Who Can Put Humpty Together Again? (Hint: We Can)

When I was a teen, it was popular to believe that nurture was far superior to nature–and that almost anything in nature could be overcome. I took that with me into parenting when we adopted our children as babies from Korea. Even if my kids were to come with problems, my love and care and brains would allow them to thrive. (Don’t judge me–it was the 80s).

Hahahaha. My kids are wonderful people, both because of their upbringing (I hope) and most definitely because of their genes. But this isn’t actually about them.

I was so stupid  naive.

One reason I was naive is that I didn’t realize that my own genes were so flawed. After obtaining 23andme medical information for my daughter and me, I can tell you that my daughter’s genes are far less saddled with disease than mine. That goes for physical and mental diseases.

Another reason for my  naïveté lay in my supposition that nature and nurture can be taken apart.  Is behavior caused by nature or nurture? It’s caused by both and they are more closely tied together than you can imagine.

The experimental field of science that deals with this stuff is called behavioral epigenetics. What behaviorial epigeneticists have discovered is that our genes have been altered and coded by the experiences of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. WOWSA. This is so cool. Sometimes science blows my mind.

If your grandfather was ignored left to his own devices by his parents, as I suspect mine was, it not only had an effect on his personality, but it probably changed his DNA–and he passed those altered genes on to my mother who then passed them on to me!!!

So experiences in pogrom-ravaged shtetls, potato famines, slavery, and alcoholic families have encoded our genes for anxiety, depression, and a whole host of other problems.

Don’t think this only works in the negative. Positive adventures in life and strong support and love experienced in childhood encode genes in good ways, as well.

From a writer’s perspective, the new field validates the work I’m doing in Kin Types, my poetry chapbook based on family history research.  All the experiences of my ancestors have influenced (or have had the opportunity to influence) who I am today.  I always felt this was true, but had no idea how it worked and no proof that my hunch was correct. I had a hard time even assuring myself that my studies into my ancestors had any importance other than how it brought details of history alive to me.  But family history done right (it shouldn’t be a study in dates and places) actually teaches a person about him or herself.

Does any of my family history have meaning for my kids? Or my brother (who was also adopted) and his children? The meaning it has is that the people who have made me who I am have contributed to their lives. They don’t have genes encoded with the same adventures and tragedies that mine are, but they have reaped the benefits and drawbacks of being raised by or with someone who has.

Think of the power of this knowledge. New ways of treating mental illness can be developed. And we can take negatively encoded genes and, over generations, change them for the future as we provide positive NURTURING, support, and love to others. It’s not true about Humpty Dumpty. All the pieces can be put back together because genes can be improved — and not through Frankenstein-type science, but through our actions in this world.

51 Comments

Filed under #AmWriting, Essay, Family history, History, Inspiration, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry Collection, Writing

51 responses to “Who Can Put Humpty Together Again? (Hint: We Can)

  1. enjoyed the post, we are a cocktail of the past experiences of others and the added influences of today, i wonder what will happen in the future, as the human being focuses too much on certain activities and ignores the rest, thanks.

    • Interesting thought: so if people spend too much time nestled into their iPhones and not interacting with others, how will that change our genes? My husband said the other day he thinks human genes are already changing b/c of it. Scary, very scary.

  2. It’s far too complex to cover in one blog post, or one comment, but it’s a fascinating study. I always loved genetics in school.

    • It is really fascinating. I follow the blog of a DNA genealogist, and I confess her posts are above me. I can’t follow the threads of what she is saying–and it isn’t her writing, it is my ignorance or stupidity. But I still find it so interesting. More interesting and weird even when I discovered she and I have DNA matches.

  3. I enjoyed this post and am working on a related writing project. My second husband’s daughter, who committed suicide before I met him, suffered from bipolar disorder, and I have anxiety. It’s interesting to explore our backgrounds in a braided narrative, both nature and nurture experiences. Love, loss and hope. Thank you for your optimism. -C.D.

    • Carole, thank you so much for stopping by and adding to the conversation. I love that phrase “braided narrative.” Yes, it’s so true. I am so hopeful that these new findings will lead to cures for mental illness which is such a neglected disaster.

