Culture and Memory are Biological: New Research

Mateo Zareba 1970People raised in some cultures learn that memory transcends generations, that it is passed on to our descendants—carried on a cellular level. I’ve always intuitively felt this was true and wise, even though in the culture in which I was raised (German-American), I was told that such beliefs were charming but fantastical. Then, here comes scientific research showing that yet another “old wives’ tale” is, in fact, true.

Edward T. Hall, author of some of the earliest books on intercultural communication, had a strong interest in ethology (the study of animal behavior in its natural setting, and sometimes with attention to evolution) and Paul Maclean’s theory of our evolutionary, triune brain. In the words of Dr. John C. Condon, who was a friend of Hall for many years and is currently authoring a new book on him titled, It Goes Without Saying, “Ned wrote in unpublished papers about the connection between culture and biology. He gave considerable attention to culture and communication as embodied and involving all of the senses, and thought other anthropologists gave too much attention to the cognitive aspects.” So many recent scientific discoveries indeed seem to be proving Hall correct! One of those is in the field of epigenetics.

Epigenetics

The fairly new field of behavioral epigenetics offers some interesting advanced insights into what makes us who we are. Epigenetic research shows that tendencies such as preferred smells or tastes, fears and abilities, strengths and resiliencies, weaknesses and deficits—turn out to be not only socially acquired, but also potentially biologically inherited. This means that “culture” and cultural tendencies may be not just communal, but also biological.

The field of epigenetics began, in part, with a simple question in the mind of Michael Meaney: “I’ve always been interested in what makes people different from each other. The way we act, the way we behave—some people are optimistic, some are pessimistic. What produces that variation? Evolution selects the variance that is most successful, but what produces the grist for the mill?”

Decades of research led to the finding that both positive and negative experiences—trauma, love and support—in our own or our recent ancestors’ pasts, leave molecular scars on epigenetic matter that is attached to our DNA. Without a mutation to the DNA code itself, the attached methyl groups cause long-term, heritable change in gene function.

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Meaney and Szyf had proved something incredible. Call it postnatal inheritance: With no changes to their genetic code, the baby rats nonetheless gained genetic attachments due solely to their upbringing.”
—Dan Hurley, Discover

Such findings give credence to those who say they still experience the pain of genocide or slavery generations later. It also shows us why grandchildren may inherit their grandmother’s sunny disposition. And, it provides us as interculturalists yet another reason to heal ourselves and our communities: if we can foster understanding, respect, justice, and collaboration, perhaps we can prevent these heritable negatives, and, rather, pass stronger, more positive traits down through the generations.

Research is showing that epigenetic changes to genes active in certain regions of the brain underlie our emotional and intellectual intelligence—our tendency to be calm or fearful, our ability to learn or to forget. It would follow then that if we can truly develop intercultural competence in our communities, we can pass on the epigenetic inheritance that will create communities of emotionally resilient people with the intelligence to solve problems such as hunger and homelessness.

A fuller explanation of the science behind this is explained in this three-page paper in Discover magazine. One thing is for sure, this field of study has a long way to go. What started with rats has slowly moved into the study of human behavior. The full benefits of this incredible research may not be seen in my lifetime, but feel confident that generations that follow will be the true benefactors.

Interdisciplinary Teamwork

Of further interest to me as an interculturalist is the fact that this groundbreaking research came about as the result of specialists working in an interdisciplinary team—specialists who had to overcome significant bias and elitism in order to truly hear one another.

A colleague thought that the work of Michael Meaney, a neurobiologist, might significantly dovetail with the work of Moshe Szyf, a molecular biologist and geneticist. Even though both gentlemen worked at McGill University, they only met each other after traveling to Madrid in 1992.

To those of us who aren’t scientists, these two men seem to work in similar fields; they are both biologists, right? Should be easy enough to collaborate? No, their two disciplines are apparently two very different cultures! As Szyf reported to Dan Hurley in an interview for Discover magazine: “[Meaney’s work] sounded like voodoo at first. For a molecular biologist, anything that didn’t have a clear molecular pathway was not serious science.”

The two scientists overcame their biases and stereotypes, and twelve years later they published a landmark paper, “Epigenetic programming by maternal behavior,” in the June 2004 edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience. God bless the nameless colleague who saw the connection between their work!