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
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.