Is stress passed on to our children through genetic inheritance?

A fascinating article in the Economist suggests that it might be.

THE effects of child abuse can last a lifetime. Neglected or abused children have a higher risk of developing all sorts of ailments as adults, including mental illnesses such as depression but also physical ones like cancer and stroke. In fact, the effects may last even longer. Emerging evidence suggests that the consequences of mistreatment in childhood may persist down the generations, affecting a victim’s children or grand-children, even if they have experienced no abuse themselves.

Exactly how this happens is not well understood. Rigorous experiments on human subjects are difficult. Scientists have therefore turned to rats and mice. But now Larry Feig of Tufts University and his colleagues have shown that psychological stress seems to cause similar changes in the sperm of both mice and men.

Biologists know that traits are carried down the generations by genes. Genes encode proteins, and proteins make up organisms. That is still true. But it has recently become clear that it is not the whole story. Organisms regulate the activity of their genes throughout their lives, switching different genes on and off as circumstances require. It is possible that such “epigenetic” phenomena can be passed, along with the genes themselves, to an animal’s descendants. They offer a mechanism by which an animal’s life experiences can have effects on its offspring.

There’s more at the link.

Just as a hypothesis, based on many years of working in severely distressed Third World environments, here’s a thought.  What if those severely distressed environments have such an effect on those experiencing them that they pass on their elevated stress levels to their children?  And what happens if those children, and their children, and their children’s children, continue to experience that stress?  Does that society eventually become so “stressed out”, genetically speaking, that it – society itself – fails?  Is that what we’re seeing in parts of Europe now, where – after two World Wars and the Cold War – some societies look as if they’re disintegrating?

If we look at history, particularly in the nastier parts of the world, that’s not so far-fetched a suggestion as it might seem.  If this research is validated, I’m surely going to wonder . . .



  1. The counterpoint to that theory, in Europe, at least, would be Poland. Poland, which suffered some of the worst of WWII fighting between Germany and the Soviets, which did suffer the worst of the Holocaust, and which has been fought over and across for hundreds of years – by Russians, Prussians, Napoleon, Swedes, Teutonic knights.

    Poland, whose king, Jan Sobieski, rescued Vienna on September 12th, 1683 (ever wonder why a-Q chose September 11th?)

    Poland, which currently stands as the rock of Europe.

  2. @lpdbw: Who says it's "pseudo"-scientific? Isn't genetic analysis pretty darn scientific, in and of itself? There's a lot more research still to be done, of course, but if they've spotted a trend, and if that research confirms it, there won't be much "pseudo" about it at all.

  3. Causation vs correlation.

    The thing is that kids who suffer childhood abuse were typically in pretty messed up situations anyway. Parents mental problems, substance abuse problems and socioeconomic issues pretty much doom the kids even if somehow they weren’t abused.

    Example- I knew a girl who suffered terrible child abuse in the foster care system. Her mom was a drug addict with mental health issues and didn’t know who her father was. It was almost guaranteed to be a shit show.

  4. It might also refer to epigenetics:

    As I understand it, external stressors might not change the genes themselves, but it can change which switches in those genes are "thrown". An example is someone who has a family history of epilepsy or schizophrenia. One twin may have, the other may not, depending on events in childhood. Maybe one of the twins was sexually abused. We usually label resultant behaviors as psychological reactions, but the stress could "flip the switch" from OFF to ON.

    Fascinating stuff.

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