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Do Epigenetics Really Influence Our Behavior? Yes.

By Comments off By the Numbers: Do Epigenetics Really Influence Our Behavior? Yes.

Epigenetics is a new field that comes with some controversy. As a discipline, epigenetics asserts that some of the experiences that drive our behavior come from our ancestors. While one famous study on the ancestors of Holocaust survivors has confirmed this point of view, other researchers have refuted it.

This controversy piqued my interest as I’m a firm believer that we are all behaving as a sum total of our experiences, even those for which we have no recollection.  I’ve observed both in my professional and personal life instances that validate the theory of epigenetics. In fact, I can’t really believe that the theory of epigenetics warrants controversy—or even further study. It’s obvious to me from both animal and human behavior that epigenetics is real.

Epigenetics in animals

From a behavioral point of view, epigenetics says it’s “in the genes.” I’ve observed this first-hand in my dogs.  

I owned a Brittany Spaniel. They are sight dogs that have been trained and used to flush out birds for generations. I don’t hunt, so poor Wrigley never got to use his tools. But in fact, whenever we went for a walk, he was always head-up scanning fields (as opposed to my beagle who was always head-down in search of scent). Wrigley would lead, flush, point, all things I never trained him to do.

It was in his genes, right? “Instinct” we might say. Wrigley was eager to please, as all Brittanys are. He always obeyed my commands and my wife says he was, “so loyal he’d probably let you cut a paw off.” (Yikes!)

But if he saw what appeared to be a flock of birds in a field—something I could not see—he went into a behavior of stalking and eventually flushing that I could not interrupt. Dog trainers will tell you it takes about three generations to seriously disaffect this type of “instinct.”

Wolves are “pack” animals, but “lone wolves” exist too. Dogs are the descendants of wolves, and just like wolves,  dogs are driven to pack. And yet some remain very antisocial towards other dogs. It’s in a beagle’s DNA to follow scent and a Brittany’s DNA to act as a sight dog. It’s not hard to understand or believe that the difference comes from generations of conditioning. Why would humans be exempt from the same dynamics?

Epigenetics in humans

Just about anyone you ask will say, “Yes, of course I look both ways before crossing a street.” Ask them when they learned that, and for the most part there is little or no recollection. In fact, it overrides logic, intellect, and reason as most of us look both ways before crossing any street, even a one-way street at 3 a.m. in a situation where it’s almost guaranteed there’s no traffic. Try to go against this, and you will become very uncomfortable, even though there is usually no direct recollection of when or how we learned this. This is not to point to epigenetics specifically, but to illustrate that many of our behaviors are being driven by events we have no recollection of.

Researchers arguing against the epigenetics study of descendants of Nazi death camps argue that the sample sizes are too small to establish an evidence-based theory and more time is needed to draw conclusions. Okay, I concede both points.

Still, we already assume this is the case for all other animals, like my dogs. Why would humans be exempt? I’m not sure the basis of epigenetics being proposed needs much study to be considered valid.

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