Abstracted from “A Scientists View of Almost Everything” by Mark M Green
I’ve often wondered if my compunction to lock doors and to be thinking of the dire possibilities of my actions came from some experience of my childhood. Did huddling under the school classroom desks to protect our selves from an atomic bomb set me up for a lifetime of fear? Hard to believe that I could bear some kind of imprinted memory of my ancestors, two thousand years of the Jewish people subject to living as “others” under constant threat and worse? After all, my grandfather being forced to leave Belarus by resistance to a violent pogrom is just one example of likely others in my family history, the history of the Jews.
“What is the fate of personally acquired characteristics? Do they die with individuals or do they extend—at times at least—beyond the boundaries of the individual’s life into the life of succeeding generations?” This question appears in “The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics,” written by Paul Kammerer of the Institute of Experimental Biology of the University of Vienna, and translated into English and published in New York in 1924.
Dr. Kammerer died of a gunshot to the head under mysterious circumstances at the age of 46 in 1926 two years after his work was discredited by finding that the biological samples apparently proving his theory, that acquired characteristics could be inherited, were altered to fit the theory.
He was called a fraud and his death was called a suicide. But there is reason to believe that Nazi agents tampered with the samples. Kammerer was hated by the Nazi’s for his socialist communist views. He was planning to move to the Soviet Union to head an important laboratory in Moscow where his ideas were greatly accepted since they supported what was called the Lamarkian theory of evolution. The Soviet leaders saw in Kammerer’s work and in the ideas of Lamarck, a scientific basis for their actions: newly acquired characteristics of the Russian proletariat, allowed by the revolution, would be inherited by generations to come and lead to a new world order.
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was born in 1744 in northern France to a family of soldiers and won distinction as one before he became a naturalist. His ideas were well known to Charles Darwin, who in fact, at one time, held similar ideas under the name of pangenesis. Darwin wrote about Lamarck: “he first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not miraculous interposition.”
Lamarck’s theory saw evolutionary changes arising from use and disuse (a giraffe’s neck, a farmer’s muscles, the eyes of an animal living in pitch black cave) leading to changes in the individual that were than passed on to their offspring and so on to their descendants, an idea expressed in the title of Kemmerer’s book. Kemmerer was what is called, a Lamarckian. But the scientific establishment has long cast Lamarck’s ideas aside.
But in fact many scientists today see a correspondence between Lamarckian and Darwinian ideas. After all, both theories call for response of the species to their environment as critical to the evolutionary changes even if Darwin’s theory, up to recently, was better supported by modern biology: random changes in the genome, that is, mutations, sometimes lead to improvement in the ability to survive and prosper, which gives advantage to the changed individuals. But times are changing for Lamarck and even Kemmerer. Kemmerer may have discovered what is now called epigenetics.
What is epigenetics? It is long known that genes are turned on and off by mechanisms that are internal to the species. How else could every cell in the body contain the same DNA and yet take the different forms cells must adopt—muscles, brain, skin, hair etc. How could the fertilized egg become the fetus without different chromosomes taking their turn at control? Epigenetics describes the chemical changes to DNA and the way that DNA is stored as controlling the evolution of the fetus into the fully formed baby. But now scientists are finding that the external environment and the behavior of many forms of life, including humans, are also capable of causing chemical changes to DNA without changing the basic sequence of the DNA, which is identical in every cell and unchanged since conception.
All of this is surprising enough but science has now taken the next step in research that demonstrated that several of these epigenetic changes in DNA can be passed on, that is, inherited. There is every reason to believe that many more epigenetic changes will be discovered that will be passed on to progeny DNA. Biologists increasingly realize that evolutionary processes are controlled not only by changes in the sequence of bases in DNA (Darwinian) but also by chemical changes within that sequence by the changes arising from experience during one’s life. (Lamarckian).
Welcome back Monsieur Lamarck and watch out you young folks still bearing children—what you do and where you tread may affect the genetic inheritance of your descendants.