The glorious improbability of us.

 If your two parents hadn’t bonded just when they did – possibly to the second, possibly to the nanosecond – you wouldn’t be here.

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, p. 397

Here’s your thinky-thought for the day: Whether the product of careful, clinical implantation or a bit of energetic reverse cowgirl, each of us is an absolute fluke of timing, graced by a bit of luck.

You and I, little snowflake, made it here against all odds, for reasons we might spend our lives trying to comprehend. We yearn to solve the great riddle of our own microscopic but specific roles in the enormous human experiment: why am I here? what’s it all about? where did I go wrong (or right)?

That each of us is a unique, tangible product of sperm+egg is, in my observation, something we tend to take for granted. The circumstances surrounding our conceptions may vary, but the fundamental biology does not.

This basic scientific fact – despite the statistical improbability associated with it – seems seldom questioned. We ascribe ‘nature’ to the origin of our physical bodies and leave it at that. We are (blonde, brunette, tall, short, hairy, bald, fair, dark, gray-eyed, whatever) from our (mother, father, Aunt Sally, dear departed Great-Grandpa Joe).

The rest, we reason, is ‘nurture.’ We are (sane, neurotic, friendly, hot-tempered, hoarding, OCD) because (insert any circumstance), source of our fragile idiosyncrasies, the ego, id and gestalt.

If we give a moment’s thought to the overlap of nature and nurture, it’s typically – again, in my observation – to consider what happened in utero. Each of us was bathed for some number of months in the chemistry produced by what our mothers ate and drank and experienced and felt.

During the past century we’ve come to recognize and accept that environmental factors during gestation affect human physical development by causing parts of our genetic coding to switch either on or off. This field of epigenetics – the study of gene expression, outside of gene sequencing – is just fascinating, at least to me.

(NOTE: It has been a while since I’ve mentioned it, so in case you’ve forgotten: I’m  nerdy; it’s a family trait. Also, to give credit where credit’s due, my interest in epigenetics was sparked by my sister, who is smarter than I, although I am taller than she. Again, family traits; so there.)

As Nessa Carey explains, we might think of DNA as a script and epigenetics as the process through which cells interpret the script. Consider, as Carey offered in her article for Natural History, different performances of Romeo and Juliet: same text, variable interpretations. O Romeo Romeo, wilt thou be Leonard Whiting or Leo DiCaprio?

You and I are each one-in-a-hundred-trillion, miraculous down to the nanoseconds that marked our beginnings, unique to the itty-bitty atoms from which we’re individually, marvelously made, and to the instructions that switch on or off our peculiar traits. We are one-of-a-kind special, you and I, and golly gee don’t we know it. We Americans talk about having rugged individualism coded into our DNA; we may not be entirely wrong about that.

Over the hundred years or so of studying epigenetics, and particularly in this most recent decade, researchers have identified myriad factors linked to disease and other physical abnormalities that manifest through gene expression. Exposure to environmental toxins, for example – either during gestation or at some point later in life – can cause otherwise normal cells to start behaving badly.

Unraveling these connections, identifying culprits, and using biologics to retrain cell behavior are now reshaping treatment of disease: diabetes, Alzheimer’s and everything under the big umbrella term ‘cancer.’ It’s very exciting stuff, even to an art major who started her career as a typist.

Even more interesting, at least to me (artist/typist/people-watching nerd that I am), are the theories linking epigenetics to behavior and hinting at multi-generational impact. In concept, what our great-grandparents ate, drank, smoked and argued about, the environment in which they lived, has been carried forward, at a biological level, to us. The resulting imprint, cumulative and ever-changing, may as unique in each of us as the patterns on our finger tips.

Our responses to stress, in particular, may actually be coded into us, byproducts of both our individual experiences and lingering legacies from our forebears. While life’s present circumstances, for each and every one of us, might lead either to mastering mindful, measured response or to living in a constant state of amygdala hijack, we may be predisposed toward one extreme or the other, based on the escapades of people who preceded us.

Likewise, the things we say and do, eat and drink, may affect generations to come, in ways we can’t predict or see clearly. Beyond decisions, policies and cultural norms – the environment we create – our individual trigger responses may be passed on as inherited code, reshaped over time.

It is possible, even probable, that the circuits in our children’s brains may follow a certain response sequence merely because the cells in those circuits were instructed to do so by the cells that came from our bodies, trained before our children were conceived. It is possible that this coding started with our grandparents or great-grandparents, decades before those sweet babies of ours walked into their first Kindermusik classes.

