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  • Epigenetics: Beyond Genetic Inheritance

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    Transcript:

    Where does consciousness fit into Biology? What defines a living thing? How can we influence the evolution of the human race? These are just a few of the deep and universal questions that the new science of ‘epigenetics’ may be able to answer. In this video, I’ll give a brief explanation of epigenetics and how it relates to these questions. But this will be an extremely shallow overview, so if you like these ideas, get your copy of my first book that dives headfirst into these topics.

    Whether it was through the human genome project, genetic ancestry testing, or genetically modified foods, everyone has heard of genetics. But a much more interesting idea called “epigenetics” is just beginning to emerge in the collective awareness of humanity. The prefix ‘epi’- has three distinct meanings: on top of, in addition to, and beyond. Because of these three meanings, there is quite a bit of controversy surrounding epi-genetics. So let’s briefly explore each of these definitions and what they might mean for science, evolution, and future of our species.

    1) In its most scientifically-grounded sense, epigenetics refers to processes that physically occur ‘on top of’ genetics. Nearly every cell in your body contains a full copy of your genome, which is 6 and a half feet, or two meters, worth of DNA. Because cells are approximately one million times smaller than this, DNA needs to be wrapped very tightly into bundles that most people know of as ‘chromosomes.’ Because our cells need to physically access DNA in order to use it, it is the shape of a chromosome that determines which genes get expressed. And the shape of the genome changes from moment to moment depending on the needs of each individual cell. This is the first meaning of epigenetics as ‘on top of’ genetics: the dynamic physical processes that control how and when our genes get expressed.

    2) In a more controversial sense, epigenetics refers to things that are transferred from generation to generation ‘in addition to’ DNA. DNA has been considered the carrier of heredity since it was discovered in the 1950s. And, since then, it has been assumed that biological inheritance is mediated by genes alone. But, according to the theory of epigenetic inheritance, there are an untold number of heritable factors that cannot be explained solely by the replication of DNA from parent to child. Controversially, this means that our identities and memories may be influenced by the experiences of our ancestors. These intergenerational effects are mediated partly by the shape of our chromosomes ‘on top of’ DNA, but also by entirely non-genetic mechanisms that operate ‘in addition to’ the inheritance of DNA.

    3) Finally, and in its most controversial sense, epigenetics refers to the idea that conscious choice influences evolution at a level ‘above’ genetic determinism. This idea has been, somewhat derisively, named “Lamarckism,” after the evolutionary theorist, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, whose theories are often contrasted to Darwin’s. Lamarck is best known for his theory of acquired characters, which modern day Biology textbooks exemplify with a giraffe reaching into a tall tree to eat leaves. Lamarck claimed that as a giraffe repeatedly stretches into tall trees, the muscles in its neck will change over the course of its lifetime. This change could then be passed on to its children and eventually, over the course of thousands of generations, these changes could build up and lead to the creation of a new species. In other words, what we do changes who we are, and who we are influences who our descendants might one day become.

    Although Lamarck’s theory has been disputed for nearly 200 years, epigenetic inheritance threatens to revive it. It is no longer so far-fetched to think that our experiences can affect the lives of our descendants. This idea implies that natural selection is not a blind and unguided process. Instead, conscious choice and subjective psychology have a role to play ‘above’ genetics in the progression of evolution and the emergence of new species. Our influence on the overall course of evolution is probably infinitesimal. But, if we let it, epigenetics can revolutionize the way we think about our Biology, our relationship with nature, and our capacity to choose our own destinies.


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