We become who we come from…

And the sins of the fathers will be visited on their sons unto the seventh generation.

Who did you come from? Your two parents, your four grandparents, your eight great grandparents, your sixteen great great grandparents?  Counting you as the seventh generation, you have 126 ancestors to contribute to who you will become, if the Biblical quote is correct.  It’s all in the genes, right?  Or perhaps it’s all about the environment? Not entirely, it seems. The latest science of epigenetics concludes that there is a higher influence, above and beyond genes, that govern which genes get
expressed under what circumstances.  The epigenetic process acts as an agent between environmental factors and genetic expression.For example women who carry the gene for breast cancer are advised to eat red meat in only small quantities – large amounts in the diet have been shown to “switch on” the breast cancer gene.


In his book, Identically Different, the author, Tim Spector shows how genetically identical twins show quite different responses in the face of challenging life circumstances. Studies of twins have traditionally looked at their similarities, whereas Spector looks for the differences so that he can draw conclusions about what is and is not genetic. He describes a dramatic example: female twins in their early twenties were shocked to discover, in their late teens, their father’s infidelity to their mother.  One twin reacted by settling faithfully with one man; the other became promiscuous.  So what’s genetic, and unchangeable? And does that mean that what’s changeable can’t be genetic?  Nature versus nurture has been the traditional polarity, but now we know that epigenetic process sits between them, feeding back from the environment to determine which genes are expressed, made manifest, and which are left to lie dormant.  Developing this idea to its limits, Spector suggests that you can inherit the effects of your ancestor’s environments: you can inherit acquired characteristics.  In an earlier blog “What have your ancestors passed on to you?”  I have discussed the similar, if less scientifically rigorous ideas of Al Pesso: “Our genes have an innate knowledge of family networks.”  This knowledge appears to be a feature of the epigenetic process.

For women, their ancestry has a unique property: mitochondrial DNA, (mDNA) that is inherited from the mother and passed on through the maternal line, unmoderated by an equivalent paternal DNA.  mDNA, the smallest chromosome, energises every cell in the human body, whether you are male or female; but only women pass it on.  Both my son and daughter have inherited their mDNA from me, but only my daughter will pass this on to her children; my son’s  will inherit the mDNA of their own mother. This suggests that some genetic traits, and the environmental influences of the epigenetic system are passed down exclusively through the female line; a passing of experience from mothers to daughters that has no parallel in the male line.

Perhaps the Biblical quote above might be better expressed as:  … and the experiences of the mothers will be visited on their daughters unto the seventh generation…  

 The pictures here show the generations of women above and below me, apart from the first ? representing my great-great grandmother, who was born before photography existed;  and the last ? representing the possibilityof a granddaughter, who would make up the seven generations, all of us carrying the same mDNA,modified by the experiences of each woman.  Maybe I am being fanciful, but I am struck by the similarities of our smiles…..

Whilst we commonly trace our names back through our father’s line, a woman’s nature may trace back more fully through her mother’s line, through the generational transmission of mDNA from mother to daughter.  In families with daughters in every generation mDNA can be passed, unchanged, for up to fifteen generations.

In Honor’s Ghost, a novel in progress, Honor encounters her great grandmother, Annie, in a series of dreams.  She learns the stories of Annie’s life and is fascinated by the parallels in their lives:She thought back, along her maternal line, thinking of her great grandmother Annie, her grandmother Violet, and her mother Imogen.  What would they say to her if they could?  She knew her mother would say: take good care of your family, especially your marriage.   Her grandmother, a talented artist, would say: be reallygood at something.  And as for Annie, Honor had no idea what she would say, as she’d never known her, though she felt as though she did, from the stories her grandmother had entertained her with, about Annie and Bill and their twenty children.  She could still remember some of those stories now.  And her grandmothers final comment whispered, after each story: “and you, Honor, are the spitting image of her.” Honor had sometimes got the feeling that there was something Anniecould tell her that would make her say:  “Oh! I see now….! So that’s who I am!”  In her more fanciful moments, she had even imagined that she might be Annie reincarnated.  

When she was first at Medical School, doing an introductory course in psychology, she had plucked up the courage to ask the professor if there was any scientific proof of reincarnation, and he had engaged her in such a friendly discussion about it that she had found herself confiding in him.You see, professor, I was born eleven months after my great-grandmother died.  We’re both second daughters, and we have these weird green eyes, that only appear once in each generation. Although I never knew her, I’ve always felt an affinity with her. I look a bit like her too. ” He’d looked at her quizzically.  “Utter nonsense.   I’ll send you some journal references for you to read, which will soon put those notions to rest.  Remember, Honor, you are a scientist; don’t allow yourself to be seduced by such flakey ideas.” She had mumbled an apology and slunk away, hot with embarrassment. She dutifully read the journals, and of course, her professor was right: there was no scientific evidence whatsoever for reincarnation.  And so she had stopped thinking about Annie, and concentrated on the serious work of becoming a psychiatrist.

I have imagined Annie’s story, based upon the facts of my own great grandmother’s life, along with the stories I was told about her when I was a child.  Annie, shown in the first picture here, was famous for having given birth to twenty children and for becoming a well-known spiritualist medium.




I wonder what she has passed down to us all?



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