  4. Interesting. And hopeful.

  5. I guess this question will be debated until we are no more. I’d just like to add another element. That is that children brought up by the same parents can have different experiences. My youngest sister is 18 years younger than me, and obviously a girl child. I was the eldest, and a boy. Even now, we are learning that life wasn’t quite the same for each of us. And I think that could be said for our other three siblings.

    • Oh, this is so true. Yes, my brother and I are 8 years apart, different genders, and he was adopted and I was not. It is sometimes as if our same parents were completely different. For instance, whereas I have very complex feelings about my father–lots of negative mixed in with the positive–my brother idolized him and his grieving process is in stasis.

  6. Very interesting subject, Luanne. I just read Derrick’s comment and I tend to agree with that as well.

    • Jill, I do, too, and commented above to him about differences between my brother and me. All of that “environment” goes into shaping our genes . . . .

  7. So many interesting threads here, Luanne. I’ve read some of those same studies (I imagine). It is fascinating. I think there are some many factors–nature and nurture–and perhaps luck/opportunity/circumstances–that help create who we are.

    I also agree with Derrick–my much older siblings are very different from me and my younger sister, and they had very different experiences growing up.

    • Yes, I responded to him about my brother and me, too. Such a different upbringing! Isn’t luck/opportunity/circumstances part of environment and therefore nurture? I think those are all the component parts of what changes our genes. As for your comment below about Humpty. Hmmph. Haha, I wrote to Elaine below about where Humpty is from. He’s street art in Mesa, Arizona.

  8. Also–that Humpty is kind of creepy looking. Now like my daughter’s Humpty at all. 🙂

  9. How timely. I just finished filling out the 23 and me questionnaire for an IBD research project they’re doing!

    And Derrick is absolutely right. There were 10 years between my eldest sister and I — you wouldn’t know that we were even in the same family. Seven years between me and my eldest brother. HE’S A CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN WHO WILL VOTE FOR TRUMP. Just a wee bit different from me, the baby in the family~

    • LOL. Does your brother read your blog? Some parents mellow as time goes on and are less strict with the younger ones (that happened in my family). I’m sure other parents probably change in other ways. Maybe some have problems that increase and others clean up their acts and the younger children benefit.

  10. As usual, Luanne, a very informative and interesting post. As an adoptee who’s spent the past ten years in the tangled web of “nature vs nature,” I tend to think the old fashioned concept of “responsibility” should be part of such a discussion. In our society we tend toward blaming something, finding a cause for every effect, for finding a scientific rationale for the way people turn out. I love science, don’t get me wrong. Both my sons are scientists.
    Call me simplistic, but I think that it’s not so much what happens but what we perceive and what we DECIDE to make of it that decides our journeys.
    The Humpty is not like any other I’ve seen, but he makes the point.

    • Responsibility is so important and yet is not at its most popular right now. Just as nature wasn’t popular when my kids were babies. I love your philosophy about our own power to decide what paths we take. I sure hope we have real say in the matter!!!
      Humpty is street art from Mesa, Arizona. “This very jolly bronze statue of Humpty Dumpty (fortunately captured before his great fall!) was created and dedicated by Kimber Fiebiger, a sculptor from Minneapolis, Minnesota in April 2003. Humpty Dumpty is located at the northeast corner of North Morris and West Main Street and is one of the 30 works of art that are permanently on display in downtown Mesa.”

  11. It’s amazing stuff. An example of genetics. My mother and her sister hadn’t seen each other for about 40 years (and never would again). I visited my aunt and was blown away when I saw her bend down to rub her cat’s head and murmur to the cat in the same way I’d seen my mother do all my life. It was a unique head rub, putting her whole hand gently over the cat’s head and rubbing it back and forth, while saying a comforting, soft and low-pitched Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh sound. What are the chances that someone on the other side of the world would do this exactly the way her long lost sister did it? And she had even named the cat Schnurri just as my mother had named one of her cats. This last part is not so DNA-like, but the rest….

