There was once a man named Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who said that individuals can pass on traits they’d developed during their lifetimes. The classic example of Lamarkism is giraffes growing their necks because each generation has strained it’s neck just a little bit further that it’s predecessor, and passed that trait onto it’s baby giraffes who had even longer necks, who had babies who…etc. In the year Lamarck formulated his theory, Charles Darwin was born
Giraffe’s necks are explained through evolutionary theory as individuals having the longest necks having some advantage that would lead them reproducing more. Maybe it was because the lady giraffes fell prey to stereotypes in mass giraffe media and found them sexier, who knows? Either way, on average long necks begot long necks, and now we have freakish donkey horses walking around.
The problem with Darwin’s theory, or rather people’s misinterpretation of it is that most people tend to assume that they have no control over their genetics, and that what you are born with, you’re stuck with. You’d better fit in and do your best to get your groove on or your genes are going to stop with you, which would make you the first individual in your entire lineage, dating back all the way to single celled organisms, that didn’t reproduce. According to evolution, you’d be broken.
But what about twins – don’t they have the same DNA?
This gets to the crux of this book.
Identical twins have identical DNA, right? Then how come some are taller than their twin counterparts? Some get clinically depressed while their twin doesn’t. Often twins end up dying of different diseases, and statistically if one dies of disease “x”, the other will almost certainly not. There have even been twins with different sexual preferences.
Twins are a glimpse into our genes, and although they pretty much are set in stone there is still a little “wiggle room”.
Genes can act like on/off switches (eg. the switches that goes “on” when you hit puberty, or that switch “off” when you go bald) , and epigenetics is the study of the observable traits caused by these genes switching on or off.
It’s a little like being in traffic compared to a quieter time of day; the road, you and your car, are unchangeable, but how you change lanes and how quickly you get to your destination can be completely different. External stimuli from other cars, and even your thoughts, can effect your journey.
Cloned cats are a great example of this as very seldom do cloned cats have the same, or even similar, coats. They look like completely different cats, but they have the exact same DNA.
By observing twins, Tim Spector was able to notice many differences despite having the same genes, and came to the conclusion that we often give our genes too much credit. Genes target proteins, not traits, and only 2% of our genome does this. These proteins then react to other proteins, that could be effected by a myriad of external forces.
How we think, and how our environment effects us often has a much greater effect than we know, but the catch is we don’t yet know the boundaries, and it seems that in some cases those boundaries are only what we think they are. Often people that choose to be happy, are happier because at a cellular level, synapse connections are strengthened by regular occurring thoughts. Specific hormones, most of which are made of proteins, are released depending on the perceived stimuli, and other hormones react to those hormones in response, causing a potentially different behaviour patterns in a person, than to a person that had different thoughts, or external chemical stimuli. Being able to see these differences in people that share the same DNA brings us closer to understanding the implications of our thoughts, our food, everything that we encounter in our lives.
It’s an interesting read, but it’s still early days in this field of science, so with most things, it’s a good idea to check up on the latest findings, and alter course if need be.