In this way, at this moment, you and I might do well to contemplate the impact of our allegiance to this ideal of the individually-magnificent self. While it may seem a stretch, our devotion to the sanctity of unique could, in theory, just maybe, have pre-conditioned our offspring, through the gene expression that relates to brain function, toward isolation and xenophobia.

It’s rather a lot to take in, isn’t it, starting with the basic fact that, according to statistical modeling, our individual existences, yours and mine, defy all odds. We’re flukes of timing and luck, unique scripts written in hard code, nuanced by experiences that predate us. We’re each one of a kind, and so much of what makes us, us is entirely out of our hands.

The good news (and, really, there always is some – although I’m not suggesting that it’s easy) is that we can continually adapt – reboot, rewire, reprogram – through conscious changes in behavior. We can choose, to some degree, to limit exposure to environmental, chemical toxins; we can choose, to a good degree, to eat different foods; we can choose, to a great degree, to train our behaviors – to learn, for example, the art of the six-second pause.  All of these chosen modifications could, if the theory holds, effect gene expression changes in our own bodies, during our lifetimes, as well as those passed along to the next generation(s).

Again, it’s a lot to take in, especially on a holiday weekend; I know.

In case you are curious, my wandering down this particular path of thinky-thinking was prompted by a specific piece of writing. In his terrific cover story for The Atlantic, “How American Politics Went Insane,” Jonathan Rauch explores the long process and incremental changes that led to our current (mind-boggling) state of affairs, America 2016: the Great Chaos. As Rauch concludes, we did this to ourselves; we – all of us – made the bed in which we now lie. We forfeited the mechanics supporting a common good, dividing cooperative systems into individual parts.

I was alerted to Rauch’s story by my friend Dan Conaway, who wrote not long ago about how the current political climate had ruined his golf game. In my recollection of his essay (for which I would provide a link, but I can’t find it), Dan wrote that once upon a time he, a Democrat, could ride quite peaceably in a golf cart with a Republican (or even two), all in good humor and with great camaraderie.

These days, Dan lamented, we’ve come to act as if people in (insert either political party) carry the plague, contagious through close contact. We avoid exposure to anyone NOTD (not our type, dear) out of fear that we might somehow be corrupted, judged guilty by simple association.

Where once we exhibited some degree of restraint and good manners (even it if was just for show), we now unabashedly exhibit visceral, overt distaste for people in the other camp, whatever camp that may be. It’s as if the billboards and television ads and memes have burned into our psyches, hot-wired our psychological infrastructure to such an extent that we can’t quite regain our composure.

Is rugged individualism now truly in our DNA? Did centuries of systematically pursuing individual liberties lead us beyond policy, beyond philosophy, to a place in which our bodies became coded as lone wolves and utter assholes? Did we, over time, so often allow “me!” to be the loudest voice that it’s now built into our very gene expression, so programmed into each of us that collective change seems impossible?

Well, if that’s the case, snowflake, then what shall we do? How shall we take it from here? We’re absolutely free to be the unique you and me, but we’ve pretty much left us in the dust.

Now what?

How will we re-open the neural pathways that make saying “hey, me too” our most natural response?

How will we come to grips with a simple truth: Unless we stick together and build even a misshapen snowman/igloo/snow angel, we’ll each melt in solitary isolation, our great individual beauty gone without a trace.


Food | Week of July 4, 2016

baby eggplant

Dutch Baby | Herb Salad

Weeknight Red Curry

Grilled Pizza | Tomato Salad

Grilled Halibut Nicoise with Market Vegetables | Green Olive Tapenade

Grilled Kielbasa Tacos

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Angela says:

    Have you ever seen the documentary, The Human Genome Theory? I had always questioned why my brother and I were the only two in our entire immediate or extended family had ever had cancer. The program discussed that if your maternal grandmother was exposed to toxins, it would skip a generation, but show up later, in the form of melanoma (me, stage II, malignant melanoma, on situ or testicular cancer (my brother who, thank god, was caught early despite being metastasized went on to have a son who is in college now). My grandmother lived her whole life in the shadow of a paper plant. Worked at a dry cleaners. Answered a lot of questions when my oncologist said my melanoma was hereditary and not due to sun damage.

  2. Rhea says:

    Jennifer,
    That piece is amazing and beautiful. It is jarring(disturbing) and peaceful at the same time. So much to think about! Reminds me of Margaret too!

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