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, fellow human, made it here against all odds, for reasons we might spend our lives trying to comprehend.
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 (insert any behavior or personality trait) because (insert any circumstance), and that’s the true 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 often to consider what happened in utero. Each of us was bathed for some number of months in the chemistry produced by what our birth 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: I’m a nerd; 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, relayed from one generation to the next.)
As Nessa Carey explains, we might think of DNA as a script and epigenetics as the process through which cells interpret the script. Consider, for instance, 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 biological 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 the ideal of the individually-magnificent self. While it may seem a stretch, our devotion to the sanctity of uniqueness and individualism could, in theory, just maybe, have pre-conditioned our offspring, through the gene expression that relates to brain function, toward isolation and xenophobia.
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, change our physical bodies at genetic levels, during our lifetimes, and relay those changes to future generations.
In case you are curious, my wandering down this particular path of thinky-thinking was prompted by a look back at what I was reading, writing, and thinking in the summer of 2016. One specific piece that I took time to re-read over the weekend was Jonathan Rauch’s terrific July/August 2016 cover story for The Atlantic, “How American Politics Went Insane.”
Rauch explores the long process and incremental changes that led to our enduring (mind-boggling) state of affairs in which individualism and identity politics compete with allegiance to the notion of common good. 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.
Where once we exhibited some degree of restraint and good manners in the interest of civil discourse and decorum, if not friendship, we now often and unabashedly exhibit contempt 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? Have we relayed that instruction over 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?
And, if so – if all of that is true, even to a tiny degree, then the only important question is: Now what?
How will we re-open the neural pathways (the messages relayed within the magnificent electro-chemical system of our physical bodies) that make community 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, and our great unique, miraculous, individual beauty will be gone without a trace.