Socialist Worker

Struggle could change you, genetically speaking

New evidence that our environment shapes our genes should spur us on to change the world, argues John Parrington

Issue No. 2411

French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

The 14 July is the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789, the event that kickstarted the French Revolution. 

For the first time ordinary people had a say in the running of society. It prompted English poet William Wordsworth to write, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”.

In fact despite the downfall of the king and the aristocracy, the dream of “liberty, fraternity and equality” was short-lived. Nevertheless, the revolution led to profound changes in our view of the world that reverberate to this day. 

Today the view that life on earth arose through a process of evolution is generally associated with Charles Darwin. 

Yet the first person to propose such an idea was the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in 1801, half a century before Darwin.

The old rules of society were being questioned. But even then, to suggest that all life forms had arisen without assistance from God still had the power to shock. 

And indeed, Lamarck was increasingly ridiculed as the ideals of the revolution were crushed and replaced by Napoleon’s empire. 

Unfortunately a key aspect of his proposal proved an easy target for ridicule. This was the idea that what an organism did in its lifetime influenced future generations. 

Critics could point to blacksmiths’ children who clearly weren’t born with huge muscular forearms.

Lamarck protested that he envisaged a much longer timeframe.

This meant little to those familiar with the biblical view of the earth as only a few thousand years old—instead of its real age of four billion years. More fundamentally, Lamarck couldn’t find a mechanism for the evolutionary process. 

Dismissal of Lamarck’s ideas continued even when Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859.

Darwin did propose a mechanism for evolution. He saw that individuals within a species vary, and only those most suited to their environment survive to leave offspring. 

Later, these inheritable differences were shown to be due to changes in the sequence of “letters” in a genetic code based on DNA. 

Back story

Yet recently Lamarck’s ideas have been gaining a new hearing. Important new evidence suggests that the environment can affect gene action much more directly, and rapidly, than previously suspected. 

Such changes can affect an individual’s health or behaviour, and in some cases may be passed on to future generations. So a parent’s diet or exposure to environmental pollution can affect not just their children’s health but also that of their grandchildren. 

And a recent study found that even growing up in a stressful home environment can leave a similar imprint on the genes. 

Media coverage of such studies has focused on their negative side. Indeed it is an indictment of capitalism that poor diets and psychological stress that many suffer from may have further reaching effects than suspected. 

However, and less widely reported, an enriched environment and feelings of empowerment may positively affect our genes in an equally profound manner. 

Ordinary people have showed their immense potential to run society when given the chance, however briefly. The French revolution is just one example.

Perhaps the effects of such past revolts reverberate in our genetic make-up in more direct ways than we could have imagined too.

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Tue 8 Jul 2014, 17:30 BST
Issue No. 2411
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