Guy Evans: The Science of Inheritance


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Genetic memory

The classic ‘nature vs. nurture’ argument has long confounded social psychologists, researchers, and students alike – but new research could provide us with greater insight into the role that our genetics play  in determining who we are, and who we eventually become.

Although the traditional view of personality suggested that our behavior was largely determined genetically, since the 1970s authors such as Walter Mischel have argued that personality traits are learned characteristics, and that personality development is both a cognitive and social learning process. It is a cognitive process in the sense that individuals consciously process the information that they receive, and it is a social learning process in that people learn from social interactions and their consequences, and subsequently reorient themselves to the environment.

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If one holds the view that personality is inherited, the logical conclusion is that in any given situation, personality determines behavior.

Proponents of the interactionist view of personality however argue that the characteristics of a person and the situation interact with each other to influence behavior.

We also know that our cultural upbringing plays a tremendous role in shaping who we are. For example, independence and competitiveness are values cherished in Western countries such as the United States, but these values are not fostered in Asian cultures, according to organizational management expert Packianathan Chelladurai (2006).

A person’s immediate family and social groups also help define one’s personality dispositions. Family and social groups interpret and inculcate the values and norms derived from a culture. They define roles, and establish the appropriate behaviors for each role, for example what is expected of a parent, child, leader, follower, and so on.

Bandura’s (1986) social cognitive theory, formerly known as social learning theory, suggests that personal experiences and perceptions of others’ experiences shape our behavior.

Therefore, the growing consensus among psychologists is that heredity does play a part in the development of personality, but personality is also modified through exposure to culture, family, and environments.

What can be derived from this is a sense that we do have a distinct measure of control over how we act, and how we are likely to act in the future. This assumption makes a fairly recent biological discovery all the more fascinating, and important.

A relatively new field called ‘epigenetics’ – the so-called hidden influences upon the genes, could affect,  researchers say, every aspect of our lives.

The central idea of this new field is a straightforward, yet highly contentious one – it’s the idea that our genes possess a memory. Therefore, it may in fact be possible that the lives of our ancestors – their experiences, and their behavior in certain situations – could significantly impact how we act today.

Epigenetics proposes that a control system of ‘switches’ turns genes on and off, and suggests that things people experience, like nutrition and stress, can control these switches (Gallagher, 2013). Professor Wolf Reik has spent years studying the possibility of this hidden genetic inheritance. He has found that manipulating mice embryos is enough to set off the switches that turn genes on and off.

His work has shown that the memory of an event could be passed through generations. This suggests that our genes and the environment are not mutually exclusive, but rather act together in influencing both our behavior and the environment.  In other words, our experiences may be influenced in part by our genetic propensities – people may react to us in certain ways because of a genetically influenced personality, and we may choose certain experiences over others because they fit best with our innate preferences (Azar, 1997).

This new science could cause a revolution, or at the very least, a paradigm shift, in scientific thinking. If in fact it is true that our actions really do affect the lives of future generations, this should prompt a great degree of self-reflection in all of us. We see instances all the time of selfish, ego-centric behavior, often in the pursuit of profit and/or material gain, that counts human suffering as the cost of doing business.

If we could all truly see that what we do today not only affects tomorrow, but our successors for centuries to come – perhaps this would be enough to spark the kind of revolution of consciousness so many claim the planet desperately needs.

FURTHER READING

Dias, B.G. and Ressler, K.J. (2013). Parental olfactory experience influences behavior and neural structure in subsequent generations. Nature Neuroscience. 1st December 2013.

Gallagher, J. (2013). Memories ‘pass’ between generations. BBC News.

Hurley, D. (2013). Grandma’s experiences leave a mark on your genes. Discover Magazine. May 2013 edition.

Chelladurai, P. (2006). Human Resource Management in Sport and Recreation. 2nd ed. Champaign, Il.: Human Kinetics.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Mischel, W. (1973). Toward a cognitive social learning re-conceptualization of personality. Psychological Review80(1), 252-283.

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