Here’s what’s revolutionary about all of this. Research, mostly done in the past decade, indicates that individual human behavior can alter the way that the epigenomic “brain” controls the behavior of cells—and thus the body, including the brain. Repetitive behavior can alter the way an individual’s genetic code operates. This is something that resembles evolutionary change within the span of a single individual life, and it’s a genetically encoded change that can be influenced by individual choice. The data that supports this is persuasive andconclusive. Daily, habitual behavior can alter the way an individual’s body ages, his or her state of well-being, and even the nature of ethical choices. We’re all familiar with how good habits can extend and enhance the qualify of life, but epigenetics demonstrates that these effects can be inherited by the next generation, because the new behavior is stored and passed along as part of the way the epigenetic cluster of the genome instructs future cells in their growth and behavior.
A recent article in Time magazine sheds some light on what this does and doesn’t mean: “It’s important to remember that epigenetics isn’t evolution. It doesn’t change the DNA. Epigenetics changes represent a biological response to environmental stress. If you remove the environmental pressure, the epigenetic marks will eventually fade and the DNA code will, over time, begin to revert to its original programming.” So far it has been shown that epigenetic changes can be passed along to several generations. As my wife Barbara often says, “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
While we don’t fully understand all the details of epigenetics and how and when it has an impact on an organism’s life, the positive potential implications are spectacular. Cancerous cells may be influenced to stop dividing, obesity driving cells could be dialed down. Specific drugs could be created to influence these miraculously powerful molecules dictating their will on our afflicted bodies. This is all fact, now, not science fiction. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have already shown in a small, phase-2 study of 45 patients facing almost certain death from a non-small cell lung cancer, that survival rates can be improved quite dramatically using a drug designed to affect epigenetic changes, versus traditional chemo-therapy.
Scientists have concluded that epigenetic changes start in the uterus, with the fetus registering, in its cells, the behavior of the mother—what she eats, what she drinks, whether she smokes, the drugs she uses, how she exercises. In the 21st century, when changes in our world arrive at ever-faster rates, those tiny molecules might help us better adapt to this challenging environment. What epigenetics suggests is that the very structure of our bodies can be an ally—a register of good behavior—in our effort to better control our lives and our world. –The Constant Choice, pp. 13-14