erhaps the most startling statement in the commandments written by the finger of God is this: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Ex. 20:5, 6).
This rings true because we see it all around us. We know that the way parents treat their children will likely have a direct impact on their children’s lives. We also know genetically that genes passed down from parents and grandparents can result in certain tendencies or predispositions in children.
But here’s the truly fascinating part: Not only do our genes affect our behavior, but our behavior also affects our genes.
Last fall Newsweek magazine ran an article called “The Sins of the Grandfathers” (Oct. 30, 2010).* The article, written by Sharon Begley, discusses the powerful effects that the lifestyle choices of parents have on the genetic code of their descendants. “The life experiences of grandparents and even great-grandparents alter their eggs and sperm so indelibly that the change is passed on to their children, grandchildren, and beyond. It’s called transgenerational epigenetic inheritance: the phenomenon in which something in the environment alters the health not only of the individual exposed to it, but also of that individual’s descendants.”
Scientists discovered this, in part, by testing lab animals. For example, when a young animal was exposed to a person smoking, or was malnourished, or was overfed, this left an imprint on the animal’s eggs or sperm—an imprint so “tenacious” that it affected not only its children but its descendants, all the way to the fourth generation.
In one experiment, Australian scientists fed healthy, svelte, male rats a high-fat diet. As expected, the rats put on weight and fat, and developed insulin resistance and glucose intolerance—basically type 2 diabetes. None of that was surprising. “What made the scientists take notice,” writes Begley, “was the daughters these rats sired: although their mothers were of normal weight and ate a healthy diet while pregnant, daughters of the high-fat-diet dads developed insulin resistance and glucose resistance as adults—even though they never ate a high-fat diet themselves.” This raises the “intriguing possibility that the childhood-obesity epidemic is at least in part on account of alterations in sperm caused by fathers-to-be eating a high-fat diet.” This could explain why obesity in babies “has risen 73 percent since 1980.” (In other words, the way young men eat before they become fathers affects the babies they will someday have.)
But transgenerational effects can also be positive. “When 15-day-old female mice frolicked for two weeks in an enriched environment, one filled with exercise wheels, novel objects, and lots of other mice for social stimulation, it strengthened the brain mechanism that underlies memory.” These neuronal effects also showed up in the mice’s offspring—“even when those offspring never lived in an enriched environment, and even though those offspring were not so much as a gleam in their mothers’ eyes.”
What this means for college students and other pre-parents is that the choices they make right now will affect the genes they pass on to their children. So much for the idea that wild oats can be safely sown in youth.
Still, we’re not lab animals or robots. Each of us has free choice, regardless of our genes or circumstances. The miracle of redemption in Christ does not bow to the laws of genetics or environment. Some of the most beautiful moments in history are the dramatic transformations of people steeped in sin who suddenly realize that they are not predestined to carry on the sins of their fathers, that they have been born again and adopted by their heavenly Father through faith in His Son—and our Brother—Jesus Christ. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17).
* Available online at www.newsweek.com/2010/10/30/how-your-experiences-change-your-sperm-and-eggs.html.
Andy Nash is the author of
Paper God: Stumbling Through Failure to a Deeper Faith. This article was published July 21, 2011.