Charles Darwin’s monumental work – The Origin of Species in 1859, with its emphasis upon natural selection – which preserves minor advantageous genetic mutations, the struggle for survival where the inferior members of the same species would gradually die out, thereby leading to the theory of survival of the fittest. Darwin’s theory essentially is that we live in a claw and dagger universe. In addition, whether you are a bird, fish, banana or human being, we have all descended from a common ancestor – which 4.5 billion years ago was a microscopic unicellular portion of the primordial ooze or sludge. However, there are missing links in Darwin’s theory that cannot account for the irreducible complexity of, say – our eyes or heart.
However, there is a new kid on the block. The new biology, epigenesis, states that inheritable changes in gene function can occur without a change in the DNA sequence inside the nucleus of a cell. It describes how changes in our biology occur due what is experienced outside the cell – our environment.
Cell biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton has pointed out that our basic genetic programming such as our racial features, body morphology, eye color, handedness and predisposition for certain illnesses are all programmed or laid out in our first eight weeks in utero. After the eight weeks of our biological determinism, what happens outside the cell, environmental influences determine our genetic activity and what genes will be expressed. This is a radical reversal of the older view of genetic determinism where we are a “prisoner” of our DNA.
In the new biology, consciousness and intention play a primary role as to which genes will be expressed whether under favorable or unfavorable conditions.
In other words, what you are thinking, feeling and believing is changing the genetic expression and chemical make-up of your body on a moment-to-moment basis. Many ordinary states and aspects of everyday life such as waking, dreaming, work, play, stress, positive or negative emotions and especially motherhood are also associated with uniquely individual patterns of gene expression.
Neurogenesis, which involves increasing the number and density of brain cells, for example neurons and glial cells, by experiencing novelty or unusualness, looking at situations or challenges from a fresh perspective, stimulating our minds by exploring different corridors of consciousness and physical exercise all modulate the expression of genes that can actually change the physical structure of the brain.
For example, when histology was done on Einstein’s brain, it revealed that he had 72% more glial cells than the average person. Visual artists have a greater density of neurons in the visual cortex at the back of the brain, while someone who spends most of the day typing on a computer has a more dense area in the motor cortex. Thus, neurogenesis cannot occur without the expression of a panel of genes specific to the area of the brain that is being stimulated or activated.
A research example of epigenetic change influenced by the environment was conducted by a University of California anatomist, Dr. Marion Diamond. She selected a species of white rats that had been specifically bred to be of above average intelligence. They were randomly separated into two groups. Group A was raised in cages that had activity wheels, lots of toys which were replaced with new toys every four days (read novelty) and lots of attention from the graduate students who were caretakers of the cages.
Group B were raised in environmentally barren cages – nothing but food pellets and water (read – boring!). They got little or no attention from the grad students overseeing the project.
The pups or offspring of Group A were then raised in regular cages without any notable environmental stimulation or toys. However, the rat pups turned out to be smarter than their parents and their offspring even smarter. The increase in intelligence (for solving tricky mazes) went on for at least three generations.
The offspring of the group B rats were less intelligent than their parents and their offspring even less intelligent for solving the same maze as Group A. Again, the “dumbing down” went on for at least three generations.
Remember, all the rats were from the same gene pool or species. The important consideration here is that genetic cascades are turned on or off by our experiences and our perception of our environment.
I have used this example before but it is very relevant to the concept of epigenesis. Approximately five percent of the population is born with an oncogene (a gene for the potential of developing cancer). Let us say that both Robert and George have the oncogene. Robert was raised in a loving, supportive, encouraging and sympathetic environment. His view of the world is love and growth.
George, however, was raised in a very physically and emotionally abusive environment with lots of negativity and degrading put-downs. His view or perception of the world is fear.
According to Dr. Lipton, genes cannot turn themselves on or off. It is only one’s perception and/or experience of the environment that will cause a gene to express itself. Thus, in this case, George’s fear and anger would quite likely cause his oncogene to be turned on while Robert’s feeling of safety and love will most likely keep his oncogene from being expressed.
There are several kinds of genes. Immediate early genes act very quickly – can respond in seconds. Early activated genes reach peak expression in about one hour. Intermediate genes take about two hours to be released and late genes peak in about eight hours but their effects could last for hours or years.
Even in romance! It must be love because when female fruit flies hear male courtship songs, they turn on immune system genes apparently getting ready for potential infections.
And African butterflies, when the weather is cool (dry season), will release an epigenetic signal to cause their wings to turn brown, so they can blend with the dried up plants. During wet weather, another series of genes is expressed and their wings take on a color so they can blend with the bright foliage.
However, very few if any processes are turned on by a single gene. Many genes are implicated in different conditions in different ways. For example, in patients with heart disease, 600 genes are expressed. In addition, of the 600 genes, different genes are involved in different time periods, minute by minute, day by day.
In view of the above, one might think that we have been barking up the wrong biological tree. This does not negate Darwinism or the idea that one of the primary functions of genes was the transmission of information across generations.
Epigenetics repositions and redefines the importance of consciousness, attitudes and beliefs in the here and now. “Happy” genes are in everybody’s body and brain as are “unhappy” ones. In other words, it is not too late to give yourself a psychospiritual and epigenetic makeover by placing new, healing and empowering genetic markers on your chess board of life.
This topic will be continued in our next blog.
Church, Dawson (2009). The Genie In Your Genes. Santa Rosa, CA, Energy Psychology Press.
Rossi, Ernest (2002). The Psychobiology of Gene Expression. New York, W.W. Norton & Co.