Could parents’ experiences early in their lives somehow change the traits they passed to their offspring?
It was a heretical idea. After all, we have had a long-standing deal with biology: whatever choices we make during our lives might ruin our short-term memory or make us fat or hasten death, but they won’t change our genes — our actual DNA. Which meant that when we had kids of our own, the genetic slate would be wiped clean.
What’s more, any such effects of nurture (environment) on a species’ nature (genes) were not supposed to happen so quickly. Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species celebrated its 150th anniversary in November, taught us that evolutionary changes take place over many generations and through millions of years of natural selection. But Bygren and other scientists have now amassed historical evidence suggesting that powerful environmental conditions (near death from starvation, for instance) can somehow leave an imprint on the genetic material in eggs and sperm. These genetic imprints can short-circuit evolution and pass along new traits in a single generation.
Such imprinting is the subject of epigenetics—the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve changes to the DNA yet in some cases may be passed down to successive generations. And although various epigenetic phenomena have been observed for over a century, and even the molecular details have been outlined for several decades, basic and applied research in the field has been slow to progress. Only in recent years have epigenetic-based therapeutics begun to appear. As the article explains:
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.
Though in decades past evolutionists ridiculed scientists who dared suggest this heresy, at this point the evidence is undeniable. Through a great variety of complex mechanisms, organisms not only respond intelligently to the environment, they can pass response information on to their progeny. Evolutionists long since resisted such findings, for aside from their immense complexity, such mechanisms mean that evolution somehow created response mechanisms with future environments in mind. Not exactly the stuff of unguided mutations. It is yet another falsification of a fundamental expectation of evolutionary theory.
Now, in spite of evolution, science is pursuing the epigenome—the map of how the genome is marked, modified and influenced in response to the environment. As the article explains:
Remember the Human Genome Project? Completed in March 2000, the project found that the human genome contains something like 25,000 genes; it took $3 billion to map them all. The human epigenome contains an as yet unknowable number of patterns of epigenetic marks, a number so big that Ecker won't even speculate on it. The number is certainly in the millions. A full epigenome map will require major advances in computing power. When completed, the Human Epigenome Project (already under way in Europe) will make the Human Genome Project look like homework that 15th century kids did with an abacus.
But the potential is staggering. For decades, we have stumbled around massive Darwinian roadblocks. DNA, we thought, was an ironclad code that we and our children and their children had to live by. Now we can imagine a world in which we can tinker with DNA, bend it to our will. It will take geneticists and ethicists many years to work out all the implications, but be assured: the age of epigenetics has arrived.
Epigenetics has become, as past Director of the National Institutes of Health Elias Zerhouni recently remarked, “a central issue in biology.” It seems that the long-standing claim of evolutionists, that “nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution,” needs to be revised.