When I was a teen, genetic determinism was in full swing. As I watched my grandparents die of heart attacks or strokes, I became convinced that my life would end by the same mechanism and I was content with the inevitable partially because it was a far off reality. But again, science is shifting our thinking. The new paradigm is called epigenetics and it has a lot to say about the choices we make. Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in gene activity not caused by changes in the DNA structure.
Science is starting to grapple with the idea that our environment and choices are far more important than our genetic code. Bruce Lipton’s book The Biology of Belief, cites that around 95% of our illnesses are related to life-style choices, stress, and a toxic environment. We have far more ability to influence our futures than merely accepting whatever is in our genetic code is written in stone. Studies of identical twins (with identical DNA) reveal that oftentimes only one twin exhibits some dreaded disease. There can also be substantial differences in longevity. How is this possible? How could genetic determinism get it so wrong?
As usual, science’s understanding has grown slowly and advanced a simple view which has become outmoded. It turns out that our genes are far from static. Genes are always in flux and always being influenced. Some genes are activated by growth, healing, or learning. Another kind of gene is influenced by stress, emotion, or dreaming. A new understanding through epigenetics may allow us to use our will to activate our genes and influence our destiny. According to this way of thinking, changing our thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behaviors sends new messages to our cells thereby changing our protein production without affecting our DNA blueprint. So the original code stays the same, but new information allows the cells to create thousands of variations of that gene.
As an illustration of how this might work, Joe Dispenza in Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, looked at a Japanese study of type 2 diabetes. The subjects were divided into two groups. After a baseline reading to establish fasting blood sugar levels, one group watched an hour-long comedy show while the other group watched a boring lecture. Subsequent to viewing the programs, the group who had watched the comedy show had significantly lower levels of blood sugar. After ruling out the idea that physically laughing took glucose from the blood, the researchers found that the laughing diabetics had altered 23 different gene expressions. A new state of mind apparently triggered their brains to send new signals to their cells which allowed genetic variations affecting blood sugar levels.
The overall idea here is that we have a vast amount of say in how our genes create our futures. I am not destined to die of a heart attack, nor am I necessarily protected from cancer, just because no one in my family has had it. DNA is not destiny. We will need to tread carefully when we have any kind of genetic testing. I do ascribe to the idea that knowledge is power, but we need to be cautious and not bring into fruition a future that defaults to a false belief system. Another great book on the emerging paradigm is The Genie in Your Genes by Dawson Church.