by Dr. Marcus Pembrey, a prominent geneticist at University College London.

Published in the Italian journal Acta Geneticae Medicae et Gemellologiae, Pembrey's paper, now considered seminal in epigenetic theory, was contentious at the time; major journals had rejected it. Although he is a committed Darwinist, Pembrey used the paper--a review of available epigenetic science--to speculate beyond Darwin: What if the environmental pressures and social changes of the industrial age had become so powerful that evolution had begun to demand that our genes respond faster? What if our DNA now had to react not over many generations and millions of years but, as Pembrey wrote, within "a few, or moderate number, of generations"?

This shortened timetable would mean that genes themselves wouldn't have had enough years to change. But, Pembrey reasoned, maybe the epigenetic marks atop DNA would have had time to change. Pembrey wasn't sure how you would test such a grand theory, and he put the idea aside after the Acta paper appeared. But in May 2000, out of the blue, he received an e-mail from Bygren--whom he did not know--about the Overkalix life-expectancy data. The two struck up a friendship and began discussing how to construct a new experiment that would clarify the Overkalix mystery.

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