  12. Interesting post on a complicated subject, Luanne. You’ve given me so much to think about as I reflect on my family history and the role of genetics when it concerns mental illness.

    • Yes, there is actually quite a bit about mental illness in the articles about behavioral epigenetics. I think this is a real breakthrough that could lead to eventual cure, rather than just treatment.

  13. Ian

    I’ve been wondering about the subject of epigenetic a lot since finding out the details of my mother’s family history. One of the themes I’ve written about is the “stains” that are left on the family tapestry by their intense experiences. I think this is going to be a huge area of study. Here in Canada, it’s been mentioned in the context of the aboriginal residential schools that have left an entire part of our population socially crippled. ..

    • Ian, I can imagine that this would really resonate with you, considering your mother’s family’s story with all its trauma and secrets. I hope that this info can be used to heal groups, as well as individuals.

      • Ian

        You bet, Luanne! BTW – do you know of any books that touch on this subject from a genealogical point of view? I’ve looked in GoodReads and found some books on Epigenetics for non-geneticist readers, but I wonder if anyone has studied how this affects families…

  14. It’s exciting to think of the positive ways in which we can change each others DNA by being kind! We heal future generations. 🙂
    I agree with Merril–Humpty is creepy.

  15. I have always believed these things you have written about here, and instinctively, I have been aware of some kind of ancestral genetic memory or something like that. Have long been fascinated by family stories and perspectives as a way to understand myself and my family. Wonderful! Would love to do the DNA thing someday!

    • Be prepared for small surprises if you do your DNA, Carla. It’s so often different than what we expect. It’s so interesting, though.

  16. Luanne, there’s so much here I truly believe in. I think learning my family’s stories and being the eldest of 3 born in 4 years, we still have different perspectives. Our politics, our love for nature and need to stay connected are our main threads which hold us together. Two siblings (my youngest brother and I) have a deep and abiding faith, as well as the most positive outlook you could imagine. (We are both teachers, bonded in this.) Then my “older” of the 2 brothers is 18 months less than I. We are music loving, artists, dancers and outgoing friends of each other. We kiss each other, we consult each other. We don’t understand why we are so close yet he is sarcastic, cynical and unlike our little brother in temperament. 🙂 We take things from our heroes, whether parents or grandparents, while my artist brother took after his role models outside the family. All this to express the way life can alter our paths and genes, I agree. ❤

  17. Oh Lord, if this is true I’m really screwed! But I do like the idea that I can alter my family’s piss-poor genetic coding, even if just a little bit. Except I never had kids, so wait. Guess not!

    • Well, when you taught or were a school counsellor you affected the environment of children and thus their genes, so you did have an effect on others’ DNA!!!

  18. This is a great subject, Luanne – and so complex that it can’t all be dealt with one (or 100) posts, but I love touching on this. We definitely ARE a culmination of our ancestors both physically and mentally. One side of this concerns the food we eat and our allergies. My take on this is that if your ancestors didn’t eat or drink it – take it slowly and don’t overdo it. My intolerance to wheat (which has been introduced to Australia from India) is actually quite common in people like me (English, Scottish, Welsh ancestry). Whereas I can eat barley and rye and all the other grains that my ancestors grew and ate. I also come from a line of female worriers (not warriors – lol) and I often find it difficult to control the ‘worry’ or ‘anxiety’ as I prefer to call it, and so does my daughter 😉 Hopefully we can find a solution before we pass it on again xxxx

  19. I don’t think changing our genetic code is so far out. Current clinical studies being performed in the UK at Imperial College of London, and here in the US at John’s Hopkin and NYU, are showing amazing results in certain experiences that actually change personality immediately. So I’m encouraged very much by this as I have a lot (a super lot) of genetic memory from centuries of familial trauma in my body. And birth trauma as well. If you get a chance to read Dr. Stanislav Grof, he has amazing insight into the area of birth trauma and ancestral genetic memory.

  20. Luanne its a fascinating subject and one I ponder on but not as in-depth as this post. But I do often wonder where the Bi-polar, anxiety and autism come from in my family. But when I trace it back there are signs of it in the past generations. We are a product of our upbringing for sure but somethings we cannot control.

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