Do we make choices on the basis of our own conscious reflection? Are we personally responsible for our path in life? Are we the masters of our destiny? Or — do our genes make us do it? MAXIM’s resident Clinical Nutritionist, Brooke Benson Campbell (BHSC Nut Med) investigates…
Flash back to 1979. Two identical twins, Jim Springer and Jim Lewis, were reunited at age 39, after being separated as one-month olds and adopted by different families. They found, when comparing stories, that both had married and divorced a woman named Linda and remarried one named Betty. Both had interests in carpentry and mechanical drawing, smoked Salem cigarettes, drove pale-blue Chevrolets, found spelling difficult and had worked as part-time deputy sheriffs. Both also named their first son James Alan, and their pet dogs ‘Toy’. The basis of their identities seemed to be written in their genes.
Some of us may find this story disturbing. We like to think that we are the masters of our destiny, that we make choices on the basis of our own conscious reflection, that we are personally responsible for our path in life, that the future is ours to shape. And yet does this story prove our final decisions are already pre-programmed in genetic code? Is ‘my genes made me do it’ a viable get-out of-jail-free catch-cry?
Nearly 100 years ago, Freud wrote that ‘biology is destiny’ but when we consider the latest discoveries in the field of epigenetics and behavioural science, is this still accurate? In the nature versus nurture debate, who emerges triumphant? Let’s walk the genetic plank to answer the age-old question: do our genes govern our fate?
When we learned about genetics at school, it seemed fairly straightforward — for every feature there existed a gene: one for eye colour, one for hair texture, one for skin tone and so on. We inherited two copies of each gene (one from each parent) and the dominant allele would govern the resulting feature. It was a simple time, before Netflix, gluten-free bread, iPhones, exotic superfoods and Trump. Fast-forward a few decades: while eating our smashed avo on GF toast as we scroll through Instagram slurping on our Matcha Latte and embracing the presidential Twitter feed, we come across an advertisement for a salivary test that analyses gene ‘SNPs’ and promises to provide insight into unique personality traits, academic potential and lifespan — all for just $300. So, is this testing the modern equivalent of a crystal ball or a scientific exploration into the future? To determine the answer, we need to start by understanding the science of epigenetics.
Epigenetics (which means “over or above genetics”) is turning what we’ve long held true about biological destiny and genetic predisposition upside down. Previous studies, based largely on studies of twins, have suggested that many of our traits are more than 50% inherited and based in DNA — these include obedience to authority, vulnerability to stress and risk-taking behaviour. Another historical study of more than 800 sets of twins in the United States found that genetics were more influential in shaping key traits than a person’s home environment or surroundings. Although it remains true that our DNA — our genetic code — provides the blueprint for our physiological makeup, recent studies have discovered that there is something else that is controlling each and every gene — the epigenome.
While epigenomes do not change the DNA, they sit on top of each genome and direct the genes to turn on or off depending on environmental changes or biological triggers. In simple terms, if the DNA is the hardware, the epigenome is the software. Windows can be loaded onto a MAC — the computer chip stays in place (the same genome) but the software can be altered. This new discovery means that your inherited genetic heritage is not the primary determinant of your health, illness risk or longevity. In short, your genotype is a predisposition, not a prediction. It is this discovery that may be able to help explain certain scientific mysteries: why can one member of a pair of identical twins develop asthma when the other is fine, why autism strikes boys four times as often as girls, or why extreme changes in diet over a short period could lead to extreme changes in longevity.
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