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Beyond the selfish gene

MagazineApril 2009 (Vol. 20 Issue 1)Beyond the selfish gene

According to Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976), our genes are mind-lessly self-propelling themselves into eternity, while using us as mere dispos-able vehicles to be scrapped after we've had enough time to 'clone' more of those genes through procreation

According to Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976), our genes are mind-lessly self-propelling themselves into eternity, while using us as mere dispos-able vehicles to be scrapped after we've had enough time to 'clone' more of those genes through procreation. This idea, an elaboration of Darwinism, now appears to be firmly contradicted.

The French botanist, zoologist and biological philosopher Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) believed that evolution was due to a person's ances-tors' habits, tendencies and environ-ment, and that newly acquired charac-teristics could be inherited by the descendants. This was strongly denied by those who held to the mechanistic theory of Mendelian inheritance.

Nevertheless, Charles Darwin did accept Lamarck's theory (it was the latter-day 'Darwinians' of the 20th century who denied it). In 1809, Lamarck published La Philosophie Zoologique in two volumes, which described his theory as the basis of

the evolution of life on earth. Samuel Hahnemann, who arrived in Paris six years after Lamarck's death, incorpor-ated the concept of inherited miasms, largely following Lamarckian lines, into homeopathy.

In the early 1950s, there was convincing evidence of the inheritance of acquired characteristics in the Lamarckian sense (Nature, 1952; 169: 278- 9; Sci Am, 1953; 189: 92-7; Evolution, 1956; 10: 1-13). In these experiments, C.M. Wad-dington subjected fruit flies to ab-normal stimuli at early stages of life that led to abnormalities that showed up after as few as eight generations in the absence of the initiating stimulus.

In other words, so-called 'epigenetic assimilation' had occurred-and this process, according to mainstream homeopathic thought, is more than just an occasional possibility (Homoeop Res [ezine], December 2006: research/bhatia-miasms-epigenetics.asp).

Over the past 15 years, researchers have added a great deal to our understanding of the biochemical mechanisms involved in epigenetic assimilation. Epigenetics deals with how gene activity is regulated within a cell-which genes are switched on or off, and when, and how they are dimmed. This means that, while the cells in an individual's pancreas and eyes contain exactly the same DNA, the cells' specific 'settings' mean that they look different and do different jobs. And, although the precise mechanisms are still not completely understood, these processes play a major role in cancer and birth defects, and any diseases involving abnormal growth of tissues and organs, and low blood sugar at birth.

Research on Agouti mice has also led to results with implications for human health. The Agouti gene gives these mice a bright peachy-yellowfur, as well as a predisposition to early death due to obesity, cancer or diabetes. Yet, when pregnant Agouti mice were fed vitamin B12, choline, folic acid and betaine (from beetroot), their offspring were slim with brown fur, and lived to a ripe old age (Mol Cell Biol, 2003; 23: 5293-300).

Similar evidence has also been found in human studies analyzing the long-term health effects of prenatal exposure to famine. Not only have researchers linked such exposure to a range of developmental and adult disorders, including low birth weight, diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease, and breast and other cancers, but such exposure has also been associated with smaller-than-normal grandchildren (Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol, 1992; 6: 240-53; Eur J Hum Genet, 2002; 10: 682-8). This suggests that what your mother, and even grandmother, ate can affect your current state of health.

Epigenetic cancer-preventive effects have also been demonstrated. Lunasin, a cancer-preventing peptide found in barley, soybeans and wheat, was shown to be bioavailable to mice and rats that had eaten these foods. However, luna-sin cannot cure cancer that is already present (Nutr Rev, 2005; 63: 16-21).

The results of a Toronto, Canada, study suggest that particular DNA changes are important in the aetiology of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. More important, these DNA abnor-malities were not restricted to the frontal cortex, but were also present in sperm (Am J Hum Genet, 2008; 82: 696-711).

"This suggests that it is possible that inherited epigenetic abnormal-ities may be contributing to the familial nature of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia," says researcher Jona-than Mill, lead author of the report (New Sci, 2008; 199: 31-2).

Another Canadian study-from McGill University in Montreal-revealed important differences in the brains of suicide victims and non-suicide deaths. Although the genetic sequences were identical in the suicide and non-suicide brains, there were differences in their epigenetic markings. All 13 suicides in this laboratory study had been abused as children, which could suggest that the epigenetic changes were caused by childhood trauma, although this is difficult to establish with certainty ( 080507084001.htm).

Thus, factors such as diet, environ-ment, social surroundings, toxins, long-term chronic infections and family bonding can modify the genetic code and its expression. Moreover, these modifications can be passed on from grandfathers to their sons and grandsons, and from mothers to their children and grandchildren.

The accumulating evidence means that, in today's toxic conditions, we need to be especially vigilant not only for the sake of our own health, butfor that of our children and their children, too. It also means that we need a radical rethink of how heredity and evolution work, integrating Lamarckian mechanisms into the theories of Darwin and Dawkins.

Harald Gaier

Harald Gaier, a registered naturopath, osteopath, homeopath and herbalist, practises at The Allergy and Nutrition Clinic, 22 Harley Street, London, and the Irish Centre of Integrated Medicine, Co. Kildare (

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