We Choose our Epigenomes … and our Successors
“It is not the organs—that is, the character and form of the animal’s bodily parts—that have given rise to its habits and particular structures. It is the habits and manner of life and the conditions in which its ancestors lived that have in the course of time fashioned its bodily form, its organs and qualities.” – Jean Baptiste Lamarck, 1802
This week the 14th Dalai Lama was again in the news (NYT, 7/15/2015): “Dalai Lama Gets Mischievous.” The Dalai Lama, now 80, insists that he, not China, maintain the centuries-old legal right to choose his successor, his reincarnation.
“The Chinese Communist Party is pretending that they know more about the reincarnation system than the Dalai Lama,” said the Dalai Lama, chuckling.
“It may be a girl, or even someone outside Tibet.”
What will the Dalai Lama look for in his reincarnation? What “traits” ? Will they be epigenetic marks of his ancestors, what the Dalai Lama might call the strength of presence, leadership, and a vital energy?
Thanks to epigenetics we know that while we inherit a permanent DNA genome,, “the die is not cast.” We also inherit a flexible and dynamic epigenome, the gift of experience from previous generations plus a mechanism of enormous power for personal growth during our lifetime. Minute additions and changes in shape in billions of imprinted histone proteins direct our genes. These billions upon billions of proteins are responsive to our environments. They also take instruction from our thoughts, giving us personality, spirit, energies, and presence.
We each have the chance to renovate our epigenomes. We can choose to be like the Dalai Lama, or like LeBron James. We can change our epigenetic heritage before we become parents – and after. Even as grand-parents we continue to evolve and influence the next generation. Each generation learns, redefines itself, adapts, and passes along better and better acquired characteristics. Even though “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” – our epigenomes endow each of us with the potential for a lifetime of personal growth and evolution!
It’s not only natural selection, but a perpetual renaissance within our epigenomes that acts as the prime mover of evolution, speeding up adaptation, and vastly improving our chances of success as a species. As we change our perceptions and the interpretations of incoming signals around us, we direct our bodies and our health to change accordingly. We evolve quickly and specifically – in ways we choose, faster than Darwin imagined, and in ways unaccounted for by natural selection.
What the first biologist, French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck considered “the inheritance of acquired characteristics” in 1802 – we now know as “epigenetics.” We acquire, not only physical characteristics as envisioned by Lamarck, but behavioral and mental characteristics, too.
In the Age of Information and culture of personal empowerment each generation gets a little smarter and with a little more potential to evolve than ever before. Epigenetic mechanisms enlighten us with the power to reach higher – and widen our horizons.