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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

Our Dependent Nature

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If you have ever considered yourself an 'independent' structure, an independent 'self' in a complex world, think again. We are of a dependent nature to one another and to the earth - past, present and future. If you think this sounds 'new age', think again. Genetics keeps revealing new evidence of our Dependent Nature. This is science; this is a truth emerging from the study of the human genome, our DNA, our blueprint of life.

We may be born with 30,000 seemingly independent genes unique to a 'self', but here are the startling truths:

1) These molecules were present in your parents, their parents, and a long line of individuals before you;

2) These molecules are regulated -- turned on and turned off -- by the environments in which they are found -- environments influenced by other people, places, and things. For example, how your mother nurtured you at birth (attachment) influenced your DNA by turning on or turning off specific genes. Or, if you mother smoked during her pregnancy, other genes may have been regulated to be expressed or quieted in response to the nicotine exposure. These activation patterns - while not encoded in the DNA itself - were made part of the genomic imprint that can be passed down to subsequent generations. So in theory, a traumatic event several generations past could be imprinted in your genome and shaping their expression today! What your genes experience now can shape the expression of genes your grandchild may carry.

These are a few examples of known epigenetic effects that influence our genomes and scientists are just beginning to uncover the range of experiences that may modify or regulate our genomes. Epigenetics is the study of how environments shape gene expression that in turn shapes the environment. It is plausible that events specific to a generation (such as WWII or 9/11 or obesity today) may influence multiple genomes through time. Individually, the choices we make and how we treat our genomes may influence their expression on generations to come. We are truly connected by a thread across space and time, the thread of our DNA, our genomes. Other species share this thread as well and our dependent nature can be seen there too.

So when you think you are alone, a self unto yourself, think again. Genetics has revealed our interconnected or dependent nature. Realizing this truth - how we impact our own genomes and that of each other - provides a compelling rational for following a simple philosophy in life "to help, not harm" ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

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