Early modern science & the memory of genes

A re-run of a BBC Horizon documentary on genetic imprinting on Belgian television reminded me of an early modern theory of conception and imagination. The documentary announced that scientists have discovered that our genes have a memory:

The lives of your grandparents – the air they breathed, the food they ate, even the things they saw – can directly affect you, decades later, despite your never experiencing these things yourself. And what you do in your lifetime could in turn affect your grandchildren.

I was fascinated, and watched the entire thing. Although the documentary started with the tentative discovery of an epigenetic system — inherited information that operates on a level higher than the genes, and determines which genes will operate in what way — the biggest part of the documentary was devoted to research that focused on pregnant women’s experience of traumatic events or malnutrition. Pregnant women who witnessed the attack on the Twin Towers, for example, produced higher levels of stress hormones (correct me if I’m wrong), and their children had been found to have similarly high stress levels. In Sweden, the children of children whose mothers experienced a shortage of food during pregnancy, suffered from diabetes and other diseases associated with malnutrition.

The programme spoke of a “paradigm shift” in our thinking about genes. It reminded me of a considerably earlier paradigm of conception and pregnancy — a paradigm that is pivotal in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and which figures also in Thomas Wright’s early modern treatise on the workings of the emotions: The Passions of the Minde in Generall (1604). The paradigm is also concerned with the inheritance of character traits or bodily characteristics, and similarly focuses on the mother’s pregnancy. And indeed, in this paradigm too, the lives of your mothers or grandmothers, especially the things they saw or thought of while having sex, “can directly affect you, decades later, despite your never experiencing these things yourself”:

Galen also reporteth, that a woman beholding a most beautifull picture, co[n]ceiued and brought froth a most beautifull childe, by a most deformed father, wee haue also in the Scirptures the like experience in Iacob who to cause his Ewes conceiue speckled Lambs, put sundry white rodds in the chanels where the beasts were watered, and thereby the lambs were yeaned partly coloured. These proued experiments, by the censure of Aristotle a sage Philosopher, and Galen a sound Physition, proceeded from a vehement imagination in the time of conception. And for this cause saith Aristotle, wee see the yonglings of bruit beasts for the most part, to resemble in colours, figures, temper, greatnesse, properties, and conditions, their siers and damms: but in men we obserue farre otherwise, for wise parents beget foolish childre[n], & vertuous, vitious; and contrariwise, foolish parents wise children, and vitious, vertuous; […]. The cause of this varietie, are the various imaginations of the Parents at the time of their conception: Beasts therfore not being distracted with these various imaginations, conceiue not with such diuersitie. (Thomas Wright, The Passions of the Minde in Generall, 66-67)

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One thought on “Early modern science & the memory of genes

  1. It’s curious to see how modern science comes to resemble nineteenth-century children’s fiction sometimes, isn’t it? This (and the documentary) looks remarkably like a tale from The Just-So Stories.

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