Because I frequently ponder questions like “what does it mean to be human?” or “what is it to be human?”, I find genetic studies to be fascinating for what they contribute to our understanding of what a human is. So I read with interest the article, The Social Life of Genes, by David Dobbs in the PACIFIC STANDARD magazine. There were many “hooks” in the article that drew me in. I recently published a couple of blogs on bees, and Dobbs’ article starts off looking at some fascinating studies in the genes of bees. Young bees were taken from killer bee hives and put in regular honey bee hives and young honey bees were put into killer bee hives. Lo and behold, the bees learned the behavior of their new hives. Dobbs writes about studies done on the DNA of the transplanted bees:
“The move between hives didn’t just make the bees act differently. It made their genes work differently, and on a broad scale.
What’s more … the adopted bees of both species came to ever more resemble, as they moved through life … the bees they moved in with. With every passing day their genes acted more like those of their new hive mates (and less like those of their genetic siblings back home). “
The significance for refuting absolute genetic determinism has to be noted. I wonder if the Jerry Coynes of the world are seeing what science is showing. Genes may influence a great deal, but they don’t predetermine everything about any species. These new studies tend to indicate that adherence to strict determinism is a philosophical choice, not a scientific one: determinism is not in the biology but in one’s beliefs about biology. As the article notes:
“Your DNA is not a blueprint. Day by day, week by week, your genes are in a conversation with your surroundings. Your neighbors, your family, your feelings of loneliness: They don’t just get under your skin, they get into the control rooms of your cells.“
A number of scientists working in epigenetics and related studies are coming to see that there are many factors which shape and change a life, including shaping and changing gene expression.
“Changes in gene expression can make you thin, fat, or strikingly different from your supposedly identical twin. When it comes down to it, really, genes don’t make you who you are. Gene expression does. And gene expression varies depending on the life you live.”
In other words, we are not controlled completely by our genes, but decisions we make and events in the world around us shape our lives in ways which preclude complete genetic determinism. Thus, even our thinking can modify our gene expression.
“This fresh work by Robinson, Fernald, Clayton, and others—encompassing studies of multiple organisms, from bees and birds to monkeys and humans—suggests something more exciting: that our social lives can change our gene expression with a rapidity, breadth, and depth previously overlooked.
Why would we have evolved this way? The most probable answer is that an organism that responds quickly to fast-changing social environments will more likely survive them. That organism won’t have to wait around, as it were, for better genes to evolve on the species level. Immunologists discovered something similar 25 years ago: Adapting to new pathogens the old-fashioned way—waiting for natural selection to favor genes that create resistance to specific pathogens—would happen too slowly to counter the rapidly changing pathogen environment. Instead, the immune system uses networks of genes that can respond quickly and flexibly to new threats.”
In a sense neither environment alone nor genetics alone nor evolution alone determines what it is to be human. Rather, all these elements interact but how these interactions become expressed in the lives of individuals or species cannot be complete predicted. Evolution itself is not this mindless and completely random passing on of genes. Evolution occurs within the living context of organisms relating to their environments. Some species and individuals are quite adaptive to new conditions. Humans consciously engage the environment and even create a social environment which studies now show affect their genetic expression. Both the individual through choices and the society we live in have real and lasting effects on our genetic make up and expression. The biological system is creative and far more quickly adaptive than pure evolution would suggest. While evolution calls for change over huge periods of time as a species plods through history, some noted changes can occur within a lifetime of an individual or a species as was shown in the experiment mentioned above with the killer bees and honey bees. Dr. Steven Cole says:
“Your experiences today will influence the molecular composition of your body for the next two to three months, or, perhaps, for the rest of your life. Plan your day accordingly.”
That thought has obvious implications for those theists who do accept aspects of evolution. If experience can influence the molecular composition of your body, then sin does have a biological effect on what it is to be human. The world of the Fall is not merely abstract thinking but begins to describe what we experience and witness everyday in human behavior.
In Dobbs interview with Dr. Cole, the implications of this new research become apparent.
“He wanted to add one more thing: He didn’t see any of this as deterministic.
We were obviously moving away from what he could prove at this point, perhaps from what is testable. We were in fact skirting the rabbit hole that is the free-will debate. Yet he wanted to make it clear he does not see us as slaves to either environment or genes.
“You can’t change your genes. But if we’re even half right about all this, you can change the way your genes behave—which is almost the same thing. By adjusting your environment you can adjust your gene activity. That’s what we’re doing as we move through life. We’re constantly trying to hunt down that sweet spot between too much challenge and too little.”
In this thinking, one might add that repentance, prayer and fasting, and actively participating in the communal liturgies of the church become not just a way of life for Christians, but a way in which we do our own form of genetic modification! The effects of the Fall are not merely spiritual, they are biological as well – death has become part of our existence. Conversely, life in the Body of Christ, is not only spiritual but also a social experience which influences epigenetics, and has biological implications for our health as well as our being.