Can Animals Transfer What They Learn In Their Lifetime To Their Next Generation?

Ever since Charles Darwin, the common belief of evolution is that it directly relates to natural selection. Individuals with characteristics most suited to their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce than those who lack those characteristics. The genes that allowed these individuals to be successful were passed down to the offspring of its next generation.

As such, Darwin's findings basically debunked the idea that we could pass on characteristics we acquired during a lifetime. Or did it?

Epigenetic Inheritance

Of recent date, the unconventional finding of Epigenetic Inheritance may resurrect the "lifetime inheritance" theory. It goes against the idea that inheritance happens only through the DNA code that passes from parent to offspring. EI asserts that a parent's experiences, in the form of epigenetic tags, can be passed down to future generations. In essence, this means that chemical modifications can occur and be bequeathed to an animal’s progeny.

If mice can do it . . .

Nature Neuroscience published a paper, which provides the strongest evidence yet that an acquired trait can be passed down for several generations in mice. The rodents in this research were trained to associate a specific smell with pain.The study then documented that this fear characteristic was evident in their litters. The pups were as sensitive to the smell — even when their fathers were strictly sperm donors.

The researchers then concluded that epigenetic inheritance was indeed passing the fears of the parents onto at least two generations of offspring.

What about man?

Can Animals Transfer What They Learn In Their Lifetime To Their Next Generation?Well, if mice can transfer learned characteristics to future generations, what about man? Discover Magazine contributor Dan Hurley questioned recently whether or not "an ancestor's lousy childhood or excellent adventures might change [one's] personality, bequeathing anxiety or resilience by altering the epigenetic expressions of genes in the brain.”

For hundreds of years, the opposing views of nature versus nurture, biology versus psychology has persisted not only within a single individual but across generations. However with the new study of epigenetics, there is more and more proof that traumatic experiences in our past can leave molecular scars, which adher to our DNA.

According to Hurley this means that “Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.”

But nothing is conclusive yet and the research continues. Big Pharma and even smaller biotech firms are searching for epigenetic compounds to boost learning and memory. It has been lost on no one that epigenetic medications might succeed in treating depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, where today’s psychiatric drugs have failed.  

We will continue to follow epigenetic research as new studies are conducted. But one question for our readers reported by Hurley is worth noting: What if we could create a pill potent enough to wipe clean the epigenetic slate of all that history wrote? If such a pill could free the genes within your brain of the epigenetic detritus left by all the wars, the rapes, the abandonments and cheated childhoods of your ancestors, would you take it?”

Primary Source: Discover Magazine