The Ghost in Your Genes: excellent documentary on epigenetics should take care with what it says about personal responsibility

Nigel Paterson, “The Ghost in Your Genes”

An excellent BBC Horizon documentary, “The Ghost in Your Genes” is an investigation into a new area of genetics research known as epigenetics, based on the heretical idea that Lamarckian evolution may be for real and that incidents that occur in an individual’s life could have genetic effects on the person’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. By the same token, your genetic inheritance can depend on what your great-grandparents, grandparents and parents ate, breathed and experienced as such information can be imprinted on the genome and passed down through a generation or more to you.

The film is very repetitive in the sense of bashing again and again into viewers’ heads the notion that an experience such as chronic starvation, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder and exposure to toxic chemicals could set off changes in gene expression as simple as switching off a signal when it is normally switched on and those changes being “remembered” by the affected genes when passed to subsequent generations of offspring; this in itself suggests how brazen epigenetics is for many in the scientific and medical communities. Of course, people affected by radiation and their children probably could have told us this (and most likely were telling us for years) but this time the idea is finding a more receptive audience.

While hopping from a community from northern Sweden whose archival records show that it was hit by a famine over a hundred years ago and whose genetic effects are apparent in generations of descendants of the people affected, to the children of parents who survived the Nazi-Jewish Holocaust or the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001, to families whose children inherited Angelman syndrome or Prader-Willi syndrome depending on which of their parents was the carrier (both conditions are actually two manifestations of the same syndrome: one is inherited from the mother and the other inherited from the father), the film uncovers more evidence of Lamarckian genetic inheritance and more scientists willing to suspend their beliefs in what they had been taught about the plasticity of genes and to embrace unorthodox theories that explain the results of their experiments on rats and studies of people. The film does not interview any science or medical sceptics who might have equally plausible theories and ideas about how children and grandchildren might be inheriting certain conditions that their parents and grandparents themselves experienced rather than inherited. Viewers might get the impression that belief in epigenetics is more widespread and deeper than it actually is.

Annoyingly the film-makers persist throughout the film of getting people to hold out photographs of themselves to the audience as though the photos had more importance as purveyors of heritable experiences than the genes. The pace can be rather breathless as well and the jumping around from one research study to another and back again can be tiresome. Why can’t the film-makers just concentrate on one study at a time? I’m sure the northern Swedish countryside is very pretty and charming but to see the same scene several times during the film as a signal that, yes, we’re back to the original Swedish famine study again suggests poor organisation of the material.

A subtle message that we are all responsible for what our descendants through a number of generations will inherit and therefore we should take care of our bodies is implied; what fails to be communicated though is that people often have no control over what chemicals or toxins they are exposed to as more often than not governments, private firms and their agencies deliberately withhold important information about products and foods that we need to know. Protecting our genetic legacy is as much a political and communal act as it is a private and individual one. The suggestion that we should be wholly responsible for what we put in our mouths or expose ourselves to can be dangerous: for one thing, it could provide a rationale for new forms of oppression of women, restricting their diets, their movements, their freedoms and ultimately their right to exercise control over their bodies and unborn children.

 

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